NEVER would I sleep this late — 1 p.m. — but this is Vegas. My accessible 550-square-foot condo is one block off of the Strip, two blocks from Denny’s. On these stints to Vegas, I’ve made my residence the Signature Towers, where accessible condo suites are owned or rented for $99 per night. A room at any of the big casinos on the Strip can be had for an average of $65. But to be in a condo is a world away, the true lap of luxury. Friends of mine stay at Vdara, also a premium, all-suites property for just $99 per night, located mid-Strip, in the action. But I’ve got access to an owned unit at the Signature, and this morning — make that this afternoon — it couldn’t be more convenient.
From late-night eateries to getting on the list for exclusive clubs, Mark Smith knows Vegas and shares it all.
All of these condo-suites have kitchenettes, but I’m getting in my power wheelchair and heading to Denny’s. I’ll worry about a shower and shave when I get back. As I roll out the door, I ponder what hot spots I should hit tonight. At the elevator, I catch a glimpse of myself in a wall mirror — wrinkled bowling shirt, 5 o’clock shadow, messed-up hair, and I think for a moment that maybe I’m less than presentable to head to the Strip. But then it occurs to me: To hell with it. I don’t care what I look like. I just want Denny’s. Again, this is Vegas.
At Denny’s, where they know me from my daily patronage, I flip through the menu for no reason, killing time as I wait for the waitress, June, who knows what I want.
“Your regular?” she asks.
“Yes, please,” I say, knowing my usual grilled cheese sandwich and fries, along with a Coke, will be served up in minutes.
I like this newer Denny’s because of its locale on the South Strip, but the North Strip Denny’s, a mile and a half up, is more my style — the seedy side of the strip, I call it. The old Denny’s, yet to be renovated or demolished, is where you find the gamblers, drunks, and prostitutes after long nights. My Denny’s, the newer one, is full of clean-cut tourists. From mid-Strip south, vast redevelopment and commercialization caters heavily to families. In fact, as I look out the window, watching the flow of people along Las Vegas Boulevard, it’s reminiscent of an amusement park: moms pushing strollers, kids skipping along with souvenirs from the M&M factory store, the Rain Forest Cafe, and many other family-focused attractions — like the roller coaster across the street at the New York, New York Hotel and Casino.
"I toss $5 in their bucket in support of their originality. The whole image personifies Vegas at its best — and worst."
As I pay my lunch bill, I’m reminded of what the “new Vegas” brings: higher prices. The days of casino-subsidized deals are gone. Sure, the rooms at the casinos are still inexpensive, but to eat on the Strip is pricy, including at Denny’s, where a grilled Ocheese sandwich, fries, Coke, and a tip make quick work of a $20 bill. Yet Vegas is a destination unto itself — still among the most economical major vacation destinations to visit. While you can no longer find a $9.99 buffet (they now run as high as $49.99!), the spectacle of the Rain Forest Cafe in the MGM Grand, or eating in a true Parisian bistro at the Paris Hotel, are well worth the extra prices.
Heading back to my condo, the Strip is packed, as always — an odd mixture of Disneyland meets Times Square. Amidst the larger-than-life theme casinos — ranging from medieval times to Egypt to Paris to Venice to New York City — is a nonstop throng of people from every walk of life. Despite the cleanliness of it all, dirty Vegas still occasionally rears its head, with sidewalk scalpers handing out strip-club passes. They seem to especially like to try to hand them to women. But never do they bother me, as I look them in the eye like I will grab them by the neck if they come near me.
Then there are the literal “characters” that line the Strip and lighten the mood for all. Street entrepreneurs dress up in costumes, and for a buck or so, you can have your picture taken with Elvis, Jack Sparrow, or a Transformer. As I approach the corner where I leave the Strip to head back to my condo, I see my favorite characters of the day: drunken Mickey and Minnie Mouse sprawled on the sidewalk, surrounded by booze bottles. I toss $5 in their bucket in support of their originality. The whole image personifies Vegas at its best — and worst.
Power-Cruising the Strip
Once showered, shaved, and in shirt and tie, I head out for the evening — which in Vegas is a euphemism for until morning. I have several modes of transportation to choose from on the Strip. The first is via foot, or in my case — power wheelchair. Few cities are as universally accessible as Vegas, not just on the Strip, but beyond. It’s all flat, with nice curb cut ramps and smooth sidewalks everywhere — a wheeler’s paradise.
The author is mesmerized by shimmering walls of liquor everywhere he goes.
