Trip report, August 29 thru September 2, 2004

WARNING! This is a looonnnnnnggg one! I don't think it will be winning a Pulitzer any time soon but at 31 pages long (as counted by my word processor) it should count at least as a brief novella. So, if you're going to read this one, I recommend you wait until you have lots of time and a good pile of your favorite munchies at hand before you begin.

Since she was sixteen, our darling daughter (DD) had been dreaming of going to Vegas for her 21st birthday. That would be late summer of '04 and as the year dawned it became increasingly important to the wife and I that this excursion come off well, so DD wasn't disappointed. DD's birthday wasn't until the end of August, so we had plenty of time, but our determination that this be a good trip for her (and for us) was such that we started planning early.

In mid-January, my wife, Slot Queen, began internet searches, tracking changes in several airline and hotel prices. We also began making up a tentative list of places to go and things to do while we were there. SQ and I have both been to Vegas several times and had a good working knowledge of the place, especially in terms of scale regarding size and time. Casinos are much larger and further apart than they seem on a mere map (lending the phrase 'walking distance' a whole new meaning), and the time to get from one to another is very often more than expected, even to the experienced Vegas visitor.

Prompting for input from DD, we discovered she wanted to stay on the Strip, rather than downtown at our favorite haunt, the Golden Nugget. So, with due parental concern for the future birthday girl's wishes, we hunkered down for some serious bargain hunting. Fortune smiled when SQ found a stunning deal: we could get round-trip airfare and four nights at the Flamingo at a mere $348 per person. Several days went by as Slot Queen hesitated to book, even at that wonderful price. She was convinced it was a great deal, but just couldn't bring herself to commit that early. What if something came up and we had to cancel, etc.? Thankfully, Slot Queen also owns her own small business and has had occasion to interact with our travel agent on a professional business-to-business level as well as on the personal. Slot Queen called our agent and explained the situation. The agent was stunned at the deal and recommended we jump on that price as soon as possible. Even she couldn't get us anything better. So, we did. By Valentines we had booked flights on America West and hotel rooms at the Flamingo. That's when it hit home: we were going to Vegas! Wahoo!

Now came time for deep immersion therapy for DD. Every chance we had, we had Vegas related Travel Channel shows on the tube. We spent regular periods going over and over our 'itinerary' for the trip, adding, subtracting, weeding and refining our choices until we had what most people would consider a full but very rounded and enjoyable excursion planned. We kept DD fully involved, sometimes even pushing past incipient burnout-apathy, so we knew she was fully aware of how the trip was to go, and had as full an approval from her as we could manage for everything planned.

During more Internet activity, Slot Queen found several ways to reduce or eliminate costs for various things we wanted to do, including coupons, special promotion offers, birthday awards from some of the hotels and their various venues, etc. This last seemed kind of extreme to me but it paid big dividends in the end. You see, my birthday is a week before DD's and Slot Queen's is a week after, so the three of us were all going on a combined birthday bash, with DD's 21st being the primary focus. The dividends will be mentioned in their appropriate time.

Tempus fugited, and we began to see that the trip was going to have a down side. DD had some friends she wanted to go along with her on the trip, to help her celebrate, but despite the advance notice they each got, one thing or another forced every one of them to bow out, leaving DD with mom and dad and one of mom's close friends (over 30 and therefore not to be trusted!) as her sole travel companions. We took it as an opportunity to show her around and give her a proper training so she could play Indian Guide next year, when we repeat this excursion for one her absent friend's 21st, coming up in October of '05. DD, however, saw it as horribly Murphyesque and moped for weeks. God forbid that she spend this important time in the company of ONLY her parents!

In the interim, we continued refining the itinerary and even embarked on a campaign of imparting gambler savvy to DD, so she wouldn't get skewered on the same petard of ignorance that tags so many first time Vegas visitors. We watched Travel Channel 'Vegas Week' shows religiously, ensuring DD understood all the caveats presented about the various games and such (including sucker bets to avoid, etc.). Mom, the Slot Queen, helped with game selection, money management strategy, and even lectured her about some of the finer points of gambler etiquette (like putting a coin cup over the handle of a 'hot' slot to keep others from taking over while you're in the bathroom with a bursting bladder). I, the Black Jack God of the house, even insisted on holding regular sessions of blackjack training. We secured cards, a shoe, chips, and several participants (her friends and ours), to share dealing and 'full table' duty. We played the stereo loudly, while keeping the TV on, to simulate the distracting nature of the casino environment, and even drafted her sixteen year old brother as 'soda slave' to simulate cocktail waitresses interrupting game play and concentration to offer mind-fuddling alcohol at no cost.

DD's birthday is August 30th (a Monday this year). We were to arrive in Vegas on Sunday, August 29th, with plans of celebrating her coming of age with a midnight countdown accompanied by a drink with a candle in it and her first slot pull on us. We had booked the flight at a time that would allow us the maximum time in Vegas. We live in Austin, TX which is in the Central time zone and had decided on a flight that would get us to Vegas at around 8:30 a.m. Vegas time. That meant it departed at 6:00 a.m. our time. Given the vagaries of airport check in and security, etc., that meant we had to be at the airport at or before 5:00 a.m. and perforce had to rise at 3:30 a.m. to ensure enough time for last minute preparations, drive time and such. That's a hellishly early time to be getting out of bed.

SQ's intent to create an album of the trip was supposed to include a detailed photo record starting with shots of 'DD getting in the car', 'DD unloading her luggage at the airport', etc. We were taking a fairly new digital camera (with a large memory card and plenty of extra batteries) with us, so we could take lots of pics. Puffy-eyed from short sleep, DD just wasn't in the mood to play the game and the plan began rapidly unraveling as DD refused to cooperate, frequently holding up a hand to block the lens or obscure her face, in her best paparazzi-foiling style. Though we did get a lot of pictures from the trip, I doubt the 'What I did on my summer vacation' folio SQ wanted to create is going to happen. Time will tell. I'll cross my fingers if you will.

We'd talked a couple of DD's good friends into driving us to the airport in our own vehicle, so we didn't have to pay for a taxi, or expensive airport parking fees. On the way, DD rolled her eyes as mom cranked up the stereo so we could all warble along to ZZ-Top's rendition of 'Viva Las Vegas!' as early morning city lights floated by the windows. Drop off and check in at the airport was uneventful, though one note must be made. SQ has some mobility limitations and we'd brought along her little electric scooter for this trip to save wear and tear. Its story will unfold in its own place.

During the entire lead up to the trip, DD had been staunchly unwilling to demonstrate much excitement about the trip. I had long since started a 'count down' and announced the days remaining to take off every day when I got home from work. DD would merely shrug and tell us, 'Let me know when we're inside ten days,' or 'I'll get excited when we get on the plane,' etc. As we climbed on board, we could finally see the excitement brewing behind her eyes. Despite lack of sleep, she had that look that mirrored a child's 'night before Christmas' glow that spoke of barely suppressed anticipation.

With a surge of acceleration and that final elevator-like bump, our final contact with solid ground fell away heralding the true beginning of our excursion. Approaching Vegas at night can be impressive. It's a sight everyone should see at least once. We couldn't do that this time around, but dawn breaking at 35,000 feet can be impressive too. DD, however, was drifting off soon after takeoff. We prefer non-stops, for several reasons, but the price we got on this jaunt made up for the inconvenience of the interruption of a layover in Phoenix, about half way through the flight. This interrupted DD's ersatz nap and she would eventually pay for the lack of sleep later that night.

Touchdown in Vegas was smooth as silk. I managed to get off the plane just a bit before DD and tried to get into position to snap a pic of her coming off the plane, all for Slot Queen's album. I got a couple of shots, but DD was still not playing the game, hiding her face and acting like we were putting her out. So I desisted, for now. DD, Slot Queen and GF all had to make pit stops. This fell in amazingly well with a sneaky little plan SQ had concocted, and in which GF and I had participated from inception. I'm about 6'2" and can really stretch my legs, when need arises. I did so at this time, using the diversion to get to baggage claim well in front of the rest. My objective: find the Limousine driver we'd arranged for and let her know the birthday girl was on the way. I gathered the luggage together and waited patiently with the driver for my cohorts and our victim to arrive. DD's approach was classic. She first saw me, then she saw the limo driver, decked out in all the classic regalia, including the hat, holding up a sign that had a happy birthday greeting for DD writ large thereupon. My attempt to get a picture of her reaction to this major surprise yielded little more than a wonderful close-up of her hand across the lens.

DD was, in fact, very surprised and pleased. She grinned and glowed as the limo door was opened for her. She smirked and giggled a little as she sat in the plush seat. Once the luggage was loaded (including an interesting episode trying to jam the electric cart into the now-loaded trunk), I had some fun pointing out some of the various nifties within the car. Pretzel munchies, and other small comestibles accompanied the novelty of the sound/video system and such. As we drove off I got to hear about DD's first celebrity sighting. It seems that Tommy, from the Golden Nugget TV show had passed them in the airport. SQ had called out his name, but he didn't see them. So far, the trip was shaping up to be great fun.

The limo idea, when broached months before, was to have the limo stop off at the famous 'Welcome to Las Vegas' sign, where we'd snap a couple of pictures, then scurry along for a limousine tour of the strip, culminating in our being let off at our hotel and having everyone guessing who the fat cats were as DD was escorted inside. No soap. Though the above is pretty much what we paid for, that's not what we got. Our driver told us that a gaff in the scheduling had actually had her assigned to be celebrity comedian Steve Harvey's driver for the entire day, but she had been diverted to pick us up during a lull. Instead of the hour of drive time we were supposed to get for our money, we got a hurried direct trip, via back routes, to the Flamingo's rear entrance.

We didn't make it all the way to the valet drop off. Instead, we were quickly, and rather unceremoniously, deposited at the airport shuttle/tour bus entrance. That was Major Bummer #1. I was kind of miffed but trying not to dampen DD's day. Slot Queen, on the other hand, was pretty peeved. There wasn't much we could do at that point, but I knew for sure that phone calls would fly when we got home.

We got SQ's cart together and ploughed our way through early Sunday morning traffic inside the Flamingo as we fought our way to the lobby. That time of the morning is a lot busier than I'd expected and the cart was the focus of more than one game of dodge ball as we toured deep into the hotel's interior. Reaching the lobby, we were greeted with a pleasant sight. All those cattle ropes were almost empty. A staff member saw us approaching and stepped up smartly to unhook the ropes so Slot Queen's cart could zip through without having to negotiate all the loop backs. The gesture was appreciated. We got to a window immediately and began the process of trying to get our rooms. Most hotels have a checkout time of around 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and most rooms are not cleaned and ready for re-habitation by the next guest until after 2:00 p.m. Here we were at roughly 9:00 a.m. trying to get our rooms so we could unload our luggage and get our day started!

