By Adam Lloyd

Waiting in the seats at the airport are the usual collection of colorful travelers. Two twenty-something women discuss their strategy for picking lucky numbers. Thick gold jewelry and an Armani suit adorn the James Gandolfini look alike who is reading the morning paper. An elderly couple whose entire wardrobe, from baseball caps to carry on bags, is furnished by Harrah’s hotel are sorting through their hefty book of coupons. It is still an hour before we board the plane, but already the neon glow of Las Vegas shines behind everyone’s eyes.

If there is one word that best describes Las Vegas it is “spectacle,” and it all begins the moment you arrive at McCarran International Airport. For those traveling with a wheelchair or scooter, you are likely to find that there is virtually no wait for your chair to be brought to the door of the plane upon landing. Furthermore, the ground crews on United, the airline I regularly fly out, are some of the best nationwide in knowledgeably assisting with transfers and wheelchair assembly. However, each airline supplies it’s own crew and their abilities may vary.

The airport itself is indicative of the larger city. Metallic palm trees line the long aisles of slot machines and numerous shops that inhabit this transportation mecca. Beaming signs regale you with promises of $2 steaks and magical white tigers. By the time you reach the baggage claim area it is possible that you’ve already hit your jackpot, or have at least been persuaded in which casino to spend your time trying.

A busy, yet orderly, taxi line waits just outside the baggage claim. If you require a wheelchair accessible ride, be sure to ask one of the brown shirted, taxi attendants to radio for one. Las Vegas’ cab companies are required by law to have wheelchair vans in their fleet. There are usually five to ten of these cabs in service at any one time, but Las Vegas is a big and congested city, so wait times can vary greatly.

On one trip I was lucky enough to come through the airport’s doors just as a wheelchair cab was arriving. Another time, it was literally over an hour wait as the taxi attendants, apologetic but ultimately powerless, called dispatcher after dispatcher only to be told that their company’s accessible cab was either broken, across town, or even more infuriatingly – that the driver wasn’t answering his radio. Most times though, within twenty minutes a wheelchair cab will arrive and take you on your way.

The other factors involved in getting an accessible taxi are the equipment and drivers. Roughly half of the wheelchair vans are ramped mini-vans with lowered floors, while the other half are full size vans with motorized lifts. If you are in a larger chair, say with a respirator, or have lots of luggage, make certain you specify that you need a full size van.

Even then you may be in for a surprise. On at least two occasions I’ve encountered drivers with little to no knowledge of how the lift or, especially, the tie-downs operated. At that point you are left with the option of waiting even longer for yet another accessible taxi to be requested, or putting your life into rather questionable hands. Unless your plane arrived well after your bedtime, I’d recommend the former.

Once you’ve found a taxi that suits your needs, it is a good idea to ask the driver for his card and personal cell phone number so that you can call him directly throughout the rest of your stay.

Riding along Las Vegas Boulevard, more commonly known as the “Strip,” can be an exhilarating, if not overwhelming, experience. Each casino, in a battle to attract your gambling dollars, has attempted to out do the other. In a fifteen minute drive you will pass a gleaming black glass pyramid, a medieval castle, the New York skyline, the Eiffel tower, a Tuscan village complete with 11 acre lake, the neon plumage of the Flamingo, a man made volcano, pirate ships, San Marco Square, and the Stratosphere tower looming high above it all, and this does not even include the separate area of downtown’s Fremont Street, often seen in the movies.

Deciding where to stay can be as much fun as it is difficult. An incredible variety of accommodations exists, from the simple to the extravagant. Whatever your tastes, you should be able to find something to bring a smile to your face.

Luxor

The first stop this trip is Luxor (800-288-1000 / TDD 800-358-6065), the largest pyramid structure in North America. Entering this replica of one of the famed Egyptian monuments, one can’t help marveling at the sheer engineering feat that went into the construction of this hotel. Looking up from the massive inner atrium, floor after narrowing floor of hotel rooms rise toward the pyramid’s apex, while below, the attractive, airy casino is decorated in hieroglyphics and imitation relics.