My second option is to grab a cab. Vegas has more accessible cabs than any other city, per capita. You rarely have to wait for one. In fact, there’s usually several accessible cabs in the taxi line-ups at the major hotels at any given moment. For $9 you can travel anywhere on the Strip.
The third option is to catch a bus or the tram. Both run the length of the Strip but are crowded, dirty, and untimely.
So I hit the Strip in my power wheelchair. I’m heading to the north end of the Strip, to the Wynn Hotel and Casino, which has among the best early-evening bars on the Strip. I’m not a big drinker — and have given it up altogether for long periods — but if I’m in Vegas, I’ll get each night started with a double-shot of Southern Comfort, chased by a screwdriver. The Parasol Up & Down bar at the Wynn is just the decadent atmosphere I’m looking for.
Making my way up the Strip, I see a billboard-size thermometer that tells me it’s a perfect 75 degrees, and my Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses give me the look and feel I want. I pass the MGM Grand, the Bellagio, and the new, super modern Aria-Vdara at the Center City section, where it’s a shopper’s paradise at the high-end Crystals Mall. I use the Paris’ replica Eiffel Tower as a landmark to keep heading north, and I’m reminded that the gentleman who runs the tourist elevator to the top of the tower is an amazing jazz musician I’ve swapped stories with over the years. Vegas is like that — everyone has a story and is glad to know yours.
At each intersection, I cross a sky bridge. Redevelopment has directed pedestrians up and over intersections. Although heavily traveled and safe at all hours, the sky bridges are odd magnets for homeless people and panhandlers, who line them like spectators watching a parade. As I cross one sky bridge, there’s a woman in a skin-tight, pink micro-dress picking up the contents of her purse that spilled on the concrete. Her heels, makeup, bleached hair and tattoos suggest what she might do for a living. A passerby shouts, “Early start tonight, huh, honey?” My heart just sinks for her. I stop and ask if she’s OK, and she says she is — and for a moment I realize that the only thing that’s likely more horrific than her past is her future. But there’s nothing I can do but keep moving on my way.
I come upon a mega-sized, chain drug store, one of the few places on the Strip to buy groceries and just about anything else you could need for an extended stay. As I duck in to buy breath freshener, I’m forever in awe of the amount of liquor stocked on the shelves, more than most dedicated liquor stores. I stop and stare at the endless shelves of translucent bottles, their contents shimmering, refracting light with an uncanny beauty. I imagine Ben from the novel Leaving Las Vegas filling up a grocery cart full of bottles to drink himself to death. I pay three times what I would for breath spray back home in Pennsylvania and decide I need to pick up my pace to the Parasol at Wynn.
I whiz by the Flamingo, among the few old-school, smoke-filled casinos left on the Strip. Then I fly past the gondolas and canals that intertwine among the spectacular Venetian Resort. Finally, I make it to Wynn, weaving my way through the casino to the Parasol.
From the Parasol to Club LAX
There are several aspects of the Parasol that appeal to me. First, while most high-end lounges on the Strip open at 10 p.m., the Parasol opens at 11 a.m., so it’s a great happy-hour go-to. Second, it’s extremely lavish, filled with decadent tapestry and overstuffed furniture. Third, it’s an inside-outside bar, overlooking the Wynn’s spectacular waterfall. And finally, the Parasol has among the hottest, friendliest staff around. All in all, if you’re priming for a late night on the Strip, the Parasol is Round One.
The pyramid-shaped Luxor Las Vegas is home to both the exclusive night club LAX and Criss Angel’s magic show “Believe.”
After tossing back a double-shot, nursing a screwdriver, and chatting-up a group of 20-something drunk chicks, it’s time for me to head back down the Strip to the Cat House. No, the Cat House isn’t a brothel — though its décor is fashioned after one —it’s an ultra-lounge, my favorite on the Strip for a 10 p.m. crowd.
The Cat House is in the Luxor, the pyramid-shaped hotel-casino that’s home to one of the most hyped shows on the Strip, “Criss Angel’s Believe.” Going solo on this trip, shows aren’t big on my list of to-dos. Elton John and a Beatles review are the hot tickets in town, but the Cat House is on my list tonight, and I’m known there.
The bartender knows my usual — my last liquor for the night, but certainly not my last stop. The waitress, Gina, calls me “Tie Guy,” as I’m always wearing a tie, and asks if my Ray-Bans are new. I then realize I’ve had them on long past daylight. I joke that my future is so bright I have to wear shades. The couple next to me at the bar laughs, and we start talking. They’re impressed that the seat on my power wheelchair elevates me to bar height. “It’s my special Vegas Edition wheelchair,” I joke.