Because of SQ's relationship with our travel agent, she was able to perform a rather important favor that was to pay dividends. We'd heard about the '$20.00 trick' and were willing to give it a try. Our original plan had been to use the airport check in but given the nature of the limo surprise we'd had waiting for DD, that didn't work out, which is just as well. It seems our travel agent just happens to know someone who works in marketing at the Flamingo and had talked to that friend to put in a good word as exchange for the favor. Between the $20 we dropped on the gal behind the counter, and a note that had been entered in our file by the travel agent's friend, we ended up with a couple of very nice rooms. Both rooms were ready and we got to unload right away. SQ and I ended up on the 27th floor with a view of the pool area. The room was very comfortable and well appointed. DD and GF, who were sharing a room, ended up on the top floor, the 28th, with a beautiful view of the strip and the Bellagio fountains. It took everyone's breath away. Proves yet again it's not what you know but whom you know, and the $20 dollar trick doesn't hurt a bit.

SQ and I now had to get the rental car. We always rent so we have what we feel is maximum flexibility in our travel options. We run about a lot and need cheap, reliable transport. With the scooter along, we decided that a mini-van would be required. The hatch would allow stowage space while the rest of the vehicle would be a comfortable ride for everyone else. The rental company provided a shuttle to bring us in. This is where Major Bummer #2 hit. The shuttle had a hard time finding us. They had directed us to wait for them at the valet entrance, which we did. But, they went to the shuttle entrance where the Limo had dropped us off. When we didn't show, they drove off. After 40 minutes of waiting at valet, SQ called and asked what the hold-up was. A little heat and some slightly raised voices later, we worked out the problem and requested the shuttle try again, while we moved to the proper pickup spot. Between that incident and the long wait at the rental building itself, we were almost two hours late getting back to the Flamingo. Our schedule said we were now overdue for lunch.

Back at the hotel, we made our way to Margaritaville, right there at the Flamingo. SQ and I walked through the main casino, just to check things out. DD and GF had taken an alternate set of elevators from their room and had gotten to the restaurant without going near gambling facilities, which is just as well because DD wasn't officially 21 yet. We met up and had a nice lunch. The food was good, the price fairly reasonable considering what such things are costing in Vegas nowadays. The place was a bit loud for my taste, but then Margaritaville was designed as a party place for Parrot Heads and such. DD seemed to enjoy the place, for the most part. I think I spotter her starting to do a little chair dance to some particularly toe-tapping music.

We'd seen the Flamingo's pool on Travel Channel shows and on internet 'virtual tours', etc. After lunch, we went to get a good close up view. SQ had gone to the extreme of procuring a couple of inflatable floaty things for us to lounge on, so we didn't cramp from swimming right after eating. Well, the inflatables didn't work out so well. I mean, they worked, we just couldn't seem to get the hang of them. SQ's mobility problems left her half drowned after three attempts to get on the lounger chair, while DD was very near the 'Mr. Fireman, can you please get my cat out of that tree,? level of distress with the donut. After about 15 minutes, we put those things away and just paddled about as the mood took us. The water seemed cold when we first got in but we quickly acclimated and it became very comfortable. Except for the level of chlorine they have to keep dumping into the thing, for health reasons, it was actually a very nice pool. We tried every section we could reach, including the big slide at the head of the falls, and all the smaller ones all the way down to the main. Then we discovered the Jacuzzis, and fell in love. The water was near steaming hot, the jets almost powerful enough to knock over an elephant and we soaked and lounged like true Sybarites. By about 3:30, we were spent and it was time to make our way back to our rooms for a nap. We still had late night plans, remember, and since our internal clocks were still set for the Central Time Zone, that would mean we would be running close to 24-hours without sleep, after a night of very little sleep, by the time DD's birthday celebration was just starting.

Because of the delay at the rent-a-car place, our 'nap' actually consisted of about a half hour of laying on the bed waiting for the clock to creep around to get-back-up-time. Our schedule included a trip to the Hilton to see Trent Carlini, the Elvis impersonator, and we still didn't have tickets. There are a couple of places on the strip where one can get discounted show tickets, on the day of the show, if you're willing to take the risk of not seeing the show at all, if they can't get the excess tickets. You can find them easily enough with a little effort. The first one we tried was across the street from the Stardust, in a little trailer sort of like a really big, same-day photo developing booth. DD stayed in the vehicle with me as SQ and GF went to get the tickets. They didn't have any. It was time for Plan B. That involved driving all the way south on the strip to the second choice, a place inside the Coca Cola/M&M display building (with the really big bottle outside) between Aladdin's and MGM Grand. These folks had the tickets, but the time delay in the extra drive and more waiting in line meant we had to hustle to the Hilton.

At the Hilton it took some getting around to find what we needed. The box-office counter is located at the main lobby, which required some direction asking to locate. From there, it was half way across the building to the theatre where the show would take place. SQ and I waited there for DD and GF to return from a quick souvenir expedition (fuzzy dice for a friend back home). When it came time to get our seats, we had a bit of a gaff with floor personnel. They were very friendly, but the place really isn't laid out for handicapped mobility aids, despite ADA, and we had to leave the scooter in a bar just off the theater floor. Thankfully Slot Queen doesn't HAVE to have the scooter to get around. It just makes trips like this easier on everyone, because it saves so much wear and tear.

The show was great. Calrini sounds, moves and looks so much like Elvis it was almost scary. His retrospective show had him coming out first in one of Elvis' oldest and best-known getups, that gold lame jacket. The show progressed with Trent going off stage after two or three numbers to change clothes for the next stage in Elvis' career, each highlighted by numbers classic to that period. I'm really not an Elvis fan, being just barely old enough (mid-40's) to remember seeing Elvis and the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. The earlier portions of Elvis' career are out of my range. But, the later portions of his career I remember. I was in my very early 20's when Elvis died. I remember enough about both portions, though, to say that this show is amazing. The goose bumps of déjà vu hit me more than once that evening as I watched a ghost come to life on the very stage where Elvis himself had actually played. There's even a couple of opportunities for interaction with Carlini/Elvis. During the Blue Hawaii set, he gives away a few Hawaiian Leis to audience members quick enough to get to the stage to grab them. Later, during the glittery jumpsuit period, he gives away colored silk scarves. GF was the biggest Elvis fan of our group. She's actually made the journey to Graceland. Patience and persistence were rewarded as she got the last scarf Carlini gave out that night. She wore it the rest of the trip and still keeps it as a treasured memento of her 'this is the closest I'll ever get' brush with The King.

Emerging from the Carlini show, blown away by the haunting spectacle, we realized that time was running out in the day. DD's birthday celebration would be at midnight. It was now after 9:00 p.m. and we were all very hungry, not having had any food since lunch. We were scheduled for chow at Quark's Bar, right there at the Hilton. I'm the Star Trek fan of the house, having enjoyed the originals as a kid. With food in the offing, though, none of us were really in a mood to appreciate memorabilia or futuristic architecture. We bee-lined it for a table at the bar and ordered our food. SQ, GF and I also ordered a drink we'd heard about. That's right, the three of us ordered only one drink. For those not aware of what the 'Warp-Core Breach' is, explanation is a pale imitation. This thing has ten ounces of alcohol in it and is served in a full-sized one gallon, yes GALLON!, fish bowl. They dump dry ice in it to make it smoke and bubble. We had three straws and shared it out amongst us.

As the food arrived, Major Bummer #3 began to rear its ugly head. That was DD's fatigue. The later it got, the harder it was for her to keep going. Even looking the menu over had been a monumental task for her and she was on the edge of tears before our food arrived. I'm known around the house (and among our friends) as the guy with 'all the voices'. I have an ear for accents and such, and rarely have a problem coming up with some alternate speaking voice and using it to comic effect, when the mood strikes. DD's distress created a mood. There's one voice I've done with enough frequency that it's developed a whole character around it. This character came to the foreground for most of the rest of the evening as I tried valiantly to keep DD awake and interested in the balance of the night. During this interlude one of the costumed entertainers at Quark's even approached the table. Using me as the foolish foil, she managed to get a couple of smiles and even a chuckle out of DD, but once she left, DD announced that she'd pretty much had enough. She was so tired she was going to tears and just could NOT stay awake for the planned midnight brouhaha. It was with reluctance and a great deal of sympathy that we finished our meal and returned to our rooms and put her to bed, still over an hour before her birthday.

SQ wasn't quite ready for bed yet, though. She'd come to celebrate her daughter's birthday, yes. But, that wasn't the only reason she'd come to Sin City. The slots were calling her name with mounting urgency and she just HAD TO PLAY! I busted out the Traveler's Checks and spotted her $100 so she could go dangle her toes among the machines. It took all of about 20 minutes before she was down $40 and not liking it any little bit. Thankfully, she listened to my suggestion and we went on up to bed ourselves. The clock struck midnight as my head hit the pillow. Happy birthday, DD. Sweet dreams.

Monday dawned a bit early for me. We ate breakfast at the Flamingo. I believe the place is called the Paradise Buffet, or something very similar. It's nothing to shout about, but the basic fare was good. The quality was roughly on par with a Denny's or IHOP, if not just a trifle better, but the quantity was good and the service just fine. SQ didn't take her scooter to breakfast, so the ramps in the place didn't make much of an impression on here. Truth in fact, though, if she'd had the scooter, she would have been impressed. For an older hotel to have made such modifications in such a smooth way that even someone who usually takes note of such thing not to even notice them, it proves that a good job was done. Our view out the windows to the flamingo pond beyond was very nice. There was lots of light and the high ceiling gave an airy atmosphere that made the meal very comfortable. We enjoyed it.

On previous visits we'd seen, in passing, the big Bonanza souvenir place on the northwest corner of the Strip and Sahara. They advertise themselves as the biggest souvenir business in the world. Whether this is true or not, they do have a lot of stuff. We dropped by there and spent some time shopping for miscellaneous stuff. DD and SQ wanted to pick up a few knick-knacks for folks back home. We got everyone a little something and even a couple of nifties for ourselves. SQ found leather jackets on sale (about 75% off!) and I got one to replace a well-worn jacket I'd had for some time. I also picked up a new hat, more in the western style than I usually wear but of a style which always makes SQ give me THAT look! Yeah, it was goona be a good day.

From there we hopped across the street to the Sahara. They've done a complete remodel on the place since last I was in there. I must say I was slightly impressed. They really spiffed the aging old dame up well. As we ambled about the place, SQ couldn't resist the slots, which had disappointed her so badly the night before. So, she took the opportunity to take DD under her wing. DD was now official. Today, the 30th of August, was her birthday and she could gamble legally. SQ and DD both came away with extra money in their pockets, which is always nice. Considering it was DD's first real gambling expedition, winning money at the Sahara is something I'm sure she'll always remember.