The uniqueness of the hotel’s shape is both its biggest attraction and its greatest problem. Rooms within the pyramid all contain an outer wall sitting at 36 degrees, which makes for a fair amount of wasted space within the rooms. There are four sets of “inclinators” (elevators which travel along the same 36 degree incline), one at each corner of the pyramid’s base. Unfortunately, each set of elevators services only a specific set of floors, so you will find yourself walking clear across the hotel just to reach the one set of elevators which goes to your floor. A much better alternative is to request rooms in one of the two towers which sit adjacent to the pyramid and are completely integrated into the rest of the hotel/casino.

Tower elevators and rooms, while still Egyptian themed, present a more standard layout. The rooms are all marked with braille number plates, and handicapped rooms are nicely equipped. With either two queen, or one king size bed configurations, there is plenty of space to maneuver around. Lowered peep holes and light switches, a coffee table, two chairs, bedside table, free standing armoire and a large television with remote all come standard, but do not clutter or limit the room’s space. TDD machines are available in your room upon request. Bathrooms are equipped with the standard wall bars, lowered sink, raised toilet seat, and some roll-in shower stalls have hand held shower heads. Additionally, a limited number of manual wheelchairs are available for rental.

Luxor’s casino is large and roughly circular in shape. Wide aisles, relatively good lighting, and a number of lowered gaming tables make losing your money a disabled-friendly prospect. As is true in most casinos, dealers will even place your bets and take verbal card commands if mobility is an issue for you.

The restaurants and shops, located throughout the casino are all accessible, and while no braille menus are available, wait staff are always willing to assist in going over what is offered. An unadvertised no waiting policy allows wheelchair and scooter users to bypass the often long lines at both the buffet and 24 hour Pyramid Cafe. Just make your way up front to be seated immediately. Particularly good meals can be had in Luxor’s gourmet room, Isis, the Asian Papyrus, and the Cafe does an incredible job with breakfasts.

The pool area at Luxor is accessible via a fairly long ramp off the casino and wheelchairs can easily ride around the concrete lounge space. There has even been a lift installed so that wheelchair users can enjoy one of the shallow pools.

In a growing Las Vegas trend, Luxor is connected to its neighboring hotels, Mandalay Bay and Excalibur, by both an accessible indoor walkway as well as a motorized tram which is also fully wheelchair accessible, and chairs can easily roll into the car unassisted. Make sure your breaks are on during the tram ride, as the track occasionally tilts and the speed is just slightly excessive. There are no audible alerts for the tram’s arrival, but once aboard a recording announces that the tram is about to begin moving, or stopping, as the case may be.

MGM Grand

After several days in Luxor it was time to shift further down the Strip to the MGM Grand (888-646-1203 / TDD 702-891-1099). At 5,005 rooms this is the largest hotel in the world, and has the crowds to match. The MGM’s incredibly huge, sprawling layout can be rather confusing and difficult to get around. Despite wide aisles and four supposedly different decorating themes, one can’t help but get lost as you fight your way through the ever encroaching throng of visitors.

Making your way to the multiple banks of elevators, don’t be surprised if the crowd thickens even more as hotel guests flow to and from their rooms through a single, central corridor. It is not uncommon to wait through two or even three elevators to find one that is not completely full.

Once upstairs you will find your room in one of four themed hallways: Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, or Hollywood. Although the green carpet, multi-colored bed spread, and eerie scarecrow lithograph in the Oz room took some getting used to, the room was large enough to move around in without difficulty, and the bathroom contained the standard handicapped conversions, including wall bars, lowered sink, raised toilet, and some roll-in showers are available. Wider doors and lowered light switches have been added to the usual set up of coffee table, two chairs, large tv and remote, bedside tables and a closet, which together provide plenty of storage and home away from home comfort. Hearing impaired accommodations include TDD units upon request, and lights on the phone and door for incoming calls and visitors. Here too, manual wheelchairs are available to hotel guests.