They’re from Oklahoma, never having been to Vegas, but dressed every bit Vegas: he’s in a designer, screen-printed T-shirt and jeans; she’s in a sequined, “little black dress.” My next planned stop is the TAO, the dance club at the Venetian, but then the couple tells me how a few cast members from MTV’s “Jersey Shore” are going to be at Club LAX at the Luxor, and they really wanted to go, but couldn’t get “on the list.” That can be the case on certain nights at Vegas clubs like TAO, Rain, Club LAX, and other true dance clubs, where if there’s a celebrity host or DJ, it can be tough to get in. However, most clubs are pretty cool when you use a wheelchair — they will bump you to the front of the line with the pretty people.
Fortunately, the manager at Club LAX is a friend of a friend, so I text him to get me on the night’s guest list at the midnight hour — literally. “No guarantees,” I say to the couple, “but let’s go over to LAX, and I can probably get us in.”
Dancing Into the Wee Hours
Out front of Club LAX is a mob of people, more than I’ve ever seen trying to get into a Vegas club, a riot waiting to happen. I tell the couple to follow me, and I make my way through — parting the crowd like the Red Sea with my power wheelchair — and we make it to door security. I drop my name and the manager’s, and the doorman radios his boss. Like clockwork, the manager appears, thrilled to see me again, and the velvet rope opens. We’re in.
I chat up the manager as he leads us into the goliath club. It’s sparsely populated, as they’ve just begun letting people in. He asks if I want to be in the VIP raised section with the Jersey Shore gang, or where? I know Vegas and I know clubs, and I know that the real party is dead-center on the dance floor, in front of the DJ. However, Mr. And Mrs. Oklahoma are all about Jersey Shore, so they elect VIP, and head that way. I stay center-stage, solo.
Free, accessible monorails are a great way to explore Vegas.
Within minutes, I’m in a sea of thousands, dancing to club beats meant for 20-somethings 15 years younger than me. But I look young and I can hold my own, and soon I’m hooked-up with two chicks who are really into each other and kind of into me — and the misogynist males around me are high-fiving me like I’m The Man. In these clubs, there’s no talking, just body language, and by 3 a.m. on the dance floor, my two female friends and I have gotten to know each other very well, hands on hips, lips on lips as the early morning hours pass.
Mr. and Mrs. Oklahoma find me, and they’re hammered. Mrs. Oklahoma pulls out her camera and shows me pictures of them with the Jersey Shore crew. She screams in my ear, “Thank you so much!”
I look at my phone and realize it’s pushing 4 a.m., and this party may go till 6 a.m. However, I have to catch a taxi to the airport by 6 a.m. and I haven’t cleaned up the condo or packed my clothes. Vegas has its way of catching up with me every time.
I race back to the condo, pack and clean up — but I don’t change my clothes. I’m still in a shirt and tie, no doubt smelling of sweat and liquor — nothing a little cologne and $10 breath freshener won’t mask. As I roll out of the condo lobby to catch a cab, other club goers are just getting home. “Where are you going?” asks one guy I recognize from the club.
“Home to the East Coast,” I reply.
“So you party all night, then go to the airport and fly home with no sleep?”
“That’s Vegas, baby,” I say, rolling out the door.
Hordes of drunken gamblers, bumpy cobblestone, confusing detours. Annoying solicitors. Broken elevators. More drunken tourists. These are just a few of the obstacles wheelchair users can face when trying to navigate the Vegas strip.
Despite the fact that the strip is flat, well-maintained and not all that long (4.2 miles), wheeling up and down between casinos can take its toll. If you’re in a manual chair, be ready for some sore shoulders. If you’re in a power chair, make sure you have your charger and some good shocks. On my last Vegas trip, I resolved to find a better way. Here’s what I found.
What Not To Do
One night when the strip was particularly crowded, I decided I’d circumvent the slow-moving crowds and go around behind the casinos. Terrible idea. It took me at least 25 minutes of perilously negotiating a jagged, narrow sidewalk to make it only halfway around the back of The Mirage alone. As long as the front of the casino seems, the other three sides are way longer. On the plus side, the back way was quieter and I didn’t have anyone (literally not a soul) to contend with. But as I rolled by mile after mile of beige wall and poorly manicured shrubbery, I actually found myself yearning for the hubbub of the strip.