Time is inexorable and our schedule was now prompting us with the need for new movement. It was at this point that we were to split into two groups. SQ and GF were going to the Elvis-O'-Rama museum while DD and I went skydiving. Now, I'm not THAT adventurous. We'd seen a bit on the Flyaway Indoor Skydiving place on one of the Travel Channel shows. DD'd made a comment that that looked very interesting and I opened my big mouth and told her that if she had enough guts to do it, I'd go with her. She jumped on that the moment it left my mouth and never let me forget. She was going skydiving and daddy was going with her, and that was all there was to it. SQ and GF made their phone call to the Elvis museum. Those folks send a shuttle to pick visitors up and make it available to drop them off just about anyplace in the city, when done. It was very convenient, freeing up our rental van so DD and I weren't overly pressured for time. As we left for our appointment with fate, I felt secure that SQ and GF would be in good hands.

Flyaway is located on Convention Center Drive between the Strip and the LV Hilton. It's just west of the Greek Isles, on the north side of the street, and very easy to locate. Don't expect any Vegas glitz. We signed up and paid for our fun, finding our timing wonderful as the next class began in just minutes. We had time to remove loose articles and such just before being led to the briefing room. At the end of a short primer video we signed medical waivers. It seems that, even with all the padding and such, injuries can still occur. No problem, though. We knew it wasn't going to be easy. After that, we were taken to the 'dressing room' where everyone was outfitted with flight suits, earplugs, helmets and such. We now looked like skydivers, even if we didn't feel it. The butterflies were starting their jig in my stomach. Asking DD confirmed the same for her. Apprehension about the unknown had started both our imaginations swirling. Two of the most basic, instinctual fear of the human animal are falling and loud noises. Even after eight years in the military I still couldn't get my brain wrapped around the concept of leaping out of a perfectly good airplane into ground fire. And here I was about to challenge one of those two basic fears! And for what? To save a little face and not seem a coward to my daughter. The things parents do sometimes...

The particulars at this point I'll keep to myself. After all, there should be some things you find out for yourself, if you go. I will say, though, that the experience was a good one. That fear of falling thing plays no part in what goes on. In fact, I think the experience is more like body surfing. The pressure of the air rising from below you is like the rise of a wave buoying you up and the sensation of falling is almost nil. It was a lot more physical effort than I'd bargained for and old dad was huffing, puffing and sweating pretty good before it was done. I doubt if I'll ever do it again, but I had fun. And, it's a memory DD and I will share for the rest of our lives. If you go, you'll find that the price tag ($50) is worth it. If you can do like we did and get a $5 off coupon for each participant, it's even better. Finished with our Superman impersonations, DD and I headed for the next stop: lunch at Kahunaville, at Treasure Island. This is the meeting place we worked out so SQ and GF could rejoin us. They had their Elvis shuttle drop them off there. Again, timing was good and we arrived within minutes of each other.

It's been a few years since we've been in TI. We'd stayed there back in the mid-90's, when the place was still fairly new. We'd enjoyed the décor, it's Caribbean buccaneer period motif very well done. That was all gone. The place has been stripped of the vast majority (if not all) of that stuff and has become a rather generic casino with hardly a passing nod to its former identity. The walk to the restaurant was a long one. SQ had her scooter, which is just as well, because this walk would have worn her out. I was starting to wonder if we'd somehow managed to walk all the way to Mirage when we finally spotted the sign that told us we'd arrived. The décor of Kahunaville seemed to me to be very similar to that of Margaritaville. It's all stereotypical 'island paradise' stuff with palm trees, cocoanuts, fishing/sea coast doodads, and such. Nothing special.

As we got seated, SQ started filling DD and me in on what she and GF had done. They'd enjoyed their visit to Elvis-O'-Rama and picked up a couple of small, stuffed Elvis Teddy Bears as mementos. The only downer seemed to be in the lack of handicapped preparedness involved with the shuttle. The driver had to go a bit above and beyond to get the cart loaded and unloaded, both picking up and dropping off, and to help SQ get in and out of the high seated vehicle but, all in all everything worked out ok.

When the food and drinks arrived, SQ made good on one of the smaller, but very important events for our outing. We hadn't been able to give DD the drink with a candle in it the night before, because of her fatigue, but we did it now. The single candle glowed brightly as three of us warbled 'Happy Birthday' for DD there in the restaurant. It wasn't accompanied by the slot pull, of course. She'd already been
playing today and that wouldn't have meant as much now. Truthfully, the whole thing was a little pitiful, but touching. Sighing with small regrets, but feeling good that some tradition had been met, we began to dig in.

I've mentioned SQ's pre-trip on-line shopping for coupons and birthday specials. This occasion was one of those contingencies. We had a letter from Kahunaville that acknowledged my birthday. Between that and some coupons, we ended up eating for almost nothing. And I mean that literally. I think our total tab ended up being just a few cents more then the tip we left, which is a good thing, because we didn't eat much. I'm not saying the food was bad, mind you. SQ and GF seemed to do their plates justice. What I had was a little strangely spiced for my taste, but what I did eat was ok. The portions were huge, that's for sure. It's just that, we had eaten breakfast a bit later than is our usual want and had supper scheduled for around 7:00 p.m. I've got a really good appetite and can pack away a serious amount of food when that appetite is working, but have found over the years that strong physical exertion tends to dull that appetite for a while. DD and I were just ended with the skydive and my stomach was giving me a 'no go' on eating. I hate to see so much food go to waste, but it was already around 3:00 in the afternoon and the thought of 'pushing it' with a full supper coming so soon just left me feeling a little ill.

After lunch, we ambled about the casino for a short while, waiting for the Sirens' show outside to open. This had been an on-again, off-again item on our schedule. Our timing for the day was still in our favor and we found we had the opportunity to catch the day's first show without stretching the schedule too badly. That's when Major Bummer #4 hit. The show itself pretty much sucked. We got a great spot for viewing, right at 'front row'. SQ's electric cart gave us priority. The show just wasn't any good. SQ and I saw the old pirate show years ago when we stayed at TI. It was good, if crowded. This pathetic replacement they've got now isn't worth the effort. I take nothing away from the performers. They dance, and sing and all that, with a vim and vigor that shows they're putting their hearts into it but the greatest actor in the world can't make a dog script into a good show. That's what's going on here. TI needs to scrap and retry. If they're not going to go back to the old show, then they need to find something a lot better than what they've got. I'm surprised it still draws the crowds it does. Those crowds are probably the curious wanting, like us, to see what's changed and going away no more pleased than we were. But, management probably takes a look at the numbers and thinks the show is popular. They need to wise up.

Feeling a bit disgruntled after that show, we were in need of pick-me-up. Consulting our ubiquitous itinerary we saw it was time for new surroundings. During the planning stage of the trip, DD had suggested the Monte Carlo as a possible place to stay. Price and practicality has changed the choice, but we were all curious. SQ and I had certainly never been there and the variable comments we'd heard told us we needed to get a personal perspective. So, off we went to see what the House that Lance Burton Built was like. I must say we were pleasantly surprised. The place is spacious without being ostentatious, not overly glitzy. We puddled about for a while, SQ and the rest tinkering with slot machines. After about an hour, we decided to try our hands at the blackjack tables. We found a very comfortable end of pit table with short legs, so SQ could just drive her cart up to it, without any hassle. She elected to use their seat on this occasion but the gesture on the casino's part was appreciated. By about 6:00 o'clock, we were both down a fair amount. I dropped $100.00 there at Monte Carlo and I think SQ lost about $50. That didn't make me the happiest of campers, but, hey, this is Vegas. The house always has the edge. It's the fun of gambling we find most entertaining. The clock ticked on.

From Monte Carlo, we went down strip to Excalibur. This is SQ's favorite slot place, and I have to admit I've had some fun at the tables there in the past, as well. Last trip SQ and I had a particularly good time playing War. I'd walked out of there on that trip with some extra money in my pocket and wanted a rematch so I could get more. No dice. I couldn't find it. SQ tells me it was there, but I'll be darned if I saw it. We had a little extra time to kill before supper so we decided to check out Luxor and show DD the layout.

This was another place that had changed from our last visit, years ago. Back then, just after it opened, the Luxor's décor had been more of the 1920's Carter Expedition for King Tut's Tomb. I hadn't been very impressed, then. The new décor was much more like what I'd hoped for in the first place. The towering megaliths of Egyptian deities surrounded by huge walls covered in hieroglyphs, all shaded in semi-night gloom gave the place a perfect flavor. It was like stepping into a scene from The Ten Commandments. The only missing element was the sound of slave whips. Walking around, taking pictures for the folio-that-may-never-be we got a really good view of the place. Even DD was impressed. After initial impressions were finished the four of us scattered to different places. SQ and I went to find her a good slot, while DD and GF each went in search of their own fun. It only took about half an hour, though before SQ was feeling the same way she had at the Flamingo on night one. She was down about $40.00 rather quickly and the bitter taste of defeat was leaving her a little depressed. Just for something different, I decided to sit at her last machine and play about $20.00 myself. I got a bit more play than SQ had, but the end result was the same. Thankfully, the others were rallying round, and everyone had an appetite. It was time for dinner at Excalibur.

We had taken the moving walkway over to Luxor and took the monorail back. This contraption runs from Excalibur directly to Mandalay Bay and then stops at Luxor on the way back to Excalibur. Getting to it was a bit of a chore, the elevators for handicapped access being just a bit out of the way. The ride, though, was just fine. The doors stayed open plenty long for SQ to get her scooter in, and acceleration and deceleration were very smooth. Back at Excalibur we went to the player's club desk. SQ had gotten more birthday goodies from these guys, which included some price reductions coupons for dinner, for herself, and I. During the wait in line, SQ discovered that the little bungee cord with her player cards wasn't in her purse. Thinking back, we remembered that she'd had them in the last machine she'd played, but didn't remember removing it. That was because, you'll remember, I sat at that same machine and played a little. I hadn't removed them when we left. Silly me. While the others finished up their business, I scurried back to Luxor and went looking for that machine, crossing my fingers and praying the cards were still there. As pure, unadulterated luck would have it, they were. The guy sitting in the next machine even remembered me when I walked up and snatched them out of the machine, heaving a great sigh of relief. I really stretched my long legs getting back to the others.

Before I'd left, SQ had apparently said something to me about where she'd be when I got back. I just hadn't caught it. When I returned, I found she wasn't at the slot club desk anymore. Since we had come there for food, I went to the Sherwood Forest café, there on the casino floor. No SQ, no GF, no DD. No nothing. Hmmm. Well, part of the package deal involved some interaction with the cashiers cage to get our fee $10.00 match chips, so I plowed through crowds to the main cage. Nothing. Back to the slot desk. Back to the cashier. Nothing. Taking a long shot, I went to SQ's favorite slot area and took a quick turn around the bandits. Apparently it was too quick a turn, because I missed her. Another trip to the slot desk and the Cashier left me more than a little perturbed, so I hunkered down in front of the restaurant to wait...all night if need be. I had the claim ticket for the rental and if they were going to leave without me, they'd have to hire a cab. I had all the Traveler's Checks too. SQ might have enough to get back to the Flamingo without me, but she'd have nothing else and would have to retire for the night, broke and alone. That just didn't sound like her. They showed up about fifteen minutes later, brushing off my sharp comment with a hearty 'I told you so.' Ok, idiot, take it like a man.