Back down in the casino, a fair number of lowered tables and friendly dealers enhances the gambling experience. However, the sheer size of the casino and packed crowd is never far from your attention.

All of MGM’s restaurants are accessible, and spread pretty evenly throughout the hotel. Again, no braille menus are available, but wait staff is helpful in reading menus to patrons. Here too, the wheelchairs first policy is in effect at the buffet and Studio Cafe. The cafe serves acceptable fare, while nearby, Ricardo’s makes a mean margarita and burrito. On the pricier side, Las Vegas’ version of Hollywood’s Brown Derby serves one of the best Sunday brunches you are ever likely to come across.

The pool area at MGM is, like everything else in the hotel, mammoth. Five interconnected pools cover 6.6 acres and includes a lazy river ride, whirlpools, and waterfalls. Again, lift access has recently been added, but the lengthy walk from the room elevators to the pool takes you through part of the casino and past several restaurants – not an attractive thought while sopping wet.

In addition to everything else, MGM Grand has two theaters, a comedy cafe, an events arena, and an entire theme park complete with roller coaster, bumper boats, and a log-flume ride. That night the Righteous Brothers performed in the 650 seat Hollywood Theater, and from central mezzanine, which can seat twelve wheelchair users comfortably, the sound and sight lines couldn’t have been better.

The MGM is connected by raised outdoor walkways to neighboring casinos New York New York and the Tropicana. An accessible tram is reached by traveling through the hotel’s subterranean mall and will take you mid-Strip to Bally’s casino. Unlike other hotel trams, the MGM’s version requires that wheelchair users sit in a special compartment, and necessitates that a tram attendant put out a portable ramp. Personally, I never fail to encounter a muscle spasm as a result of the ramp’s bizarre midpoint change in angle. On the upside, attendants do announce the arrival of trams and the ride is slower and at less of a tilt than Luxor’s.

Bellagio

The third stop on this trip, Bellagio (888-987-6667 / TDD 888-987-8444), is as overwhelming as the MGM Grand, but for completely different reasons. Subtlety and elegance have been absent in Las Vegas since before Gerald Ford was president, but with Bellagio both are back and more impressive than ever. From the moment you spot the hotel’s grand lake, Italian pines and gorgeous Tuscan facade you know you are in for something extraordinary.

With a two billion dollar price tag, no expense was spared in the building of this hotel and it shows. Every square inch resonates with quality and taste. At roughly one hundred dollars more a night than most Las Vegas hotels, Bellagio is not the lodging choice for everyone, but everybody should take time to at least look around.

Entering the lobby your eye is immediately drawn to the multicolored, hand-blown glass “flower” sculptures, by Chihuly, which hang from the ceiling. Once you pull your attention away from this visual cornucopia, ahead of you lies a sun swept, indoor botanical conservatory, planted with fresh flowers, trees, and other seasonal vegetation. The fragrance is so delicious and the landscaping so attractive you’ll think you’ve found the garden of Eden. On this trip the conservatory featured pumpkins, squash, and miniature peppers among the beautiful yellow and orange flowers, but the display changes monthly, and is coordinated with each holiday season. The floor throughout the conservatory is a stunning mosaic of literally thousands of small tiles depicting ornate flowers and vines.

The casino itself boasts high ceilings, and illuminated, billowing yellow and orange canopies over the gaming tables. The aisles are extremely wide and the layout, though quite large, is simple to master after a single pass through. Disappointingly, only two lowered gaming tables were spotted, though I am assured many more exist. Also, ramps to the two casino bars are difficult to locate.

With the exception of the buffet and the 24 hour Bellagio Cafe, all of the hotel’s restaurants are upscale, and most overlook the scenic lake. Le Cirque and Circo are carnival themed transplants from New York, serving inventive French and Italian dishes respectively. Noodles cooks up Chinese and Thai delights, while Shintaro focuses on Japanese cuisine. Two other stand outs are Prime, the hotel’s noted steakhouse, and Picasso, a spectacular French restaurant featuring original paintings by its namesake. Braille menus are available upon request at all of the hotel’s restaurants.

