April 13-17, 2021
Six-Hundred and Eighteen Days
First, I want to acknowledge that missing Las Vegas is certainly not the most serious impact of the global pandemic we are living through. COVID has impacted us all in much more severe ways than the loss of vacations and luxuries. Folks have lost loved ones and livelihoods. People have missed milestone moments including graduations, weddings and much more. And I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the pain our nation has faced beyond the pandemic as inequalities and systemic inequities continue to divide us and impact marginalized populations who continue to fight for basic human rights. While I prefer that my Vegas musings remain free of politics, I cannot possibly talk about going back to Vegas after two years without acknowledging the suffering of others and if that means that some would rather not engage with me, so be it. To me, this isn’t a matter of politics but is about kindness, compassion, empathy and equity. The truth is, Vegas represents so much for me and one of those things is the escape from reality. And I know others have a much harder reality than I live.
Vegas 32– Anne and I had last been to Vegas in August of 2019. It had been 618 Days. We had scheduled and cancelled at least four trips. To say I missed Vegas is a great understatement. Vegas is my escape from reality. It is the place that Anne and I go to disconnect from the world, reset and recalibrate. Regular trips to Vegas signify milestones marking the end of school years, opportunities to reflect, and a chance to catch our breaths. Vegas provides a rhythm to the year no different than annual traditions, holidays and seasons.
Like the rest of the world, I watched Vegas ravaged by the pandemic. Images of a lifeless strip were surreal and depressing. All of the wonderful people who have provided countless guests with services were without jobs and it was hard to imagine what they were going through. I missed Vegas because I wanted to relax and have some fun. Normally to me meant being able to walk the Vegas strip, have a few drinks and play a few slots. Normalcy to the Vegas workforce meant they would simply be able to live.
I had that in mind as we boarded our 5:50pm flight from Hartford. Fully vaccinated, fully masked and fully prepared for our first Vegas vacation in nearly two years. The preparation and build-up for Vegas is one of the best parts of the experience. Every day holds another key to unlocking Vegas. I enjoy researching restaurants, shows, new places to visit, creating playlists, and choosing books for the pool. I know that I’m not the only Vegas nerd that watches Vegas movies, episodes of TV sitcoms, listens to songs about Vegas, and sets countdown clocks on our phones in the weeks leading up to our next trip. I enjoy all of it. Packing, filling the gas tank, driving to the airport, and taking a picture of where I parked at the airport which is the first official picture of the Vegas vacation.
As much as I enjoy flying, I was very anxious about my first flight during COVID. Each flight was packed. No empty seats and people waiting standby. Fortunately, I was able to fly Business Select and grab the two-seat exit row seats so Anne and I didn’t have to sit with a third person. People struggled with wearing masks and the further West we went, the looser the masks became. The closer the plane got to landing, the deeper I reflected on 2020. More than anything, I felt blessed. Anne and I stayed healthy and in fact, improved our health. Our careers didn’t suffer and in some ways we advanced. Our families remained safe. And other than a tornado hitting our house, we didn’t encounter any major tragedies. This isn’t to say that the pandemic didn’t challenge us but rather than to say we are fortunate but we were ready to return to some sense of normalcy which includes Vegas.
As has become tradition, I played Ocean’s 11 on my device when we were about two hours out. My first trip to Vegas was twenty years ago which, coincidentally, was the year Ocean’s 11 was released. The Vegas strip has changed significantly in that time as has the world and I wondered how different things would be now. As the plane descended I finally saw the lights of the strip beginning with the High Roller, Bellagio, Luxor and Mandalay Bay and as the plane touched down, I felt a deep sense of relief knowing that at least one part of the pandemic was over for us. We were back.
I surprised Anne with a car service to take us from the airport to the NOMAD. Our driver Manny from Presidential Limo was incredibly nice and helped us with our luggage to the Tesla X which is a very, very cool car that opened like a Delorean. It was our first time in a Tesla and in that style of car. One of the reasons we choose to take a car service instead of an Uber/Lyft or taxi is because of the reviews and stories of long wait times AND also because we wanted to stop at CVS to grab snacks and drinks on the way. This was the first time we’ve done this and I can’t recommend it enough. The stores off the strip have better prices and being able to stock your room with waters, snacks, alcohol, etc… will save a whole lot of money.
The NOMAD is quickly becoming one of our favorite places to stay. We didn’t arrive until almost 11pm and upon arrival as is customary at the NOMAD, a Bell Attendant meets you outside, helps with your belongings and escorts you directly to your room. One of the currently changes with check-in is an increased focus on contact free check-in. For some reason, the electronic key on my MGM app wasn’t working so we decided to have card keys which are still available and you can create them for yourself at a self-service station which is very easy to use.
Evelyn, our Bell Attendant escorted us to our room helped us with our luggage and gave us the overview of the changes. For the most part, the cleaning services and hotel amenities were the same with some limitations. It wasn’t until we wanted to grab something to eat before bed that we started to realize just how different things are right now. I scrolled through my Vegas apps to see what was open. If you are a regular Vegas goer, I high recommend the VegasMate app which is the primary app I use for all Vegas related exploration. I have a paid subscription and it is worth every penny. What I found is that very little is open on a Tuesday night at 11pm. We chose to go over to Shake Shack by NYNY. The ParkMGM casino was relatively empty and as we stepped outside into The Park, we were shocked to be met with a dark emptiness. EVERYTHING was closed and the walkway was absolutely vacant with the exception of a few security officers on bikes and some folks making their way back to NYNY or ParkMGM. Shake Shack is fine. Some people love it. We have quite a few in Connecticut and I’m just not wowed by it. Granted, I don’t eat meat but even when I did, I never thought it was much better than Burger King or Wendy’s. That night though, we were so hungry that everything seemed amazing. We scarfed down our food and walked back to ParkMGM to pack it in. I played a few machines before calling it a night but I was so exhausted I made as far as playing the new Game of Thrones machine in which I broke even and made my way to a nice shower and some sleep.
