Las Vegas is a magnificent strip of cartoon characters and make-believe for adults, writes Nicholas Jones.
It’s coming up 11am and two half-naked men in cowboy hats are holding out their Popeye arms to passing women.
“Don’t be shy, come get a photo, honey,” one says, as a group of tourists swerves outwards like a school of fish.
Further along Las Vegas’ main strip the early shift is similarly tough for two feathered showgirls, also mostly naked except for strategically placed sequins.
They catcall what looks to be a stag party. Not yet drunk enough, the men look at each other and snigger nervously but don’t stop.
The kids are also catered for. Pikachu and Buzz Lightyear stand passively in what must already be sweltering heat.
Mickey Mouse lurks upstream from the showgirls. He looks towards them while bending over a planter box, as if to throw up. I get closer and see he’s actually lifted his head to light a weary cigarette.
Famous names — Caesars Palace, the Bellagio, the Mirage — line both sides of the strip, which has six lanes going in each direction with palm trees down the middle.
In the morning glare, the casinos and hotels look like oversized cardboard replicas.
There’s the model Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, Rialto Bridge — where the gondolas have seat belts — and further along the Empire State Building.
This is my first proper look at Vegas, having arrived late the night before. Most sinners will be sleeping off hangovers, but there is already a hustling atmosphere.
Touts hand out flyers for tours and shows. “I ain’t dangerous, sir, I work right in there,” says a man promoting nightclub tours, feigning upset to slow the determined walk of a passer-by.
A careful screening is at work. Walking alone in jandals and a shabby T-shirt I’m left alone, save for having a CD thrust at me.
A pair of runners weave through the action, but such wholesomeness is weird here. It hasn’t struck midday but every fourth person holds a drink. The drop of choice is alcoholic slushy, dished out from the kind of vats that hold Frozen Coke at the movies.
The procession of early boozers is watched by diners at the foot of the Eiffel Tower replica. Bow tie-wearing waiters serve them under a canopy of green wrought iron. Two men drink oversized cans of Coors beer next door at the Arc Bar.
People are already favouring the shade, with unseen thousands huddled in the neon gloom of pokie rooms visible through every other door.
I turn back to my hotel before reaching the pale golden gleam of the Mandalay Bay, a reflective shine interrupted by a large banner near the top of the resort with the words, “#VegasStrong”.
At the airport I picked up a booklet promoting the local attractions, including a jarring $99 “urban assault package”, which lets gun enthusiasts fire a Colt Commando and MP5 machine gun.
Helicopter, dune buggy and supercar tours, comedy, magic, music, burlesque and acrobatic shows, musicals — including Menopause the Musical — a three-storey driving range and all-you-can gorge buffets.
It’s all on offer, and being in Vegas is to feel the city strain to part you from your money. All the same, a stroll along its magnificent, tacky heart is entirely free.
flies from Auckland to Las Vegas, via San Francisco, with Economy Class fares starting from $1265.
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