Two years ago we'd eaten here at Sherwood. My favorite cut of meat is the Filet Mignon. I've had a lot of them. That previous meal here had proven to be the best cut of filet I'd ever had in my life. This second trip proved it was no accident. The food was spectacular without having to put up with stuffy waiters glaring out our casual tourist clothes as though we'd scandalized the neighborhood. Everybody had a good meal and the price, when it came due was very low. Those birthday certificates had come in very handy, paying big dividends. I'd recommend doing this for anyone who visits Vegas within a couple of weeks of their birthday. Contact your favorite eating-place and get them to send you a letter, confirming the comp. We'd eaten two meals that day for almost nothing and had saved a lot of money. Our waitress was efficient. Everything came off nicely. For DD's birthday dinner, it could hardly be beaten. She walked out of the place with a smile.

We didn't have desert right after the meal. DD had requested a trip to NYNY. There is a place there called Nine Fine Irishmen where everything in the place, right down to the light bulbs, is imported from Ireland. DD loves things Irish. Looking at the menus during the planning stages, DD had seen a desert there she just had to try. I believe it was called a Dumbrodie Kiss, or something very similar. Regardless the name, it had lots of chocolate and such and was a sure temptation. We took the overhead walkway from Excalibur to NYNY and made our way down to the casino floor and to the restaurant/club. The place is fairly small and very, very loud. A live band was playing in the center of a club no bigger than my house, their amplifiers cranked up loud enough for a concert in Central Park. We had a very hard time hearing each other speak. By hook and by crook we found an empty table off the main floor, and enough chairs for all of us. But, as late as we'd arrived, we found we'd missed service time. The kitchen and all the food services had stopped more than an hour before we'd arrived. DD would get no desert. Disappointed, but not totally deterred, DD and GF decided they were going to stick around for a little while, listen to the band and get the feel of the place. SQ and I elected to return to Excalibur for a spin at the blackjack tables.

I'm a bit of an aficionado of the game, having studied the strategy and such. I guess I can technically be classed among that much maligned and very misunderstood group called 'card counters.' That's not really what I do, and I don't claim any great skill, but I DO pay attention to what's going on at the table. And, if you understand some of the math of the game, it really helps, too. Our training sessions with DD had blown a lot of rust off my old skills and it wasn't long before SQ and I were both a little bit ahead of the house and having a blast. After about an hour, DD and GF showed up. It seems Nine Fine Irishmen had closed its doors for the night. They opted not to sit in at our table, but just sat around, looking on. SQ and I were conscious of them lurking in the background, waiting. After a while it was obvious the other two were getting antsy. Midnight had long since come and gone. In fact, it was now after 2:00 a.m. and we had another early rise for another busy day looming. SQ and I reluctantly allowed ourselves to be pulled from the table. Overall, this had been a very good day. Everybody was doing well on the gambling. We'd all done something we'd never done before (whether Elvis or skydive). SQ and I had updated ourselves on some of the more recent changes around the city, and DD had a very nice birthday. Who could ask for more? The clock ticked down on anther day in paradise and I fell asleep with visions of dollar signs dancing in my head.

Day three snuck up and slapped me in the back of the head. The late nights and early mornings were wearing on me, but I wasn't about to let that dampen this trip. The schedule today was a little more relaxed than anything to this point. The first, and in my view, most important until nightfall, was food. Having eaten breakfast at Le Village buffet at Paris, SQ and I were determined to go back and do that again. We took the rental car to Paris and made our way to the restaurant, hoping beyond hope that we weren't so late that the lines were really long. That proved no problem. Though there were people in front of us, and the place was already pretty full, a staff member spotted SQ in her cart and led us to an alternate entrance. We went directly to the head of the line and were inside in no time. One small advantage for the handicapped.

Last time we'd been here, SQ and I had been seated in one of the small 'indoor' areas to the right of the entrance, that looked so much like homes or shops lining the street. This time, we were seated far to the left, in an area we didn't remember being there last time. The interior looked kind of like the Palace at Versailles: gold trim, glass lamps, mirrors and such everywhere. No matter, breakfast was waiting. The food was every bit as plentiful and tasty as we'd remembered. I think even DD was a little bit impressed. The sheer, enormous variety of offerings just cannot be brushed off. Everything was superb.

After breakfast, we wandered back towards the entrance. SQ wanted to show DD and GF the bathrooms that had so impressed her last visit. After that, we visited a little shop near the entrance, dedicated to the new show that paid tribute to the music group Queen. The place was chock full of stuff, all dedicated to Freddy Mercury and the band. DD's brother has always enjoyed Queen's music, so I picked up a gaming chip stamped with the band's logo to take back to him.

From there, SQ's program said we had other things to do. We left the rental there at Paris and walked next door to Aladdin's. Again, we had to compare this visit to the previous one. Last time around, SQ had talked me into joining her in a slot tournament. Aladdin's holds these things on a regular basis all day long, the daily winner being invited back early the next morning for big prize award. The winner gets a choice of collecting about $500 dollars cash money or risking it to take a single pull on every dollar slot in the joint. We'd done well enough that last time around that we'd gotten a couple of buffet comps and a very nice leather 'wine caddy' for our efforts. All in all we'd walked out of the place even on our money and Aladdin's had actually allowed us to walk away with their stuff for nothing. I like that kind of deal.

I'm not a slot person, usually. But, I can jab buttons as quickly as anyone. So, I joined the other three. I paid my $25 entry fee and went to work with a will. Minutes later all four of us had failed to get enough points to qualify for the big prize (DD came closest). As part of the deal, Aladdin's put $10 of comp slot play on our member cards. They have marked machines all around the casino. Put your card in one of those machines, hit a particular button, and the machine racks up $10 worth of credits. Play it all in one sitting and walk away with whatever comes out, win, lose or draw. DD made a little, as I think did GF. I walked away with $75. I tried to find a good machine for SQ, using my ESP powers as best I could. Sorry to say, she ended up at the same machine I'd just hit on and lost it all very quickly. She was disappointed. This trip wasn't proving very good for her, slot-wise. I, on the other hand, had paid $25 to play the tourney and was leaving with $75. That meant, bottom line, that Aladdin's had paid me $50 to walk out of the place with a new jacket and a coffee mug. New jackets with Aladdin's logo on them for everyone, please, along with coffee mugs, to be sure. Too cool. After collecting our prizes we did another search for other machines that might interest (and entertain) SQ. We finally found something on the other side of the building that she played for about an hour on her initial investment. When everyone was ready to go, SQ cashed in for around $40 more than she'd paid, and finally had a smile on her face. Her slot luck had changed and she was loving it.

From there, we toured the Desert Passage shops. We'd enjoyed the place last time and had a couple of goodies to show DD. This one place, in particular, has blankets, pillows and such made out of Alpaca fur. This stuff is so soft, butter seems coarse. There's also another spot inside where it rains. They have a simulated 'river' into which they make it rain on a regular basis. Last trip the machine was down for repairs. We wanted another shot at seeing it. Major Bummer #5. We missed the show by just a couple of minutes and the next one wasn't scheduled for a good hour or more. No problem, though. We ambled through the place, taking our time and seeing the sights. A few more souvenirs, and more time than we'd anticipated later, though, we found that our schedule was yelling at us to get a move on. And, as bad luck would have it, we'd also missed the rainfall, again by just a couple of minutes. Yesterday's wonderful timing of events had yielded to a less accommodating 'missed it by that much' day today. We'll never get to see it now. Aladdin's has been sold to Planet Hollywood. Though we'll be going back in October of '05, the transition (scheduled for completion by the end of that year) will be just about done and I'm sure the desert rain show will be long gone by then.

It was already well after noon with things still to do. We returned to Paris, for a little more gambling. SQ had seen some advertisements for those 2-for-1 and 3-for-1 slots at Paris and wanted to try them. DD and GF went their way, while I helped SQ find those machines. It didn't take long to realize that those machines were even tighter than the rest of the place. Fortunately, SQ got the hint really fast this time, and didn't lose much before backing off. She and DD got memorabilia drinks. SQ got the porcelain balloon mug and DD elected the Eiffel Tower. A note on the Tower thing: It's plastic, and not all that impressive. Yeah, it holds a lot of booze, but there's a problem. If you hold it by the neck, it tends to slip from the grip. You have to hold it by the base, which makes it unbalanced and awkward. This is such a well-known problem that the bartenders give demonstrations on how not to hold the things when you buy them. I can see the $12 buck for the porcelain balloon, but not the same price for the plastic tower. I guess you can't blame them. If tourists will pay that much, why not charge that much, yes? Me oui!

GF wanted to see the Monet exhibit at Bellagio, while DD, SQ and I wanted to visit the Classic Car exhibit at Imperial Palace. We grabbed the rental and were off. We dropped GF off at Bellagio, took the rental back to Flamingo, and went on foot to Imperial. I was just as underwhelmed by this place as I was on a previous visit. Thankfully we wouldn't be interacting with the place any more than necessary. We'd heard about the Dealertainers and had even had them on our schedule for a while, in the earlier stages of planning, but had finally removed them as a must and relegated them to a maybe. We passed the Dealertainer pit on our way to the elevators and I must say I was not impressed. Someday I might try it, just to say I did, but I had no inclination to make time for it this trip, especially since they use Continuous Shuffle Machines and have a 6/5 payout. Yuck!

The car show was nice. The sheer number and variety of vehicles is impressive, and the beautiful condition they're in is amazing. We took some pictures and wandered about as the mood took us. The whole thing hardly took an hour, but, since we had 'get in free' coupons, the price was well worth it. Outside, SQ grabbed the cell phone and made a call. Back home, DD's friends who'd driven us to the airport were also supposed to be house sitting while we were gone. They were supposed to be at SQ's computer, logged on to the Imperial's web-cams. The plan: have DD wave to her friends, live on camera, as they called out birthday greetings over the phone. Another Major Bummer. They had completely forgotten the appointment time. It would be an hour before they could get into place. GF had already called, saying she was done with her art tour and was waiting at the Barbary Coast. We couldn't afford another hour delay just for a wave. So we cancelled that event and pressed on. DD and SQ headed off to meet GF while I went back to the Flamingo and got the van.