Because we did some research and realized that the Starbucks in ParkMGM wasn’t open until Thursday and the horror stories of lines at all of the coffee places, we chose to bring or mini Keurig machine and make our own coffee. We found that we really liked this as well. Not having to traipse down to Starbucks and wait in line for 20 minutes for a couple of coffees and just enjoying a few cups in the room as we start our day not only saved quite a bit of money but was very convenient. And the stories of the lines were accurate. One of the issues currently as more tourists travel is that Vegas hasn’t adjusted to the volume as it pertains to capacities. Lines are long, reservations are essential and common spaces are incredibly crowded.
Anne and I spent our days at the pool. Literally. I checked into our cabana by 9am and stayed until at least 4 every day. (Detailed cabana review will be another post.) We learned a lot on our first full day. We were very excited to return to Beauty and Essex for our first dinner in Vegas.
While ParkMGM was pretty calm, Aria and Cosmopolitan were almost as busy as I’ve seen them on a weekday. Anne and I very “mask conscious” and it was very inconsistent. Almost everyone was “wearing” a mask inside but very few were actually wearing them correctly. More noticeably, the casino floors were crowded. Restaurants have limited capacity so it is absolutely essential to have reservations until they remove the restrictions. We felt very comfortable in restaurants as the seating is distanced, all staff are wearing masks and there is heavy emphasis on cleanliness. All menus were digital and available through a QR code. After dinner, we took a walk over to the Bellagio fountains and caught a show. Again, VERY crowded for a weekday and the walkway up to the Bellagio was the same. The Botanical Gardens were roped off and they were only allowing a limited number of people through to view the displays which I actually greatly appreciated regardless of COVID.
For the next few days, we followed the same routine. All day at the pool, fancy dinners and then I’d play a few machines at night. In regards to gaming, I had a solid trip. I had $150 between resort credit and MyVEGAS rewards in free play which set me up nicely. I had a few nice returns on a few machines. My absolute favorite machine is the Top Dollar machine in Aria which was relatively kind to me with a profit of about $100. Dragon Spin at ParkMGM gifted me $50 on one session. But the Wheel of Fortune, Buffalo, Quick Hit and most of the other random machines weren’t quite as nice and wiped that out over time. On Thursday night, I chose to skip ParkMGM and Aria and went over to NYNY which wasn’t going well but as I was on my way out I parked myself at a Tarzan machine as I saw so many people find luck. On my 2nd spin at the lowest denomination I won $175. I have no idea how much it would have been if I bet more but it would have been a very handsome payout and potentially a hand pay. Oh well!
On our last night, we left the pool a little earlier to do a little exploring. We knew we weren’t going to venture very far as the weekend crowds were growing. We stopped by the Armory (Golden Knights store), and Aria store (picked up a sweatshirt) and had a pre-dinner drink at the NOMAD Bar which was very relaxing and if we stayed a little longer we would have enjoyed some entertainment (lounge singer) which we’ve done in the past. Anne had a wine and I enjoyed an Espresso Martini and then we headed over to John Georges Steakhouse for dinner (review in the future but preview- hated it).
After dinner, I wanted to play a bit at Aria. Anne was exhausted so she went back. And this is when I realized what was happening and why everything was so crowded. The clubs were closed and restaurants and bars had limited capacity so the weekend crowds have nowhere to go SO they are just in clusters all around the casino floor with their drinks. Some are crowding around craps and roulette tables but for the most part, the twenty-somethings are wandering around in their club wear with their masks as chin guards and their drinks in hand waiting to get in somewhere. What also didn’t help was the incredibly long line stemming the length of the casino floor for Aria guests to access the elevators as I’m sure they were limiting the number of guests allowed in that area. ANNOYING. After about 45 minutes, I’d had enough and took the two minute walk back to ParkMGM and got a decent night’s sleep before our long travel day. Security at the airport on Saturday morning was wide open and while the flights were packed, the airport was empty. So many vacant gates. Disappointingly, a lot of the airport is closed including the Starbucks. Moral of the story, Burger King coffee isn’t that bad.
When I got back home, everyone asked me “how was Vegas?” And my answer every time has been “different.” This doesn’t mean it was necessarily bad or good but…different. I don’t know exactly what makes Vegas different right now. Maybe its the policies, maybe its the people, or maybe its my own perceptions or maybe its a combination of it all. Here are a few things that I do know:
1. Until they lift the restrictions, make restaurant reservations.
2. Be prepared to wait in longer lines than usual including at Starbucks, for elevators, taxis, the pool, etc… OR make arrangements for yourself.
3. If you have COVID concerns, you may want to hold off until you are more comfortable with crowds.
4. A lot of places are closed or have modified hours.
5. The people who work in Vegas are being incredibly kind and helpful even more than they normally are. BE NICE TO THEM! TIP THEM WELL!
Here is what hasn’t changed: I still love Vegas and I can’t wait to get back in July hopefully for a Golden Nights Stanley Cup Finals game…and then maybe again in August for a final trip before the semester begins….and then maybe again in the fall for a Raiders game…and who knows maybe around Christmas. So, it shouldn’t be 618 days until my next trip.
Over the next few weeks I will be posting the following every Sunday until my next trip:
Beauty and Essex Review
John George Steakhouse Review
What Should I Do: The Answer to the Question I’m Most Asked
Top Ten Restaurant Recommendations
Top Ten Places to Stay My Favorite Slot Machines