Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Titanic @ The Trop

Above: Since there’s no photography allowed inside, the above will have to suffice...

When you think of Las Vegas, what do you think of first? Some may envision the flashy Strip and its multicolored splendor. Others may imagine that forty-minute roll on the craps table at The Bellagio. Perhaps for you it’s the Pharaoh’s Pfeast at Luxor. Even if you think about Celine Dion’s spectacular at Caesar’s, I’m willing to bet that you don’t immediately think of the Titanic.

The Tropicana is an anachronism in the context of Las Vegas Boulevard. Walking across the casino floor, looking up at the mirrored false ceiling that feel impossibly low (it’s probably 15 feet, but compared to the new places, I for one feel claustrophobic there), it impossible to avoid the keen awareness that the casino is outdated and decidedly unstylish.

At most casinos, I would not feel out of place or overdressed in a suit. But I felt as odd walking the Tropicana floor in my new suit as I would feel in a honky-tonk bar back home.

So why were we spending any time there, when we could have been taking in the scene at one of the swankier venues in town? Well, we were there to see the Titanic Exhibit, and like every other thing in Vegas, you can’t get there without walking the casino floor.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am one of ten living persons who have managed to avoid watching the movie. Impressive, no?

We arrived just before ten p.m., and I have to tell you--that’s a kick-ass time to visit an exhibit in Vegas, because there wasn’t a soul there to push us along, get in our way, or prevent us from taking the time to read each and every detailed information card flanking the artifacts. We opted against the audio wands (unlike the Shark Reef, they were not included in the exorbitant entry fees), and considering how much time we spent reading the information cards, the play-by-play voiceover might have pushed me over the edge...

Above: Visit the Trop to see a full-scale reproduction of this stairwell.

At the start of the exhibit, the ticket-taker handed us cards describing a single passenger on the ill-fated vessel. As we came to learn in the final room of the exhibit, both our passengers died. Although this failed to resonate in the way that a similar device might at, say, the Holocaust Museum, the exhibit itself struck a chord. The video coverage of the shipyard impressed me; other than a World Series celebration, what other single event could prompt such a massive gathering today? But I especially enjoyed the sections of the exhibit where we were transported from generic exhibit-hall spaces into reconstructions of the ship. A third-class sleeping cabin, cramped and uncomfortable, with low ceilings and the dull roar of engines and machines. The grand staircase complete with gilded cherubs. And most ooh-inspiring of all, the open-air deck with a faux view of the stars and crashing waves.

Other artifacts of interest:
- A giant hunk of ice you’re encouraged to touch (as if I’ve never touched a block of ice before...)
- Reproductions of first- and second-class cabins -- the former were nearly as grand as our Mandalay Bay accommodations
- As a Harvard alumnus who spent many hours in Widener Library, named after a young man who died on the ship, some related artifacts drew my attention. (While we're here, check out this page on the popular theory that Harry's death is the reason every Harvard dining hall serves ice cream...)

In any other context, the artifacts would be interesting for period-study and in critiquing the grand span between upper and middle classes. That they were harvested from the sea floor is challenging to fathom. A cache of dinner plates earns your interest when you learn that the wood cabinet around them decayed during eighty years at the ocean’s bottom, leaving the plates to settle in the sand in the same ordered stacks a Titanic crewperson had arranged them in.

All in all, I came away with a whole new appreciation for the incredible engineering feat, the tragedy, and the impressive effort made to salvage the wreck site.

Doesn’t mean I’m going to stop dodging the movie...

- Normal Guy (aka Jason Shaffner)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Oxygen Bar

Above: Normal Guy breathes “pure” oxygen in The Venetian.

We saw our first Oxygen Bar in the entry vestibule of New York New York around ten a.m. At the time, neither of us knew what the kiosk was selling. Bright-colored tubes of water gurgled, but the bar was empty of patrons, and the marquee was hardly comprehensive.

I nodded toward the kiosk. “What’s that?”

Before Keryn could reply, the salesman was upon us. “Fifteen bucks for fifteen minutes. Give it a try?”

We shook our heads. “Off to see the lions,” I said. We wandered past Coyote Ugly and Nathan’s before following the bridge to MGM.

A few hours later, while wandering alongside The Grand Canal in The Venetian, I spotted another bar. It was the fourth or fifth I’d seen that day. At every turn we found a Starbucks, and at every other turn we saw another oxygen stand. They were stalking us. My curiosity could weather the ignorance no longer.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Can you explain how this works?”

“It’s basically pure oxygen,” the girl told me. “It provides energy for up to eight hours.”

“Does it work?” I asked, flooding my cheeks with skepticism.

“I think so,” she said.