Our next stop was the Venetian. SQ has expressed, several times, her desire to stay here. She loves the décor. I've always thought of it as overpriced; a gilded tourist trap offering only a small amount more glitz and swank for the huge extra they charge. In either case, we both wanted DD to see it. Our last visit here was almost two years ago, with the interim (in true Vegas style) holding changes of which we were unaware. The Venetian, we now know, has two valet entrances. One is for the main entrance; the other is dedicated to the Canal Shops. Somehow the signs that direct guests to the valet parking were not as clear as they used to be. We zigged when we should have zagged and wound up at the Canal Shops valet, in an elevated parking garage, not at the main entrance where we wanted to be.

This garage is really hot and stuffy in late summer. It's also loud and very busy. And, the valets are pointedly rude. The scooter is heavy, weighing about 150 lbs. It can be disassembled for easier handling, but that's time consuming. We were running on a schedule and every minute saved helped us keep that schedule. We'd made a habit of leaving it together and just having someone help me lift it in and out, whole. It hadn't been a problem anywhere else, but the guy at the Venetian who handed me my claim chit quickly turned his back and walked off before I could even begin to request help unloading. I had to resort to asking GF for help. She was gracious enough, but none of us were happy. The Venetian supposedly brags about their service and DD's first exposure to the place is the dirty interior of a parking garage and a rude valet? Ouch.

We had to ask for directions to the doors. There was a painted line on the concrete that followed a back wall. All we had to do was follow the line. Simple enough. But, when we finally got to the door, it was a plain glass door, tightly sprung, that SQ couldn't have opened by herself. Very un-glamorous. We found ourselves a level above the casino, in about the middle of the Canal Shops. SQ had the others wait, while she dragged me down to the main floor and all the way around the building to the main lobby, the Guest Relations desk and Concierge. That's where she told the guy what she thought. She tried to be nice, but there was a distinct mommy's-not-happy edge to her voice that no male could miss. I have to give the guy some credit; he bore the storm with grace. But, when it came his turn to talk, his 'apology' quickly turned into an advertisement for the Ventian, rather than anything conciliatory. What we got, in my opinion, was a cold shoulder. We did find out that we could leave by the main entrance and the valets there would go get the car from the other garage. That was gratifying; we wouldn't have to wade back through that back garage and deal with the lousy valets, but as a consolation, it sucked. I think SQ is seriously reassessing her desire to stay there.

We made our way back to the others. We toured through the canal area, realizing we were seeing it in a way we'd never experienced. Saint Mark's square was dark. It's not that the lights were out, mind. They're just turned down to simulate night, and entering the main square found us facing a musical recital in the center, with lots of people standing around. Saint Mark's square is impressive enough in the 'daylight'. At 'night' it's a jewel. This was nice, but not the primary thing we'd come for. We'd promised DD a gondola ride.

To get tickets for the gondolas, you have to make your way back to the furthest, most removed section of the canal area and stand in a cramped line, in a cramped little shop that seems, to me, more interested in selling you their souvenirs than getting you on a boat. Maybe it's just that attitude that comes with the level of 'service' the Venetian is supposed to provide. Who knows? In whatever case, it still doesn't do anything about a major drawback at the gondolas. They've made absolutely no concession to handicapped access. If you can't get up and walk down three stairs and step across from the dock to the boat, even if aided, then you're wasting your time and money. As I've said before, SQ doesn't have to use the scooter. It was along for convenience, this trip. But, anyone else who couldn't do what she does is just plain out of luck. Staff members around the boat are very helpful, but they can only do so much.

The ride was pleasant. DD seemed to like the serenade she got from the gondolier. She also got to see a portion of the shops area we'd missed coming in. Finished with the boat, we ambled about the shops for a whole. SQ had a place she particularly wanted to show DD. There's this place with all kinds of dolls made of porcelain (which DD collects), and other stuff that just seems to impress women so much. They've also got costumes one can buy, if you want to walk around dressed like you're in a palace. Everything is very expensive. But, we'd just to come to look, so no harm done. We'd managed to go through most of the day. It was suppertime and we still had places to go.

Leaving the Venetian, we used the front entrance, as recommended. The valets there were much more accommodating, helping load the scooter without a qualm. I relented in my ire and, grudgingly, tipped the guy so as not to appear too petty about his compatriot in back. I don't mean to sound nasty, but that experience at the Venetian left me feeling even more disappointed in the place than ever before. For all their vaunted service, they always make me feel as though I've been insulted by a cheap, imitation French waiter. They seem to prize snobbishness more than true service, and don't seem to give a damn if you don't feel you've gotten what they advertise. If you're not staying there, they're more condescending than obsequious, and if you get put out by something they do wrong, well...it's obvious you just don't 'get it'; the typical excuse of the major social snob. Those types always put me off.

The sky was just darkling as we pulled into the parking lot at Ellis Island. We'd read about their un-posted steak special and had put it on our schedule. Supposedly reservations are not need, but from our experience, you might try to make some, if you intend to go. The place is kind of small and crowded, reminding me more of a UR-Cooks with slot machines than anything else. We were going to have a 40-minute wait on our hands, unless we wanted to eat somewhere else. Well, we'd had enough Major Bummers for this trip and decided to stick it out. While we waited, I couldn't resist temptation. I've never played video poker for money. Yeah, I'd been caught up in all the WPT stuff on the television, and had even found a good on-line site to start learning the game, but I'd never actually committed money to the proposition of poker. I'd never been very good as a youngster, during those awkward times I'd tried to learn the game, and I'm sure I'm not all that good now. But, having studied the various aspects of the math behind blackjack, I was a bit of a leg up when it came to comparing that knowledge with what I could learn about poker. I don't know if any of that helped or not, but with only a $10 investment, I played for 20 minutes and walked away with $60 of Ellis's money. That Four-of-a Kind (5's) just a few minutes before they called us for our table really was fun. I may do that again.

The food at Ellis was good, the steak special included, though it wasn't as good as the reviews had made it out. You can get about the same thing at almost any decent steak house. The service was good; probably better than the food, and the price was right. We left Ellis Island with full bellies and refreshed from the rest. It was time for the last bit of business on our day's schedule. Night had fallen while we were inside and time had come to show DD the downtown area.

The trip from Strip to Fremont is fairly quick and uncomplicated, just head north and watch the signs. We pointed out to DD several of the wedding chapels she'd seen on Travel Channel shows, all of them glittering in the night; pale imitations of the monsters to the south. Once downtown, we parked the car at Main Street Station. This was a multiple purpose visit. (1) None of us had ever been there, so it was new for everybody. (2) They have a chunk of the Berlin Wall mounted behind the urinals in the men's bathroom. I wanted to see it. So did DD and the rest. We'd heard that if you ask management, they'll provide an escort and help clear the room so females can enter the men's bathroom. We didn't bother. I went in first, to reconnoiter. When the coast was clear, I hustled everyone inside for the few moments it took for everyone to express their appreciation for the sight. There it was, a bullet-hole ridden, graffiti scrawled chunk of history staring us straight in the face. A chill ran down my spine as I laid my hands on that imposing chunk of concrete. What it stood for no longer existed, as we knew it. A lot of people had died to bring it into being. A whole lot more had died while it stood. I think there was even some bloodshed bringing it down. And here was a piece of it, up close and personal. SQ touched it with , I think, a small shiver of appreciation. DD touched it too. She's developed a real interest in history, currently in college trying to get educated enough to teach history to high school students. She didn't show it outwardly, much, but I could tell there was a special appreciation there for that hands-on link to the past. (3) DD had another interest, also historically based. Just a block from Main Street there's a couple of old railroad cars under a permanent canopy, on display for anyone to view. These two rail cars were part of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show. Cody, Annie Oakley and other celebrities and dignitaries (including the then Colonel Theodore Roosevelt) used these cars in their travels. We read all the information signs posted along the cars. We took a few pictures through the windows (as best we could with the neon glare reflected in every shot), and then together we also laid hands on these relics of the past. A very special night, to be sure.

Rejoining SQ and GF we finally got out of Main Street Station and headed deeper downtown. We'd intended to park the rental at the Golden Nugget, but a sign indicated that valet parking was full, only guests could get service, so we had to hunt for an alternative. A few minutes of driving in circles finally left us parked at the valet at Binnion's. From there we walked into the middle of Fremont Street just as one of the overhead light shows began. I could tell that DD was impressed, at least by the size of the thing, if not by the actual show itself. It's a strange feeling to be standing under
that canopy, in the semi-darkness, a cool evening breeze drifting over your skin, and then to have your eyes blinded as the lights snap on, your ears assaulted by the monster sound system, and then feeling the heat off all those lights blazing down on you. The on and off pulse of heat and light, as the show progressed, got several comments.

We wandered a bit then, just checking things out. SQ wanted to see another place she'd never been before. So, we walked into a place called Mermaids. It was small, crowded and cramped, dirty, and not at all fun. We'd gotten entry tickets to some hourly raffle they hold as we entered and hung around just long enough to find that our numbers were not drawn. We exited quickly, not caring about things like dignity or decorum. People in our group, like SQ and I, were getting a little twitchy for some action. So, we went into the Nugget. SQ and I have stayed there a couple of times and usually enjoy the place. It's a bit small compared to the giants on the Strip, but as downtown properties go, it's classy and roomy. We didn't stay long, though. Between SQ's limited squeeze capacity with her scooter, and a complete lack of slots that interested her, as well as a lack of table action to interest me or anyone else (minimums too high for my taste), we decided to move along. On the way out the Fremont Street door, I told SQ and DD they ought to try the big slot machine there. DD had been showing some remarkable beginner's luck on slots for the trip and there was always the possibility that even SQ could bag a couple of dollars and boost her mood. I went first, slipping $5 into the beast and pulled the handle. Nothing. SQ went next with the same result. DD, bless her heart, put in $5 and walk off with $25. We skipped the place before temptation got the better of us.

We jaunted across the street to the Four Queens, where SQ had won a small slot tourney a couple of years agoShe wanted to do it again and see if she could win more stuff. Wrong answer. They'd all but discontinued those tourneys. We ambled about some more, even doing a tiny bit more souvenir shopping. I got a great blackjack related t-shirt I wear on weekends now. It replaces one I'd gotten last trip that is now worn and looking very sad. DD got a shirt, and I think GF even picked up something at one of the shops.

It was now near midnight and everyone was looking to either hit a casino for some serious gambling or run back to the Flamingo and bed. Tomorrow would be our last day in Vegas and we really hadn't gambled all that much. We knew when we came out that this was more a sight-seeing, DD educating trip than anything else, but to be in Vegas for four days and not spend at least the majority of one of those days gambling? Shocking! Unthinkable! That's when we stepped into Fitzgerald's. The place has been cleaned up since our last visit. It's more open and spacious, not as dingy and 'old Vegas' worn as it used to be. On that previous trip, I'd stumbled across this place and slapped a blackjack dealer for $100 in a single shoe. I like that. I wanted more, of course. It was time to test all that training we'd given DD.