My next genius idea was to avoid the sidewalks by staying inside on the smooth, thinly-carpeted floors of the casinos. Seeing as almost all the newer casinos connect to each other, I figured I could spare myself the cobblestones while also scoping out the craziness inside the casinos. I had some success with this tactic, but quickly remembered how purposefully confusing the designers make the interior layouts so as to keep people inside, losing money on the casino floor. At the casinos I knew, this approach worked fine, but I definitely ended up on a 20-minute detour through miles of empty convention halls at the Bellagio and Caesar’s Palace
What To Do
Everybody likes monorails, and apparently the people who planned out Vegas love monorails, because there are four — count ‘em — four monorails along the strip. Three of the four are free, and while they may not always save a ton of time, they can save your shoulders or your battery. The fourth monorail, The Las Vegas Monorail, is the longest of the bunch, and potentially the most useful. With seven stops and almost four miles of track, the LVM can get you where you need to be. Tickets vary and can be expensive, but some hotels will provide them for free.
If you know where you want to go and have a little spare cash from the craps table, cabs are also a solid option. Las Vegas has a ton of accessible van cabs and most doormen will find you one quickly. At three different hotels I visited, one of the doormen went out on the strip and brought back an accessible cab for me when there were none in the immediate line. Expect to pay more the later it gets, as more traffic means more time to run the meter.
Family Attractions in Vegas
Need a break from the bright lights, big city? The Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area is only 20 miles away.
Vegas is not all glitter and glitz. At the Atomic Testing Museum, you can learn all about Nevada’s unique role in atomic testing. Or if you have younger children, take them to the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum for interactive fun and learning activities. There are also exotic wildlife exhibits at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.
For high energy activities, Vegas has on and off-strip rock climbing centers. Other off-strip activities include paintball, mini-golf, an ice arena, and balloon rides. The SkyZone is a great place for dodgeball and jumping around like cartoon characters.
For information about the above attractions, see the resource list at the end of the main article.
If you prefer the wide open spaces over neon, Las Vegas is surrounded by state and national parks.
Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area, located 20 miles west of Las Vegas, features a 13-mile scenic loop drive through towering red sandstone cliffs and petrified sand dunes. Pullouts offer views of the canyon, limestone Indian roasting pits, pictographs and the chance to see desert wildlife, including bighorn sheep, wild horses, bobcats and mountain lions. Open year round, the canyon is extremely hot in summer. If you have a Golden Access Passport, you’ll save the $7 entrance fee.
Valley of Fire State Park is an hour-long drive from Vegas. The park is a treasure of geography and Native American history, golden yellow jagged rock formations, cliffs and arches, glistening white sand dunes, areas of petrified wood and Indian petroglyphs. Entrance fee is $10 per vehicle.
If you are up for a daylong excursion, Zion National Park, about a three-hour drive from Vegas, is known for stunning colorful cliff faces. Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is accessible by car November through March, and by wheelchair-accessible shuttle bus only, May-October. The entrance fee is $25 per vehicle (free with a Golden Access Passport).
Back on the Strip
Here are a few highlights from the long list of world-class family-friendly attractions on the Vegas Strip. These would break the family bank anywhere else, but don’t worry, this is Vegas, Baby — it’s on the house!
Sirens of Treasure Island Pirate Show is an amazing pirate show, featuring a battle on a full-size floating pirate ship complete with cannon fire, massive explosions and phenomenal stunts. Four performances every evening.
3300 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Bellagio Conservatory Review is the most popular show in Vegas with over 5 million visitors per year. There are five unique shows per year, and each one transforms the 13,573-square-foot Conservatory into a unique masterpiece of 10,000 plants and flowers blended into a sense-delighting riot of color and smell. Open daily, 24 hours a day.
3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Fountains at Bellagio Review is a Las Vegas icon. Situated on an eight-acre lake, 1,000 fountains soar as high as 460 feet and dance in patterns choreographed to music. Operating seven days a week, the shows start at noon on weekends and 3 p.m. on weekdays.
3600 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
The Mirage Volcano Review is another Las Vegas icon, featuring two volcanoes surrounded by waterfalls in the middle of a lagoon. Volcanoes smoke and shoot massive fireballs into the air in a thrilling display choreographed to music. Plays nightly every hour from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Fall of Atlantis at Caesars employs giant animatronic statues, including a 20-foot winged dragon. Steam, waves, and bursts of flame recount a tale of King Atlas’s son and daughter vying to take over rule of Atlantis.
3570 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Mermaid Show at the Silverton Hotel Aquarium. Watch mermaids swim, twirl, flip and dance amongst sharks, stingrays and 4,000 tropical fish in a 117,000-gallon Aquarium. Open 24 hours a day. Mermaids swim Thursday-Sunday (5 miles from the strip).
3333 Blue Diamond Road
702/263-7777; 866/722-4608 www.silvertoncasino.com
Welcome to Las Vegas sign Created in 1959, the iconic sign was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Located just south of Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
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