Las Vegas resorts have long linked “cheap” and “free” with “attractions” to rope in the crowds and keep them. Bare rooms, limited television signals, no clocks, cheap food, free drinks all go hand-in-hand with gambling and staying in the casino. Although still available, those attractions are going the way of the $5 blackjack game. Some of the best things to do in Las Vegas include seeing lions sleeping at the MGM Grand Lion Habitat, fountains exploding to music at Bellagio, a volcano spewing to percussions by the drummer of the Grateful Dead, sexy girls swinging on twine between ships and fire balls at Treasure Island and various species of shark making mad circles at Silverton, Golden Nugget and the reception desk at The Mirage—for free. But you won’t find much else. Rather you’ll likely spend as much on admission to an attraction these days as you would on a dinner. But then dinner doesn’t leave you dangling 1,000 feet above the ground or corkscrew through hotel towers. The best things to do in Las Vegas involve finding attractions that offer experiences you aren’t likely to find anywhere else.
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Considered one of the best things to do in Las Vegas, the Manhattan Express's looping roller coaster flies in and out of the casino hotel and circles around the impressive New York skyline facade so riders can get their negative Gs and bragging rights. With heights of 203 feet, drops of 144 feet and speeds up to 67 MPH, this coaster mimics the barrel-roll of a jet fighter, rolling 180 degrees, hanging 86 feet in the air, then diving back under itself at dizzying speeds. The ride then empties into a Coney Island midway area with plenty of New York-themed games and computerized competition entertainment. The cost of the ride: $14; unlimited Scream Pass: $25. Taking the plunge and getting hitched on the Express: $600-$700 for the wildest ride of your life.
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The Atomic Testing Museum is one of Las Vegas’ jewels. This homage to the city’s romantic nuclear test era brings back flashes for those of us old enough to remember Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium at the U.N., and mushroom clouds going off within eyesight just north of the town. There are usually engineers on hand who have put in years at the Nevada Test Site. They’re happy to explain the dioramas and put real life into these exhibits. A very cool bunker recreation gives an immersive, white-knuckle experience of what underground testing was like before it was halted in the mid 1990s. A library is available and open to the public for research. A whimsical gift shop sells nuke-message T-shirts and mugs, and “FAT MAN” key chains. Admission: $12.
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Mandalay Bay maintains a simple motto—if they want it, give it to ’em. That goes for the dining and rooms as well as the attractions and eye candy. For the latter, they knew what they were doing when they added the Beachside Casino two years ago. The casino on the second floor of the new digs opens right onto the sand and surf and lotion-scented air of the Mandalay Beach Complex, but it also opens onto unobstructed views of topless loungers sunning at the otherwise private Moorea Beach Club. It’s also a good place to watch the Bay’s headliner Concerts on the Beach without paying the freight or missing a hand. For the under 21 crowd, one of the best things to do is check out the Shark Reef Aquarium, a stunning aquarium (especially considering it’s privately run) with more than 100 species of sea life, including rare jelly fish, a sting ray and horseshoe crab touch tank and 15 species of sharks. Rack rate tickets are $16.95, but you’ll find numerous discounts in the local activities magazines.
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As casinos go, Aria is somewhat subdued. It does not rally the masses with in-your-face entertainment or cacophonous slot-o-rama action. Rather it is what Aria does not have that separates it from the rest: smoke. This lack makes it one of the top things to do in Las Vegas for those who can't stand smoke. As part of CityCenter, Aria benefited from what has been and still is one of the largest green building projects on the planet. The nearly $9 billion raised to create CityCenter was spent smartly, with an eye for design, environment and innovation. The engineering is pretty smart, including an air filtration system that works on the simplicity of gravity. Smart design may not be eye-catching so Aria made up for that with art—serious art. Above Aria’s reception area is an 87-foot long sculpture called Silver River by Maya Lin. Then around the campus find oeuvres by Jenny Holzer, Nancy Rubins, and Frank Stella, among others. Download the new geo-specific CityCenter smartphone app, point the phone and take the tour.