We had a blast that night. The first dealer was pretty quiet and seemed just a bit intimidated by our boisterous little crew. After about half an hour they changed dealers. I don't just mean put this one guy on break. I mean they changed shifts. The gal they put in was named Rose and was pretty new. Not to dealing, just to shoe games. She used to deal pitch games at another casino and tonight was her first night on a shoe game for Fitz's. A pit boss accompanied her to the table, gave her some rather strict instructions, and watched her like a hawk the whole time we were there. I don't enjoy the game as much when I have one of those silent, sour-pussed types flipping cards like an automaton. Rose was a very nice person. She smiled a lot and talked with us, making the night much more pleasurable than it might otherwise have been. She was a real joy. DD was at the first chair, GF at third and SQ fourth. Some folks who were already at the table when we arrived were next, and I was last, in 'Coffin Corner' or Third Base. I like this spot. It gives me the chance to see what everyone else is doing, how their cards have behaved, before I make my play. DD was making quick inroads, using the training we'd provided to good effect. Since she and SQ were sitting next to each other, to start, they shared one of those plastic strategy cards we brought along. They made no secret of using it and it stood them in good stead.

I must confess, though, that I was the one who made the first and biggest mistake of the night. Watching the table for a while, I had seen a lot of small cards used up and when I got dealt a pair of tens, I split them. Yeah, I know, that's considered crazy, stupid, even blasphemous. But, hey, you got to risk losing to win, right? I thought the odds were in my favor, so I did it. Lo, and behold! I got a 20 and a 21 and Rose busted out on her hit. That's probably when somebody really started to take notice of what was going on. I mean, we were kind of loud, wahooing with glee every time the dealer busted, or when any of us got a natural. But, I'm pretty sure that unusual move of splitting tens set off alarms somewhere. That's a move usually reserved to die-hard counters who only do it when they're SURE to make a big strike. They bet in the thousands of dollars at that point. I, on the other hand had only $20 on the table, $40 after the split. That's about the limit of my bravery. I'm a small time player, preferring low minimums so I can stretch my very limited gambling dollars as far as possible. That $40 sure seemed like a lot to me. My smug grin as I won the hand probably didn't help matters.

Rose went on and off break a couple of times and our group was slowly pulling ahead. I hate to say it, but I repeated my mistake later that night. The cards were showing a lot of little ones, hand after hand, and when I got another pair of 10's, I split again. This time it was for only $10 per stack, but it was the principle of the thing. I just couldn't let the opportunity pass. I mean, it had worked once, why not twice? Yeah? Well, it did work and I raked in my money with a smirk that would have done a kitten in the milking shed justice. About this time SQ had run out of money. She only ponies up with about $40 when she hits the table, as compared to my $100 or more, so she doesn't have a lot of a bankroll to survive the inevitable ups and downs that come with the game. I was up about $100 at this point, so I staked her my winnings. It was now after 3:30 in the morning and all of us knew the morning wakeup was going to be a tough one. But what the heck, we were having a lot of fun! By 4:30, we knew it was definitely time to go. Everyone was ahead. SQ had won her money back and returned my winnings to me. GF was up over $60 and even DD was up over $50. Those lessons had paid huge dividends and she grinned like a champ as we left the table. We returned to Binnion's in the very early morning hours and claimed our ride. The trip back to the hotel was full of chatter and glee.

We'd decided, before reaching the hotel that night, that we'd sleep in a little. Rising at the crack of noon was still not easy, though. This was our last full day in Vegas. Tomorrow would be all hustle and bustle getting ourselves together for a noon flight out. That meant we still had to pack and still fit in as much fun time as possible.

Breakfast didn't happen till after lunch. We'd seen an episode of Emril Live that had highlighted a place Emeril says he visits, for breakfast, every time he's in town. It's called The Original Pancake House and sits way off strip. It's just off Decatur, to the west; up near Sahara Blvd. This place has some amazing food. They do pancakes in the old-fashioned German style. For those of you who aren't familiar with this culinary method, the pancakes are not fried on a skillet; they're baked in an oven. This is necessary because of their size. The servings are huge. DD got one of the apple pancakes. The thing covered the entire plate all by itself and was heaped at least three inches high with goodies. Having seen Emeril's show, SQ did not order anything for herself, sharing with DD. Very smart idea. The one order filled the two of them up to the eyebrows and there was still food left on the plate! GF and I had slightly more modest meals, but were still packed to the gills when we left. As expected, Emeril had left an autographed photo of himself, which the staff has framed and hung on the wall of the booth where he sits when he visits. I snapped a picture of the thing on the way out. If SQ's album comes to be, this will make a nice little conversation-piece.

Staying up so late the night before, and rising so late today had really shot our schedule in the foot. Today was supposed to be the day we explored some of the other off-strip places most of us had never been: Rio, Gold Coast, Palms, and Orleans were all there. But, only a good deal of hustle would get us anywhere near completing that list. You see, we also had a couple of last night shows to attend that evening. DD and SQ were going to go see An Evening at La Cage (Frank Marino's gig at Riviera), while GF and I went to the Greek Isles to see the Rat Pack tribute. The first show, the Rat Pack, began at 7:00. We had all decided we'd treat this last show with more formality than before and dress a little better than blue jeans and t-shirt. We would have to return to the hotel to change before going to those shows. Given all the time required, it meant we'd have to stop everything else by about 4:00 to 4:30 so we could go get the tickets and change.

It was after 2:00 in the afternoon when the left the pancake house and time was ticking down fast. We only had a couple of hours left before we had to seriously pursue other preparations and had done nothing except eat. We decided to do Rio. Upon entering, we made our way to the card-member's desk. We had some club cards we'd obtained in Bossier City, Louisiana during an excursion there. Rio is part of one of those group clubs where you share comp points with several places, and can earn and cash your comps at any combination of those properties. It took some time to get it all updated. So much time, in fact, that I had to tell SQ and the rest to go find the show ahead of me and I'd catch up as soon as I could. I made it just in time. The place was rocking as the first bars of Rare Earth's 'I Just Want to Celebrate' began pounding out of the mammoth sound system, just as I stepped behind SQ's cart.

It was an enjoyable show, even for someone like me who really isn't into Mardi Gras (Brizilian or otherwise). The floats were bright and impressive, and the performers all put their hearts into it. Strings of beads trickled down on the crowd like rain, music pumped rhythm that had lots of people dancing, even if just a little. SQ tried catching a few bead strands that came near, but her mobility limitations really hampered the effort. It wasn't until right at the end, as the last floats were drawing back into their hidden bays, that she managed to snag one that lofted down from above, almost straight at her. She was tickled pink. She proudly added this stand to the few I'd gotten for her form the member's desk. She wore it the rest of the day. SQ now wanted to try the slots. They used to have these slots the spit out real diamonds. She wanted a chance. Sadly, they've removed those machines. SQ had to settle for regular, old-fashioned one-armed bandits. It turned out well, though. She cashed in for about $50 more than she'd paid. Time continued to press and we still didn't have our show tickets. We definitely didn't have time for another casino. We left the Rio and went back to that place near MGM Grand to get our tickets then returned to the Flamingo to change.

DD almost made us late. She deemed a shower fit before dressing, and then needed to iron her clothes. Then it took her 20 minutes to put on her shoes! At least, that's how I seem to remember it happening. Regardless, when all was done, we had to get to the valet, grab the rental, and haul as quickly as we could. The Rat Pack show started first, but GF and I were keeping the van. So, we had to drop DD and SQ off at the Riviera. Our show started at 7:00. Seating began at 6:30. It was 'highly recommended' that guests arrive half an hour before that. GF and I needed to be there at 6:00. As we climbed into the rental, my watch said it was 5:45! We still had to drive to the Riviera, drop two people off and then get to the Greek Isles, in fifteen minutes? No way!

For those who don't know strip area traffic, this is no easy feat. The strip, on Wednesday, is hardly less crowded than on any other night, especially with one lane, from about Harrah's all the way up to the Riviera, shut down for construction. The side route, up Paradise Rd. is really no quicker, requiring as it does extra distance and a double back. That wouldn't help us at all. So, I went the strip route. The group split again, so I'll relate the part for GF and myself first, since we were direct participants.

As chance would have it, our choice of routes proved for the best. Of the many conventions in town that week, one involved a big fashion show of some kind. As I drove down Paradise to the Hilton, we ended up stuck in thick traffic. The fashion convention had just let out and Vegas police were in the streets directing traffic to let the mob cross the street, a little at a time. I think they carefully counted it out as time ticked away. Ten people, two cars, ten people, two cars...argghhh! We finally turned the corner at Conv. Cntr. Dr. at 6:20. Thankfully, we hadn't chosen this route coming out, or we'd have had to sit through it twice! I dropped GF off right at the main entrance so she could find the box-office, while I looked for a place to stash the van. We'd made it in time, if only barely. We had only minutes to stand around outside the box office, talking to a very nice British couple and their young daughter, before the doors opened and we were bundled inside.

The interior of the theatre is small, as those things go in Vegas. It only held about 400 people. It was decorated to resemble the Copa Room at the old Sands where Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack had played. The show was nicely done, all in all. Not a lot of effort was put into making most of the performers look like their characters. In fact, that lack is explained at the beginning of the show as the voice of Sandy Hackett's dad, Buddy, assumes a God-like role in sending the spirits of the Pack back to Vegas for 'one more great night.' Of the characters, I think the 'surprise guest appearance' by a Marilyn Monroe look-alike was the least effective. She had a special bit that went on too long. It was ok, just too long. Next, I'd say that Sandy fit his Joey Bishop rose the least. Sandy clowned around a bit, but didn't even sound like Joey. At least the other performers tried. Of those others: the next best was Dean Martin. Again, not much attempt at look-alike, but he had the moves and sound down pretty well. When he talked there was a definite Martinesque quality. But when he sang...just close your eyes and you can almost believe Dean is up there. After that, the Sinatra part was next. Both his speaking and singing voices were very Sinatra, if not quite Harry Connick Jr (sic?). Closing ones eyes as he sang could give you chills, but then you'd miss the stage performance. The pies de resistance, though, was Sammy Davis Jr. This was the only one of the group that not only sounded like his part, he really looked it, too. The guy was almost as good in his part as Carlini's Elvis. He lacked only one thing. He didn't? dance. I could almost feel my eyes starting to mist as he sang 'Mr. Bo Jangles' and I very much missed not getting to see Sammy dance in that number, like I remember. If this guy could just learn enough of that dance bit to recreate it on stage, he could start his own solo show about Sammy like Carlini has done for Elvis. Ah well, I guess you can't have everything, even in Vegas.

