Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016
© Tanveer Badal

Punters’ Playground

  • TEXT PIA VOLK
  • PHOTOS TANVEER BADAL

Our author’s 12-year-old son is a gamer – you name it, Minecraft, Fifa, Wizard, board or PC, he plays it. Las Vegas is his dream destination. Mom finally agrees to take him. But is a trip to the capital of crazy such a great idea?

“Welcome to the city of sin,” the taxi driver at the airport yells. Then his grin slips. He sees I’m not alone. “Your kid?” he asks, pointing to the little man behind me. I nod. He’s aghast. “Why bring him to Las Vegas?”

Good question. Why take one’s son to a den of iniquity? Why, for heaven’s sake? Well, Las Vegas is a big playground and each hotel is a cosmos. It just has to be exciting for a kid. Venice, New York and Rome rub shoulders, the pyramids beam their light into the sky, choreographed fountains dance to string orchestras.

The craziest of cities just has to have fun on call, not just some, but lots, always and everywhere. Isn’t that what Vegas is all about? And isn’t childhood meant to be fun, because you haven’t yet grasped that life is a serious business.

But the truth is also that my 12-year-old son, Paul, is a gamer. His phone is not for making calls, his PC not for homework. He uses them to play Minecraft, Wizard, Geography Trivia, Ship Battles and Fifa. He dreamed of going to Las Vegas, the gamers’ paradise. Well, okay then. The things moms do for their kids!

There is a problem, though. On our first evening in Vegas, we plan to grab some hot dogs from the casino food court and then admire the croupiers’ deft fingers at work, but a member of staff pushes us out the door – gently enough, but firmly.

Minors are not allowed in the casinos. If you are under 21, you may walk through the lobby in the company of your parents, past Black Jack, poker and slot machines, but you must keep moving. No standing, no watching allowed, just straight on to your room or, as in our case, to the exit. I knew about the rule but not about how strictly and resolutely it is enforced.

Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

Just a facade? XXL hotels abound here ...

© Tanveer Badal
Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

... but the Ambassador Motel is a cheaper bet

© Tanveer Badal
Plunters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

Enlightened and exhausted: Pia Volk with son Paul in the arcades at the Venetian Hotel

© Tanveer Badal
Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

Classic Vegas: Wedding photos ...

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Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

... and twin Elvises

© Tanveer Badal

  At least we’re wide awake next morning. Bright-eyed, with no dark rings, we stroll down Las Vegas Boulevard, aka the Strip, that lies deserted before us. The punters are still sleeping off their hangovers if they lost, or their elation if they had a run of luck.

Thanks to being barred from gaming fun, we now have the Strip almost to ourselves, except for Chewbacca, dozing under a palm tree and a little further down, an accordionist playing to himself, a tin at his feet with a “God Bless You” sign. For Vegas, that’s average freak ranking at best. Suddenly, a woman in stiletto heels and a sequin dress minces in our direction: “Pia, fantastic you could make it!”

Paul looks awestruck. “You know her?” No, Cuddles is a showgirl, and she’s leading the scavenger hunt we’ve signed up for. If they don’t want us in the casinos, we’ll just have to escape reality some other way.

Skip the nighttime gaming fun and you have the Strip almost to yourself in the morning

With a bunch of other tourists, we follow her into a restaurant, where she explains the story: Cuddles’ ex-boyfriend robbed a casino and we have to find the hidden suitcase of poker chips. And so we scour the Strip, where a pantomime artist with an alcohol problem, a conspiracy theorist and Smokie, who looks like Uncle Sam and is actually a tobacconist, murmur clues in our ear and send us off through backyards, into restaurants and crazy shops.

Hollywood couldn’t have done a better job of dreaming this up. It’s not easy, either, distinguishing the actors involved in the charade from all the ordinary crazy people here. Is Superman over there in on the game? And what about the Playmates at the front, there? The game’s over and here we are beneath neon signs. Paul has just handed over the suitcase.

He says, “Casinos, hotels, bars and more casinos, that’s all there is here. Everyone loses all the time – except for the casinos. They get all the money and then they use it to build another casino. Or a hotel. Or a bar.” He has been carefully taking in the city of his dreams and this is his appraisal. It’s bang on.

In 2015, the casinos on the Strip alone earned 6.4 million dollars. A good 42 million vacationers brought their cash to the desert city, many come in hopes of winning the jackpot and having an unforgettable time. “Going to the casino is a bit like telling Santa what you would like for Christmas,” I say, proffering maternal wisdom. “You can try, but it usually doesn’t work out, and at some point you discover that Father Christmas’s real name is Mom and that the world isn’t quite the way you’d like it to be.” Wham!