Hardly a ripping sales presentation, but I was too intrigued to say no. Besides, I was on a temporary high from a temporary bout of luck on the slot machines. Keryn opted out. The procedure was a little too hospital-like for this hospital-phobic gent, but a minute later I had an orange tube jammed into each nostril.

(It’s important to stop here for a clarification. The tubes are one-time use, and you can keep them as souvenirs, though I can’t imagine why… There is no boogie-sharing going on. That seems to be everyone’s first question on seeing the above picture.)

The Oxygen-girl offered me a Vitamin Water—I chose a bottle of the red. She asked me to hold out my palms and emptied a dropper onto my right hand.

“Rub them together and do this,” she said, cupping her hands over her mouth and inhaling. “Only don’t breathe too hard at first; it’s strong stuff.”

No joke. That eucalyptus oil will clear the cobwebs out of your head in a hurry. It hurts a little even in recollection…

A few minutes later, the girl came around with two of those $6.99 three-legged massagers you can pick up just about everywhere these days. For sale, of course. The vibrating head massager could be yours, too, for the low, low price of $25. (Those things may look like instruments of torture, but they work awful well).

Peppermint oil on my fingertips was to rub on the back of my neck. The soothing chill felt nice, but for the rest of the night, I paid for it by suffering the odd mix of peppermint and eucalyptus like cough drops hanging around my neck.

And how about that Oxygen? I really can’t say whether it was that or Starbucks that sustained me through the night. But I’d advise everybody to give it a shot, if only for the pictures…

- Normal Guy (aka Jason Shaffner)

Friday, February 09, 2007

Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay

Above: Up close and personal with an alligator (or is it a crocodile?)

Beyond the obvious gambling machines, tables, and rooms, every resort casino in Vegas has the following common elements:
- Overpriced boutiques
- A dozen or so restaurants
- Exactly one eatery open all night
- Starbucks (perhaps one at each end of the casino foor)
- One or more nightclubs or lounges
- One big show (Broadway, Cirque de Soleil, etc.)
- And… a special non-gambling, non-dining, non-musical activity

From amusement park rides (Stratosphere, New York New York, Circus Circus), to water shows (Bellagio), to gondolas, a wax museum, and a Guggenheim outpost at the Venetian, to the lions behind glass at MGM, etc., every resort has at least one attraction of the kind you might find in another city. I wonder at the motivations behind these exhibits, most of which, even if they charge a fee, can’t possibly be profitable.

Mandalay Bay offers The Shark Reef, which “will put you face to face with some of the most dangerous and exotic animals in the world.” In other collateral, they describe it as the only predator-focused aquarium in the world. Since Keryn and I were staying in the hotel, we decided that we might as well give it a shot. Not that there’s a discount for Mandalay key-holders, or anything... But it was a five minute walk from the casino.

The tickets cost us $15.95 apiece, but the audio tour wands were included in the price. I didn’t pay much attention to the fake story behind the motif, but it had something to do with a sunken Mayan temple (or was it Aztec?), but there was also a shipwreck??? In any case, the alligator shown above greeted us straightaway. Not the liveliest critters until they attack, it’s remains eerie, and more than a touch disturbing, to stand so close that you can see into their beady green eyes.

Above: The nifty-keen aquarium tunnel in the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay.

Past the alligator, we visited with “Ed” the water monitor, who may not be much of a threat to humans, but enjoys consuming small mammals whole. His face appears all over Vegas in advertisements for The Shark Reef.

The piranhas looked harmless until we saw their teeth. Yikes. After a brief interlude looking at colorful reef fish, we encountered the sharks. The above photograph does not do justice to the tunnel that sits at the deepest point inside The Shark Reef. It is an impressive sight. Railings lining each side served as perches to support us while we sat watching the always-swimming sharks and the graceful flying rays. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of water above and beside us, teeming with captive life.

I have a vague recollection of an aquarium “petting zoo” back home in Maine: hermit crabs, spiny urchins, perhaps a sea cucumber. At Mandalay Bay, we jammed our arms into a shallow pool to stroke the topside of non-stinging rays. Slimy. Kind of gross. Before then, one of my favorite dishes at McCormick and Schmick’s was the skate wing; now I may have to rethink my position on that menu item.

Above: Jellyfish freak us out. How about you?

We spent ten minutes mesmerized by the jellyfish, listening to the magic audio wand explaining that the creatures before us lack brains and hearts (but what about souls? do they possess souls?). They totally freak me out, yet I couldn't take my eyes off them...

After visiting the National Aquarium in Baltimore last autumn (a blog that has been on my to-do list for three months now), I walked into The Shark Reef expecting to be disappointed. Instead, I left feeling that it was well worth the time. Sharks are cool. If you find yourself with a spare hour and you're in the Mandalay Bay at the time, definitely check it out.

Have a great weekend,
- Normal Guy (aka Jason Shaffner)