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Travels with Elvis. (Part 1) Viva Las Vegas! Viva Elvis!!

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Every year my younger brother and I go on a trip together; this time is precious as it allows us to reconnect while sharing our love of travel. This year we decided to center our travels on places that were monumental in the life of Elvis Presley. Elvis and his wonderful musical legacy are very important to us and we’ve both been fans for over 40 years. Our journey will lead us to Memphis, Nashville and Tupelo, but the first step was a visit to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas was at the center of Elvis’ entertainment life during his final years. After spending most of the 1960s making movies, it was in Las Vegas that Elvis began performing in front of his fans again for the first time in a decade. He appeared at a new hotel just off the Las Vegas strip known as the International Hotel (soon to be the Las Vegas Hilton), in the largest showroom in the city. Elvis was extremely nervous about returning to live performances. Would he still have “it”?  Would his fans still like him?  Could he compete with the likes of the Beatles and Rolling Stones?  It was a stressful time for him but succeed he did!  Between 1969 and his death in 1977, Elvis performed 837 shows at the Las Vegas Hilton Showroom, all sold out, entertaining some 2,500,000 fans. Those who saw Elvis perform in Vegas said this was the best place to see him live because he liked the intimacy of the smaller showroom (compared to large arenas and auditoriums); Elvis was relaxed and comfortable on stage here and spent a lot of time interacting with his fans.

As successful as Elvis’ latter years in Vegas were, his first performance in “Sin City” was far from eventful.  In 1956, just after he had scaled to the top of the national charts as a hip-swiveling young rocker with hits like ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ and ‘Hound Dog’, Elvis performed a two week stint at the New Frontier hotel (no longer in existence). The marquee billed him as the “Atomic Powered singer”. While he was popular with teens and young adults, he just didn’t connect with the hard gambling, smoking audience of that era. The reception he received was cool and he did not return for 13 years. Vegas and Elvis had both changed by 1969 and they were now ready for each other.

Over the years I’ve traveled to Las Vegas so often I’ve lost count, but would estimate it at around 20 visits. When we lived in Southern California it was a convenient place for a weekend get-away. And during my travels through the southwestern United States, Vegas was often an easy place to stop as part of a road trip. When I first visited the city over three decades ago it was a small city with only a few larger hotel resorts (which would be tiny by today’s standards). Rooms were cheap, as was the food, there were lots of great entertainers in town (Sinatra, Dean Martin, George Burns). Two story motels dominated the strip and wedding chapels and gambling dens dominated the older downtown area. Some theme hotels were being built (for example, Circus Circus) and that trend has snowballed over the decades.  Now Vegas is H-U-G-E!  The skyline and atmosphere of the city have changed dramatically (I wonder if Elvis would recognize it now?).  It seems that every year old hotels are torn down and replaced with massive multithousand room mega-resorts, each larger and more opulent than the last.  But this trip was not about Sin City, it was about visiting those sites that were connected with Elvis, at least such as still exist:

Elvis related things to do in Las Vegas.

1) Visit the Las Vegas Hilton, renamed the Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in 2012. It was in this showroom that Elvis entertained millions of people. While he was in town, one of every two people coming to Vegas was there to see his show. It was in the penthouse of this hotel that Elvis covered the windows with aluminum foil so that he could sleep during the days (and be ready for his 2 shows every night). When Elvis first performed here, the building was only 1/3 its current size.  Elvis fans said, with good reason I think, that Elvis built the other two wings.  A ticket to see Elvis at the hotel was only about $15.00, including food or drinks, but you’d have to tip several hundred dollars to be seated close to the stage (a small fortune in the 70s).  The maitre’d became a rich man thanks to Elvis’ fans.

After Elvis died, Barron Hilton commissioned a statue of the King. This originally was placed outside the showroom but now has been relocated to outside the complex beside the front entrance. It’s a great statue, worth stopping by to see!

2) Viva Elvis! We’d booked tickets to see the Viva Elvis show at the new Aria resort at City Center.  The show is great!  It highlights Elvis’ music, freshly edited and accompanied by live musicians, with the acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil. The show also features a lot of video clips from Elvis’ life including rare home movies. The showroom is modern and very comfortable and it was sold out.  It’s nice to know that 35 years after his death, the King still is a huge draw that packs them in!

3) Hard Rock Hotel & Cafe. While not in existence when he performed here, the Hard Rock features lots of Elvis memorabilia, including several suits of his clothes. Much of their memorabilia relates to Elvis’ Vegas performances.  It’s worth stopping by and looking around, even if you don’t need anything to eat or drink.

4) Elvis impersonators. There is always at least one of these around.  Trent Carlini’s show is popular at the old Hilton hotel.  The Legends in Concert show features many celebrity look and sound-a-likes, including an Elvis impersonator.

5) Watch Elvis’ movies, Viva Las Vegas and That’s the Way It Is.  Do this as homework before you come here. Elvis’ movies are not his greatest achievements, but these two stand out among the 30 films the King was in.  Viva Las Vegas was filmed here in the mid 1960s and co-starred the lovely and sexy Ann-Margaret.  Elvis and Ann-Margaret fell in love during the filming and the chemistry between them is evident on screen.  The film also has a great soundtrack.  The documentary, That’s the Way It Is, highlights the preparations for Elvis’ 1970 summer show at the International Hotel.  If you want to see what Elvis was like on stage and why his fans wanted to see him, watch this film.

There’s much more to in Vegas than visit Elvis-related stops, so be sure you take some time to walk the strip, stop at a few of the hotels, see some classic sights like the Bellagio’s fountain show in the lake outside of the resort, the pirate show at Treasure Island and the Volcano eruption at the Mirage. Do some shopping if you want, though bargains are few to be found. Visit the Freemont Street Experience downtown, a light and sound show on a multi-block long canopy that’s fun to watch (different artists are featured every hour).

See another Vegas show.   There are dozens to choose from which are changing weekly. There’s the classic “Vegas show”, usually featuring scantily clad dancing girls, acrobats, a comedian or some other talent.  Cirque d Soleil shows seem to dominate the showrooms of the larger newer resorts.  Big name (e.g. Celine Dion) stars often headline.

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I usually grow tired of the crowds and atmosphere of Las Vegas after a few days and then love to head out into the surrounding desert. There are three nearby attractions that I’d recommend if you want to do some hiking or exploring:

The Hoover Dam: One of the great engineering feats of the 20th century, this massive dam is what makes Las Vegas possible. If you’ve never been to Vegas before, then you should include this stop in your itinerary. It provides the power for the marquees and water for all the hotel rooms and fountains in the city. Stop by its Visitor Center and explore the vistas from the top of the dam   Tours of the interior are available. Also stop by the newly constructed Memorial Bridge, which spans the Colorado River gorge and provides a great view of the dam (you can walk out on the bridge for this).

Valley of Fire State Park. Situated at the north shore of Lake Mead, about an hour’s drive from Vegas, the bright orange-red color of the unusual rock formations here are best appreciated in the soft light of dawn or dusk. Hikes are available, some with petroglyphs, and sometimes you’ll see wild burros.

Red Rock Canyon.  Provides wonderful hiking and great scenery.

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