Concerning the rest of what went on; I'll let you go see for yourself, except for one thing. That's the service. If you go, remember you have a drink minimum and should be very careful to take along exact change. Bring several ones and maybe even some coin. GF and I ordered our drinks before the show began, but weren't served until about ten minutes after it started. The waitress didn't have enough change to break the $20 I handed her, and promised to bring it right back. GF and I both smoke. I'd also requested an ashtray when we ordered the drinks. It didn't show....at all...ever. Even after I reminded the waitress when we got our drinks...no ashtray...ever. As the show progressed, GF and I were forced to use our empty drink glasses to snub out our cigarettes. After the show, I had to chase the waitress down and ask for my change. Apparently this is a common thing, because I had to wait for her to pay off three other customers in the same position before I could get my money. So, beware. The Rat Pack tributes at Greek Isles is pretty good, but the service is terrible and will likely leave a bad taste in your mouth. When the audience exits the theatre they find the cast members, still in character, waiting in the lobby for a meet-and-greet. This is a nice touch; a little like the old days when Pack members would wander on to the casino floor to deal blackjack, and such. The audience can shake hands and talk with them. Neat.

While GF and I had been watching the Ratpack SQ and DD had been haunting the Riviera. Their show started later than ours, so they had time to kill before they had to be anywhere. During her net surfing SQ had gotten lots of coupons. We'd used several of them to this point. She had more burning a hole in her pocket, so they went hunting. There's a special promo section of the casino with several activities available for interested guests. Upon first entering, they handed over a couple of coupons and $20 cash to the gal at the entrance. She handed them some tickets and off they went. The gal had not explained to them what these tickets were for, just instructing them to turn them in at the redemption counter.

The next order of business was a 'Free Pull' slot machine, kind of like the 'Big Bertha' monstrosity at Slots-O-Fun up near Circus. Certain symbols award certain prizes. SQ won nothing, but DD won a Splash t-shirt. While collecting the shirt, they redeemed more coupons, bagging a free mug and a deck of cards each. They also turned in the tickets the lady at the entrance had given them.

In that same area, the casino also as a special promo, pay $20 and get $40 credit in slot play. Neither of them cashed for any money, but there were more 'consolation prizes'. DD won an 18?+ porcelain doll. SQ selected a cheapie; a tote bag. She chose the bag because we'd picked up so much souvenir stuff on this trip (the doll was just the latest addition) that our tightly packed suitcases just wouldn't hack it. We needed more storage space. This selection, however, allowed her to play again. Unfortunately, she didn't win anything at her second go round either, and there were no more prizes allowed.

As they were getting ready to leave that area, the guy in charge of the drawing got their attention and had them wait a couple of minutes, because the drawing was coming right up. DD got selected to pull the winning ticket. Maybe the fact that she was the youngest and cutest girl around had some bearing on his selection, but that's just a guess. Whatever his reason, the guy held the box up on high, so DD couldn't see in (not hard, remember, she's only 4'10" like her mother). DD's hand went in, she fished around for a moment and then pulled out a ticket. Without glancing at the ticket, and without missing a beat, my darling DD blandly popped of a smart-ass remark to the guy saying, 'Ok, now tell me that's my ticket.' The guy called the number. Regardless her real name, some of the folks nearby were probably about to start calling her Sybil, because she'd indeed drawn the matching half of her own ticket. This little strike of fortune got DD a free spin on a big 'Wheel of Fortune' that was plastered with Riviera show tickets and such. DD won tickets to the Exotic Hypnotist. Unfortunately, this was our last night in town and we wouldn't be here to use them. The folks at the redemption desk were very nice and allowed her to substitute. She traded for a Crazy Girl mug and another deck of cards, which she would later give to her brother.

While walking to this area, they had seen an advertisement for a slot tourney. Checking her watch SQ saw there was still time left, so she twisted DD's arm into joining her. This game cost them $10 each, but it turned out to be well worth it. At this tourney, only one person plays at a time. There are five machines set out in a sort of zigzag pattern. There's a 2-minute time limit and the player can play as few or as many of the machines at a time as they're comfortable with. The top ten scores of the day win various levels of prizes. Despite her lack of slot luck to date, SQ was still gracious enough to allow DD first chance. DD elected to try playing all five machines and began going up and down the row pushing buttons. Returning up the row after her first pass, DD hit the button on the middle machine and went on to the next while the wheels spun. Her second pass complete, she headed down the row again. When she got back to the middle machine, it was still racking up the points from her previous spin. She'd hit a Triple Red-7 jackpot and the 50,000 points were taking a while to count up. She smiled hugely and moved on to complete her play. Her total score ended at 64,000+.

SQ now took her turn, but her outcome was nowhere near DD's. The lady hosting the tourney was sure that DD's score was in the lead for the day and told them to make sure they checked back after their show to see what the results were. While signing up for this tourney, the hostess had offered them some show tickets, but when apprised of the situation regarding our departure on the morrow, she offered them some La Cage t-shirts instead, which they had accepted. So, before even sitting down for the show they came here to see, my two special girls had spent $30 each and bagged three decks of cards, three mugs, three t-shirts, a tote bag and a porcelain doll. Now it was time for some real entertainment.

Frank Marino's An Evening at La Cage has been playing at the Riviera for over 20 years. It's a show that features several guys doing impersonations of female singers. Without going into unnecessary detail to make a point, I will simply say that both SQ and DD called the show 'absolutely amazing.' Though they both felt that the Celine Dion impersonator was a little disappointing, everything else just blew their minds. From Reba McIntyre and Judy Garland to Dianna Ross and Cher the performers put on a dynamite exposition of cross dressing showmanship. It's one of those 'you gotta see it to believe it' shows and descriptions would not do it justice. It's a definite on SQ's referral list to others who have not yet seen it. After that show, DD bought one of the souvenir programs. Also, Frank Marino does a 'meet and greet' outside the theatre after the show. DD stood in line and had Frank autograph her program and both the La Cage t-shirts they'd picked up at the slot tourney.

GF and I had been sitting outside the Riviera for about 30 minutes, waiting on these two, when I got impatient enough to give them a buzz on the cell-phone. Thankfully, they were just leaving the show. There was a delay, however. They still hadn't checked the outcome of the tourney and had to make their way back through the casino to find out what happened. As it turns out, the tourney hostess had been right. DD's score was the top for the day. She won $250, added to the pile of other things she and her mother were leaving with. The two of them were ear-to-ear grins as they came to the car, giving us a detailed account of their so lucrative exploits.

It was about 9:30 p.m. on our last night in Vegas. Tomorrow would too involved getting ourselves ready for a noon flight out. That left no time for fun except tonight. It was getting late enough we were all hungry. Since we'd had so much fun at Fitzgerald's the night before, we decided to head that way again. When we arrived, we made our way straight upstairs the Shamrock Café. This is actually a nice place. We had arrived late enough at night that there were no other customers in the place so we got seated immediately and got very exclusive attention from our waitress. Everyone ordered something different, according to mood and taste. From reactions, everyone liked what they got. Portions were good without being wasteful and the price was well within reason. We spent time chatting and such as we ate and ended up spending just over an hour there. The waitress got a good tip and we were all smiles as went prowling for our last action of the trip.

We found a table quickly enough and hunkered down for some serious gambling. This was the night that will live in all our memories for years to come. If you remember, I've admitted to making not one, but two blunders the night before. I don't really count cards, but apparently I do the next worst thing, and that's pay attention to them. After about an hour at the table, all four of us were amassing nice tidy little piles of winnings. That's when Fitzgerald's brought in the first 'cooler'. For those who have not heard of this practice, many casinos have specially trained dealers called 'coolers', who can manipulate cards like demons. Lance Burton could take lessons. They're used when the casino wants to discourage guests they can't quite outright accuse of cheating. Unfortunately, this means they have to cheat themselves by using someone who can stack the deck. It's a common enough practice in Vegas that it gets little to no attention from the 'authorities', probably because the authorities are being paid from revenues garnered from the gambling industry. Go figure. People say that The Mob isn't in Vegas anymore. They should learn to count cards and then go play blackjack anywhere in town. They'll run up against their own Guido the Cooler in rapid order.

I think we all began to suspect something was up fairly quickly, but we each had a nice nest-egg of extra money in front of us, so we stuck it out. I'm particularly hard-headed when it comes to letting these guys get the better of me. The pattern was pretty easy to see. When this new dealer came in, we started to lose. All of us. When he went on break, we started winning again. This see-saw went on for about two hours with the four of us piling up the winnings while our smiling little oriental dealer was on break, and then waving bye-bye to the brightly colored tokes when he came back to the table. I guess the house noticed the pattern too. As long as this guy was at the table, we weren't taking their money. They just couldn't let it rest there though.

I guess I should feel honored, and this far in the aftermath I can grin and give myself a pat on the back; but at the time I was really ticked when they threw the second cooler at us. Fitzgerald's brought in a second cooler. It was now a game of tag-team stab-'em-in-the-back. There were other elements to the pattern too. I'll list some of the more obvious items for you so you can watch for them when you play. First, the main cooler especially, but his companion as well, both acted gregarious enough to get on our good side, and so we would tend to listen to him when it came decision time about our cards. This guy was most effective when it came to Double-down and Split decisions. He was usually wrong. I would estimate that about twelve out of every fifteen situations in which one or more of us followed the dealer's advice, we lost. The guy was so patently sorrowful and sympathetic it was hard to pin the label 'shark' to him. In several instances, SQ actually saw what the guy was doing. While waiting for the decision, the dealer would draw the next card from the shoe, and then quickly flick it with his thumb and take a peek while the rest of us were watching the player waiting for a decision. Frequently he would lean forward and bring his non-card holding had near the player's cards giving hand signals to indicate what they should do. This also tends to draw the eyes away from the nefarious act. So, while we were distracted, he would see the next card and, if it was nice and small, say a 7 or less, he'd strongly recommend the split or double-down so he could stick the player with a bum card. If that were all he was doing, I guess we could have lived with it, because all we needed to do was stop taking his advice.

The next tactic, though, was the real killer and the one I should have called them on right on the spot. When the dealer is done shuffling, the cards are presented to a player for the cut. Two little yellow plastic wafers are used, one at the bottom of the deck to hide the under-card and the second is used to mark the cut and then act as bottom shield when the two stacks are reversed, completing the cut. The first time I saw what the guy did, I wasn't completely sure of my eyes. It was, after all, almost 3:30 in the morning, spirits were on a roller-coaster as our winnings took a brutal beating, and just a little alcohol can do wonders to one's perception. I didn't say anything, because I wasn't really sure. The second time I saw it, though, I was positive. There was no doubt. They guy wasn't cutting the cards. That is, he wasn't reversing the two piles after the cut wafer went in place. He went through all the motions, mind. He smoothed the stack, patting things down nice and neat. He split the two stacks apart, etc. But, when it came to reversing the stacks, his little slight of hand trick put both stacks back in the same order they'd already been in before the cut card was placed, and he blithely removed the cut card to place it in the stop-deal position, marking the end of the shoe. I just could not believe my eyes.