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You might say Circus Circus started it all in 1968—the requisite mega-attraction element for hotels that wanted to make it in Vegas. The hotel also opened up the city to families as the first resort to offer entertainment for kids. But the circus acts in session amid the nets, bars and ropes under the Circus Circus Big Top are not for kids only. The performers are serious circus families who hail from places like Bulgaria and Moldova and have been members of the circus their entire lives. The artists performing above the roulette tables and slot banks are as skilled as any found in a Barnum show, or circling the rafters at Cirque du Soleil. Acts with names like Alexandra, African Acrobats International, the Flying Poemas, Nikolai & Nina, and Stoyan Metchkarov, many of whom were formerly with the Moscow Circus, find their way around the trapeze swings, aerial ropes and flying objects from 11AM to midnight seven days. If you enjoy family friendly shows this is one of the top things to do in Las Vegas. All you have to do is look up.
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If you can spare a couple of hours away from the tables, the pools, the shopping and shows for a little (huge) piece of American history, take a drive to Hoover Dam and visit one of the best things to do in Las Vegas. Located about 45 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip en route to Arizona, the construction here is as mind boggling today as it was in 1936, challenging human perceptions of dimension and offering a peek into a sordid, as well as celebrated, side of the human spirit.
The work that began in 1931, took 200 engineers to design and 21,000 workers total to complete what was considered impossible: the halting and taming of the mighty Colorado River. At 726 feet in height, 1,244 feet in length and 660 feet at its thickest, there is enough concrete in this structure to pave a 4-foot-wide sidewalk around the belly of the earth. Lives were lost in the construction, many lives, and the workers exploited through middlemen that paid them in scrip and kept the cash for themselves. You probably won’t hear those kinds of stories on the tour but you will sense the ghosts and walk the hidden tunnels that traverse what is still considered one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Tours cost $30, run every half hour from 9:30AM to 3:30PM (20 people in a tour) and require a lot of walking. No reservations. Tickets purchased onsite.
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When Wynn Las Vegas opened in 2005 it was not without the casino mogul’s trademark “wow” attraction. Only this one was for people playing, ambling, browsing, eyeing and staying inside his new property. In this case it’s lasers, animated projections, a medley of sound and light and a storyline, all choreographed on a stunning canvas of water, waterfalls and the mountain of cascading water into three acres of lake that separates the property from the rest of the city, making it one of the top things to do in Las Vegas. Two types of shows spring to action at the top and bottom of the hour when the sun goes down. Images from 4,000 lights are projected onto the falls and lake and set to music on the half-hour. At the top of the hour is the primary attraction that includes images on a large movie screen synched to the imagery and music. Book a dinner at SW Steakhouse or Bartolotta, or, for a lot less grab a seat at the Parasol Up or Parasol Down lounges to get the full-view experience.
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It takes a lot to make a casino interesting. You can dress your dealers in torturous looking lingerie (The Pleasure Pit at Planet Hollywood). You can detail the interiors with space windows and galaxy lights (the Las Vegas Hilton’s SpaceQuest Casino), or you can throw beaded necklaces at people, Mardi Gras style, and circle the casino in a big head. This last gimmick is the lure at the Masquerade Show in the Sky, which has been erupting in sound, props and parties every hour from 6 to 11 p.m. since 1997. Central to this attraction is a float that moves on a track around the casino. And for $12.95, Thursday to Sunday, you can be part of the action, riding in the float and looking down on divas dancing and kicking in their Victoria’s Secret best.
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The Mirage volcano has been spitting fire and thunder since the opening of the Mirage in 1989, an event that launched the advent of the “new” Las Vegas where flashing marquees and golden porte cocheres no longer sufficed. But those riveting eruptions, once the very icon for the desert resort, began to pale in the shadow of pyrotechnic pirate battles, dizzying displays of fountain pageantry and ever more glamorous architecture along the ever burgeoning Las Vegas Strip.
Enter Volcano II—the new explosion. The $25 million volcanic redo launched December 2008 is bigger, broader, higher and hotter than ever with turbo-charged fire shooters and steam throwers sending water columns 12 feet in the air. Massive, individually choreographed fireballs ignite fiery lava that flows down the faux mountain’s fissures and enflames the entire tropical lagoon to within feet of sidewalk spectators.
MGM Mirage brought in two giants of the music industry: Mickey Hart, legendary drummer for the Grateful Dead, and Zakir Hussain, world maestro of tabla percussions, to make it magical. The result? Free gripping entertainment. The volcano displays are definitely some of the best things to do in Las Vegas.
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