Both the Cafe and buffet seat wheelchair users first, and though slightly more expensive than elsewhere, you will not find better food in any comparable casino establishment. The buffet offers huge prawns, succulent mussels, smoked salmon, prime rib, venison, fresh salads, stir fry vegetables, gourmet pizzas, four different pastas, delicious soups, Asian dishes, an assortment of fresh breads, and more. The dessert selection includes sugar free pies and cakes as well as more sinful fare such as sundaes, creme brullet, bread pudding, cherry cobbler, tira misu, and dozens of cakes and cookies. Gastronomically, you cannot take a wrong turn in Bellagio.

Following the wonderment of the casino, it is a pleasant surprise to find the rooms even more enchanting. Elegant yellow striped hallways give way to larger than normal, beautifully decorated rooms. Bellagio offers two versions of its handicapped rooms. The first includes wider doors, a lowered peephole, floor to ceiling windows, lowered light switches, a large screen tv with remote, an armoire, electronic safe, two dual line telephones, writing desk, coffee table and chairs, bedside tables, a large closet with lowered clothes rods, a roll in shower with hand held and regular water nozzle, a separate bath tub, appropriate wall bars, lowered sink, raised toilet, and a third phone in the bathroom, not to mention complimentary robes for use during your stay. The second version includes everything already mentioned, plus a hands-free phone that can be used anywhere in the room, and electric transfer lifts in both the bedroom and bathroom. TDD units are available upon request, and in addition to the availability of manual wheelchairs, the hotel will arrange the rental of electric chairs and scooters through an outside company.

If you ever decide to leave the comfort of your room and aren’t in the mood for gambling, Bellagio has several enticing attractions. The Bellagio mall might as well be Rodeo drive, with Tiffany & Co., Prada, Armani, Gucci, Chanel, Hermes, Moschino, and Fred Leighton. You may not be able to buy, but window shopping can be extremely fun.

The fountains at Bellagio, a spectacular water ballet that occurs every thirty minutes after three o’clock, and every quarter hour after eight, is mesmerizing and free. Over a hundred soaring fountains dance to music by Sinatra, Pavarotti, Strauss, Lionel Ritchie, Bing Cosby and others. Head toward the viewing area just opposite Paris’ Eiffel Tower on the Strip for the best vantage. A columned safety barrier lines the sidewalk viewing areas, so visibility may be an issue if you are low to the ground.

A gallery of fine art, featuring paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso, Matisse, MirĂ³, Pollock, de Kooning, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat is open to the public for a $12 fee which goes to charity, and if you’ve remembered your checkbook, all the paintings are for sale.

The signature show at Bellagio, however, is the Cirque du Soleil production, “O.” Magnificent acrobatic feats are performed amidst a set and musical design that evoke the dreams and nightmares of childhood fantasies. In a stunning red and blue theater, inspired by the Paris Opera House, an international cast of synchronized swimmers, divers, and aerialists dazzle audiences above and in a 1.5 million gallon pool. Audience members will be as impressed by the engineering marvel of the ever changing stage, watching solid floors melt away into watery depths, as they are by the incredible physical feats of the performers. Wheelchair seating is limited to either side of the mezzanine, with five spaces on each side, plus companion seating. Sight lines are good and no aspect of the show is missed, but some of the other-worldly illusion is lost as drawn curtains and backdrops can be seen side-stage at this angle. Unfortunately, there is not a wheelchair seating option for the cheaper, $85 seats, but even at $100 per ticket “O” is a must see.

The icing on Bellagio’s cake is its pool area. Set in an Italian garden, six mid-size pools, complete with fountains and surrounded by rented cabanas, provide a serene, relaxing spot to enjoy Las Vegas’ dry air and warm sunshine. Drink service is extensive and quick, and there is an outdoor cafe if you get hungry. I found a shady spot near the bar, and with margarita in hand spent several, very pleasant, hours soaking in the warm rays and admiring the scenery.