SQ had made a comment, saying, 'it's getting a little 'cool' in here tonight, isn't it'? I got the hint, but was concentrating on the game and didn't give it the weight I should have. Shortly after that was when I caught the dealer cheating on the cut. I now had a decision to make. My hard-headed German ancestry reared it's ugly head and I refused to let the guy get me, despite the fact that I'd lost all my nights winnings and dropped another bill by this point. I was pissed. Without going into any of the math about probability, the Law of Large Numbers, or any of the rest of that high-tech rigmarole, I'll just say that I stood up from the stable and pointedly 'sat out' for three consecutive hands. If you know why I did this, congratulations, you're probably good at Blackjack too. If not, I'll just say that it's a tactic that causes the mix of the deck to change and the cards that haven't been dealt to go out in a different order from then on. As I reseated myself, fuming, on the next hand, lo and behold! all four of us won money. We busted the dealer out with solid basic strategy and collected our winnings. The small remainder of the deck went very quickly, but we all capitalized, recovering a fair portion of our losses. The next shoe started out bad and stayed that way, no matter what I did. Everyone bet small and took no risks, and we still got clobbered. That's when we left. I had decided not to call the casino to the carpet on their nefarious deeds. It was well after 4:00 a.m., we had to be up early, and I just didn't want to get involved with gaming commission investigators and all that crap right then.

We slunk out of Fitzgerald's steaming at what had happened, but without making a big scene there wasn't much we could do. The drive back to the Flamingo was rampant with disgust and disappointment. My recommendation to anyone who plays is, watch for these two tactics. If you see either or both of them, especially if you're on a hard losing streak, call the casino on it then and there. Get them to examine the tapes; call for an investigator if need be and have them look at the tapes. Hold the casinos to account for what they're doing. It might take some time but, by God, make them pay for it. If a player cheats, the casinos are merciless in their prosecution. If they cheat, they shouldn't be left to profit from it. Not dunning them myself is perhaps my one regret from that whole trip.

We spent most of what was left of the 'night' with last minute packing and such. My head hit the pillow about four milliseconds before the wake-up call arrived, or so it seemed. Groggy,
I showered, dressed and gathered our luggage with the enthusiasm of a death-row inmate on his last walk. We met the others downstairs and checked out of our rooms. We ate 'breakfast', or at least what my wife thinks passes for such, at a little croissant and bagel place in the hotel. Over $5 for a donut and some heavily watered orange juice? First, that's not a real breakfast. Second, that's way too expensive for so little. But, we were leaving and this would likely be the last chance for provender before we switched planes in Phoenix, some hours down line, so I nibbled my 'continental' style meal and kept my opinion to myself.

We grabbed the van at the valet and drove it back to the rental place, then took their free shuttle back to McCarran. Even with the slots in the terminal, there's a lonely feeling to the outbound waiting area. Those of us who love Vegas so much and want 'just one more day' can get mopey waiting for the plane to whisk us back to our real lives of grown-up responsibility. SQ couldn't keep her hands off those airport slots. She dropped $40 really fast before she woke up and decided that it wasn't that much fun. I decided to kill a few seconds and dropped $10 in a video poker machine. Needless to say, those low payout-odds machines ate it up. I didn't even get a kiss. Didn't even come close.

We waved bye-bye to Las Vegas with sad sighs as our plane lifted off. Even DD looked a little forlorn as the now-familiar Vegas skyline dwindled away. We'd booked our flights, to and from, on America West. The flight out had been comfortable enough, but the flight back wouldn't be so great. From Vegas to Phoenix we did ok, munching their in-flight crackers and lightly napping. The time-zone hocus-pocus was going to play havoc with our body clocks, but there was nothing for it.

That jump from Vegas to Phoenix is fairly short, compared to the rest of the trip from Phoenix to Austin but we were still hungry enough that when we finally put down in Phoenix, we decided, to my everlasting pleasure, to grab a bite to eat. Also, of the four in our group, only DD is a non-smoker. The rest of us were in serious need of a fix. We jumped on the first place we found, some sports-bar with about a hundred screens in every conceivable location. We calmly ignored everything blaring at us from the walls, and ordered our food and drink, not quite realizing what we were doing. We'd forgotten that Arizona doesn't play the 'daylight savings time' game. When we realized our error, we checked with our waitress who confirmed our suspicions. Our departing flight was scheduled to leave sooner than we'd calculated and we had to hustle very quickly, across the majority of the Phoenix airport, to make sure we caught our connecting flight. When we arrived at our gate, our watches said we had only five minutes to spare before boarding. Fortunately, there was a small delay, about 15 minutes worth, before they actually opened the door to let us on the plane.

DD's best friend will be turning 21 in October of '05 and we've already offered to take her on a jaunt to Vegas for that occasion like we'd done for DD. If you remember, I'd done a countdown every day after work before the trip. SQ had even found some electronic countdown clock she'd downloaded and put on her computer so we could keep the remaining time accurate to the second. It perturbed DD no end. During the small wait before boarding, I just couldn't resist. Seeing DD staring glassy eyed at the other side of the universe, I got her attention and said, 'Only 13 months.' She hit me.

Now is the time for the story of SQ's cart. As we had done going out to Vegas, and on the Vegas to Phoenix leg back, we had checked the scooter with the airline so they could stow it in baggage. We had no idea of what was about to occur. This particular plane was a little smaller than the others we'd flown on so far and we didn't realize that the 'regional jet' concept means hell at 35,000 feet. At over six feet tall, I have more problems with leg room. The upper part of the chairs is something I rarely notice. SQ, on the other hand, is only 4'10". She almost always has lots of leg room. On this plane, it was the upper portion of the seat that caused the major trouble. Like some automobiles, the upper headrest tilts forward. It isn't adjustable, or removable. For me it fits just fine. For SQ it pushes her head forward and down, pushing her chin into her chest. She can compensate some, tilting her body a little sideways in the seat but that's only a short term solution; it works for about the first ten or fifteen minutes. This flight was to be over three hours long. Without boring you with specifics about her condition, I'll just say that the most immediate problem involved here is severe arthritis. At just over 40, she's got the bone structure and elasticity of someone of about 65. That means not much flexibility at all. Also, when the pain starts, it escalates rapidly, goes very high and doesn't come down for a long time.

The plane was crowded. There were no extra seats. After thirty minutes, SQ was in tears over the pain and the prospect of another two and a half hours in agony just put her over the edge. Unfortunately there wasn't much that could be done. Her painkillers were packed in the suitcase. Because of the scooter, she hadn't had any problems so far, and didn't think she'd need them, so they were stuck in the un-pressurized hold and inaccessible. I tried some massage for a few minutes but was fighting a losing battle. The position she had to be in to ease up the back pain was causing problems everywhere else. I had the window seat (SQ just doesn't like the view). With a little gymnastics, we traded places. SQ sat with her back up against the bulkhead with her feet stretched out across my lap. This got her away from the killer headrests and allowed her to use a pillow for her head and the denim jacket I'd won at Aladdin's wadded up behind her back for support. It eased the problem enough that I think she eventually nodded off a little, but that's just the beginning of the trouble.

Because of pain she was already in, SQ was very ill-prepared for our arrival in Austin. When we exited the plane, our scooter wasn't there, as it had been on every previous occasion. It took over 15 minutes after the entire plane had emptied for someone to bother bringing it around. SQ finally had to sit down before it arrived. When they deposited the scooter, they didn't stick around and we quickly discovered why. It was broken. This is where I need to give some specifics about how this cart is constructed. The seat is removable. It just lifts off. The underside has a stem that fits into a pipe that rises up from the frame. The arrangement includes a pin that goes through these pipes and allows for height adjustments. There's also a slotted ring that helps the seat latch into place or, with the pull of a lever, to swivel for easier access.

Before taking off at Phoenix there'd been a delay after boarding. We overheard some of the flight crew members talking about the baggage crew having some trouble balancing the load in storage. My immediate thought at the time was the scooter. It is very ungainly for those who don't know how to treat it. About five minutes into the flight, just as we were leveling off, I felt a kachunk that felt like something fairly bulky had either thumped into the plane, or had fallen somewhere. Again, I thought about the scooter, but without being able to stop the plane and get out to check, I couldn't do anything. Here in front of us was what I believe was the cause of that kachunk. The pipe that holds the seat was bent. Not by much, mind you, but enough so that the stem of the seat wouldn't go into it. That meant SQ couldn't ride her cart out of the airport, and after the grim torture she'd just been through, there was no way she was walking. Also, the little woven wire basket that sits at the front was partially mangled and flattened. There was a tear in the seat's upholstery and the front end of the fiberglass shroud was cracked in two places.

Thank goodness for tourist preparedness. As soon as I saw what had happened, I dipped into our carry-on luggage and grabbed the digital camera. It had some battery power left and I began snapping pictures of the damage as SQ began berating the crew about her wheels. One of the people present was a mechanic; part of the post flight check-up guys that make sure the plane is ok for the next flight. Seeing how upset SQ was (those carts are NOT cheap!) he decided to try getting the cart useable, at least long enough to get us home. A hammer, a wrench and a couple of very big screwdrivers and about thirty minutes later the guy had managed to whack the pipe far enough back into true so that the seat stem would go far enough into the pipe that we could jam the lock pin into place and keep the seat from swirling around like an amusement ride while SQ piloted herself up the ramp to the terminal. The guy was very nice and helped a lot. He gave us his employee number and was more than willing to vouch for us in SQ's complaint and claim to America West about the damages. I can only guess at what he said, but whatever it was, we got a check for the repairs (again NOT cheap!) and SQ's little buggy is running again.

The friends who had dropped us off were there to pick us up, after having had to wait over an hour after our arrival time for the repair work. When we got home I started interrogating DD about her impressions of the trip. Her favorite casino, for architecture, is Luxor. The place she had the most fun gambling in was Fitzgerald's followed by the Riviera, though she did rate the Sahara as pretty nice too. Her overall favorite event was the indoor skydive. Her luck at the slots and skill at blackjack had paid for all of her food and souvenirs. Except for air, hotel and her share of the rental, she'd only spent $20 on her trip. Wow! And...would she go back. Oh, yes!!!! She's hooked, like the rest of us. She's already looking forward to the next trip. Any doubts we may have had about this were dispelled about two weeks after we got back. SQ had not yet removed that countdown timer from her computer and happened to notice one evening that the numbers were different. Upon examination, we saw that it was now counting down the days, hours, minutes and, yes even seconds, to DD's best friend's birthday trip. BUSTED!

A last minute note: SQ's complaint about the limo problem got a positive resolution. We got a full refund and a note of apology from the limo company. Nice to know someone still believes in customer service, even if it is only after the fact.

Good fortune, good fun and VIVA LAS VEGAS!