Over the River and Through the Casino
A Las Vegas Holiday
By Travis Michael Ho-Ho-Holder
If you like your holidays all warm and fuzzy, bundled up in woolen scarves while strolling down 5th Avenue taking in elaborate movable window displays, or if you prefer countrified sleigh rides over the river and through the woods through the white and drifting snow to grandmother’s house-we-go, Las Vegas is about the last place you want to visit at the end of the year.
Which is exactly why I head there every December for my annual anti-Christmas vacation in the most gloriously un-festive city in America, a bizarrely dysfunctional place where what’s left of the Pharaoh statues at the recently un-Egyptified Luxor suddenly don enormous oversized Santa hats and one can listen to Dean Martin warbling “O, Holy Night” over casino sound systems as inveterate gamblers, cigarettes in one hand and portable oxygen tanks strapped to their floral-print muumuus, continue to gamble around the clock oblivious to whether the “stars are brightly shining” or not.
Maybe the best thing about Vegas at Christmastime is how deserted it is, resembling the post-apocalyptic Manhattan that Will Smith faced in I Am Legend, but without the dog and still populated by the crankiest, most bored and tip-starved cabdrivers you could ever use as fodder for an actor’s character study.
Even though you might have to listen to a rehearsed speech about what a meager Christmas the driver will be able to provide for his kiddies this year, there’s a bright side here too: there’s rarely a line for cabs in which to endlessly queue, while tables at restaurants and tickets to the town’s most popular attractions are far more accessible than at other times of the year.
Even considering some bigger shows might be on a break, missing David Copperfield or “O” is a minor trade-off when you can instead check out less talked-about and decidedly less pricey attractions, including The Amazing Johnathan performing his raucously in-your-face counter-magic at what is now the shell of the once-glamorous Sahara (where you can still get a surprisingly juicy and generous New York steak for about $15 at the depressingly early 70s-themed Caravan Café), or you could spend an evening downtown at the Stratosphere’s topless extravaganza Bite, highlighting suitably zaftig vampires looking nothing even vaguely like Santa’s helpers.
Another favorite holiday enticement is the Rio, where the year-round free Show in the Sky, featuring jesters riding on the backs of swans and massive riverboats filled with showgirls floating around in the air high above the casino floor, turns to Christmas music. As onlookers hang out over wrought-iron balconies watching it unfold, Chippendale’s bare-chested macho-men (of course, there are those Santa hats again) join the show’s customary bevy of buxom beauties to sing a few “Fa-La-Las” as they throw Mardi Gras beads to the crowd during the glittering finale.
If you get homesick for something more traditional, the Bellagio’s ever-changing seasonal atrium, with its annual Christmas tree the size of Texas and fountains arcing over a massive sea of poinsettias, is a destination where everything on display is natural and the entire ground floor of the hotel smells like Lake Arrowhead.
Equally if even more impressive, world-class competitor Steve Wynn wouldn’t have thought for a second not to top himself when he sold the Bellagio, creating an even more elaborate Central Park-like atrium featuring live trees planted and thriving happily in the lobby of his five-star Wynn Hotel, complete at the end of the year with more twinkling lights than Tavern on the Green.
The winter weather in this reclaimed Nevada desert can be a surprise if you’ve only journeying there in the summer when daytime temps reach 117 and it’s 101 while waiting for a cab at 1:00a.m, a steady mist of cooling evaporated water descending upon you in every valet line. The days are often crisp and the nights even crispier here in December—and you’ll be able to move smoothly through usually almost inaccessible places, even traverse hotel lobbies without having to slow down for shell-shocked tourists who would rather, by their second day of dealing with Vegas excess, wander slowly down the casino paths nursing foot-long margaritas rather than drop any more quarters at the slots.
I again plan to Scrooge my way back to good ol’ El Vee for Christmas on my way for another New York New Year, eager to spend a perfectly GodRestYeMerryGentlemanly-less week in my favorite anti-ho-ho-ho holiday destination. Perverse as I am, I love this silly, unreservedly indulgent city during the holiday season, right before the Day of the Locusts-esque crunching onslaught of New Year’s Eve partygoers hits McCarren Airport.
Just be forewarned: get your butt out of there by Christmas Day, when ol’ Sin City hibernates and takes a big breath for about 20 minutes flat—and then instantly reconfigures and reinvents itself once again like a giant Transformer to become a New Year’s Eve party town that even Times Square can’t equal.