 


 

Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016
© Cristóbal Schmal

Trip on the Strip: Kids’ fun in Vegas

1 MIRRAGE SECRET DOLPHIN HABITAT

2 THE NEON MUSEUM

3 HIGH ROLLER OBSERVATION WHEEL

4 NATIONAL ATOMIC TESTING MUSEUM

5 ALIBI MYSTERY TOUR

6 PINK JEEP DESERT TOUR

7 MAVERICK HELICOPTERS


 

 Late afternoon, the sun is blazing down. We’re at the Neon Museum, a dusty place on the edge of downtown. The city’s discarded neon signs are lovingly curated and exhibited here.

Edgar, our guide, explains that Vegas wasn’t always about the quest for money and happiness. “Hard to imagine now, but the first building here, back in 1855, was the Mormon mission; the Mormons wanted to convert the Paiutes to Christianity,” he says.

It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that the gangsters, the mafia, came from Chicago and turned Las Vegas into the great, gaudy, greedy place it is now. The Neon Museum acts as the city’s memory and highlights the same point Paul made earlier: Las Vegas is always just the present, never the past. The casinos are built, renamed, refurbished, sold and demolished; a new one is built on the same spot, the old one disappears without trace – or would, if it weren’t for the museum.

We are standing in front of a huge skull. It belonged to Treasure Island, a pirate-themed hotel casino. “It was built in 1993 when Las Vegas wanted to attract more families,” Edgar explains, “but then they discovered that families don’t sit inside casinos spending money, and stopped again.” In 2013, the Treasure Island pirate show closed and a new shopping mall went up on the site.

Punters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

Pia & Paul on the 167m High Roller, the world's biggest Ferris wheel

© Tanveer Badal

 Back to the Strip, the glitz and the glitter – billboards, store fronts, cars,and the eyes of people counting dollars and crowding around slot machines. We don’t see many children.

At Starbucks a woman in a black-and-gold top with red-lipstick lips approaches Paul. “You’re not American,” she says, “American kids are still in bed at this time. You’re not. You’re cool.” She high-fives him, then melts into the crowd.

Through window fronts, we see lone punters pulling levers. “You know what strikes me,” says Paul, frowning, “you can play on your own, but if you want to have fun, you need friends to play with.” So let’s have some real fun – that’s our motto for the following day. We visit the Atomic Testing Museum, the only one in the USA, and press lots of buttons. We sit in the Linq Theater and applaud Mat Franco for his almost too-perfect card tricks.

Circling over Las Vegas in a helicopter, we see the incessant flashing of city lights below us, like a colossal one-armed bandit, or a street vendor plying his wares: Fun! Fun! Come and get it! And we do, but it’s exhausting.

“We have to do something that’s totally mad and only happens in Vegas,” Paul insists in the evening. “But what?” I ask, weary. “Say you’re a 21-year-old with stunted growth and sneak into the casino?”   

Plunters Playground Las Vegas Lufthansa Magazin November 2016

Our pair in front of a mural of the legendary author of Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It was painted by Ruben Sanchez

© Tanveer Badal

  No, not a chance. Instead, we sit at one of the Mirage’s swimming pools and hold out a canvas toward the water. Our painter’s name is Osborne. He’s a dolphin. A dolphin in the desert sounds like the opening line of a bad joke. It’s not natural, but who hasn’t let their kid talk them into something crazy?

Animal trainer Ashley has put a kind of football in his mouth with a slit for a paintbrush. “We always know which dolphin painted which picture. They each have their own style.” she says. Osborne swims to Paul’s canvas and slaps on some paint with a flick of his head.

“Does the dolphin enjoy this?” Paul asks. Ashley explains that dolphins are playful and need to be kept busy. They don’t do shows here, but collaborate with universities in Nevada, Texas and Ohio on studies of dolphin reproduction and behavior. At some point, the painting is finished. It’s pretty crazy. 

“I’m surprised he didn’t talk,” I say, as we take our paintings. Paul laughs out loud. On the sidewalk, we count five Elvises, a Stormtrooper, a Marylin Monroe, three Playmates and a preacher wearing a sign: “Today is the day of deliverance.” Deliverance from what? From sin? From Las Vegas? From nonstop entertainment? The freaks?

“Paul, I’m bushed,” I moan. We switch roles momentarily. On arrival, the taxi driver should maybe have asked why my son brought me along! We escape into the Mojave Desert in a Jeep. The Valley of Fire is all rugged, red rocks; some have colorful stripes, deposits from past geological eras. There’s a slight wind, otherwise perfect, almost overwhelming silence. I look at Paul, he looks at me. “It’s just as colorful as in the city,” he says slowly, “only without all the show. Pretty cool.


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