If, for some reason you do decide to leave this sanctuary of a vacation spot to further explore the wilds of Las Vegas, there are several convenient ways to do so. Two, above street walkways lead to either Caesars Palace or Bally’s, both adjacent to Bellagio. There is also an accessible tram that takes you to the Monte Carlo casino, back in the direction of Luxor and MGM. There is an automated announcement of the tram’s arrival, and the ride is smooth and well paced throughout.

Paris & Mandalay Bay

Indeed, there are at least two good reasons to pull yourself away from Bellagio’s opulence, the new Paris hotel (888-266-5687 / TDD 702-967-4882) and Mandalay Bay (877-632-7000 / TDD 702-632-7007).

Sitting across from Bellagio, a 1/2 scale Eiffel tower rises high above the Strip, announcing the presence of Paris in the Nevada desert. As impressive a sight as the Eiffel tower makes, it is nothing compared to the world that greets you once you enter the casino itself. Forty foot ceilings painted to look like the sky, complete with fluffy clouds, cap the faux French village that sprawls throughout the hotel. The casino’s walls consist of cottage-like facades, with wrought iron “road signs” pointing your way down various cobbled pathways. Three of the Eiffel tower’s legs even make their way into the gaming area.

As you head through the hotel, don’t be surprised if you are greeted with a “bonjour,” or overhear a dealer call out “melange” when getting ready to shuffle a deck of cards. All of Paris’ employees are taught a few French phrases to add to the atmosphere, and signage everywhere is in the form of “Le Toilet” and “Le Cafe.” My blackjack dealer, Jacqui (“Jackie, with a “k”, everywhere else in the city,” she quipped), could have been Sharon Stone’s twin sister and was one of the friendliest dealers I’ve come across.

The cobblestone paths make for a bumpy ride but can be avoided to some extent by cutting through carpeted areas. However, in these carpeted areas, many of the banks of slot machines are set at odd angles, making maneuvering between them challenging at times. I spent a good five minutes weaving my way through slot machines in an attempt to bypass a stretch of cobblestone on my way to get a player card. Still, with plenty of lowered tables, interesting restaurants and shops, and a wonderfully executed theme, Paris is well worth a visit.

Without a doubt, Mandalay Bay is the best thing to happen to Generation X in Las Vegas since the Hard Rock Hotel. This eminently classy, yet hip, hotel caters to self-possessed twenty and thirty somethings who know how to have a good time and have (at least some) money to burn. A South Pacific decor, complete with tropical fish and birds in the lobby, and a spectacular eleven acre pool, sets the tone for this property.

The casino is huge with extremely wide aisles and plenty of lowered gaming tables. Palm trees and glass chandeliers accent the room, and rock music permeates the air. There is a definite verve at Mandalay Bay, supported by a House of Blues, which books top acts nightly, a nightclub called Rum Jungle which features a wall of flame at its entrance, and dining establishments with ultra-modern or ultra-retro decors such as China Grill, Aureole, Red Square, and Lupo. The floor leading to most of the restaurants and shops is textured, but unless you’re extremely sensitive to minor bumps it should pose no problem. The hotel also boasts a 12,000 seat arena for larger concerts and sporting events, but wheelchair seating is limited and stuck back in the far corners of the mezzanine. However, at a boxing match which I attended, sight lines weren’t bad and the arena felt smaller than others I’ve seen with comparable seating capacity.
Of course, these hotels constitute only a small portion of what Las Vegas has to offer. Many of the older establishments still warrant your perusal, and the Mirage, Treasure Island, Venetian, and New York New York each offer unique and well done themed casinos of their own. Even downtown has gone through a sort of rebirth, with the Fremont Street Experience a top draw. Plus, for those who prefer nature to neon, Red Rock Canyon, Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam all provide nearby spectacles of a different sort.

No matter what it is you’re looking for, Las Vegas is probably able to provide it. An extremely accessible city, about the only thing you’ll have a hard time doing is getting any rest. In fact, by the end of your trip, the odds are that you’ll feel like you need an other vacation just to unwind.

Do I have a suggestion…