Vegas Staycation

During the summer of 2008, I worked in the newsroom of the now-defunct Tampa Tribune. It was once considered cutting edge, with a converged newsroom for its newspaper, television and online operations. Wow! Anyway, I helped produce multimedia — “what’s an audio slideshow?” my 16-year-old recently asked me as I instantly aged a million years — and launched, an entertainment site ( was the cutting edge domain for the website, short for “Tampa Bay Online”). I just pulled the piece I wrote for the launch, published Aug. 4, from the Wayback Machine and wanted to save it here.

TAMPA – The allure of Las Vegas, that city’s tourism flacks will tell you, is its collection of celebrity chefs and world-class shopping.

We beg to differ. Vegas isn’t nicknamed Sin City because it has a Barney’s New York. The foundation of the city’s fame is gambling, flashy entertainment and lots of flesh.

But the economic downturn and the rise of gas and air travel costs have meant that visitors to Vegas are having less fun (and by “having fun” we mean “gambling”; in May, gambling revenues were down more than 15 percent from a year ago). Coincidentally, we’ve been saddled with the atrocious coinage “staycation” to describe a stay-at-home vacation.

Which got us thinking: Who needs to travel to Vegas? You can have the same fun without leaving the Tampa area.

Well, sort of.

For a change of scenery during your next stay-at-homer, we offer an itinerary of sorts: a night in Vegas … in Tampa Bay.

Noon: Go crazy
If Vegas was built on gambling, its dining scene — no matter how alluring to the foodie set it may have become — was built on buffets. So start the night with a bite at Crazy Buffet. You won’t find the standard Vegas cheap-‘n’-greasy, but for $15.99 you can gorge yourself on the buffet’s weekend brunch, featuring a steak hibachi, sushi and sashimi. (After 5 p.m., the buffet switches to dinner and the cost goes to $19.99.)

1 p.m.: A Vegas landmark
Tourists love getting their picture taken in front of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada” sign on the south end of the strip, says Alicia Malone, a public relations representative for the Las Vegas visitor’s bureau. Yeah, it sounded like a pretty lame attraction to us, too. But since you’re spending a night in Vegas on the Bay, you might as well swing by a Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino “Vegas-Style Slots” billboard for a picture. One is located on Busch Boulevard near Interstate 275.

1:30 p.m.: Serious gaming
With a meal and a tourist photo out of the way, you’re ready to move on to the most Vegas-y event of the day: sitting and mindlessly playing the slots at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino for hours on end. While the casino doesn’t offer many card games, it does offer poker if slots aren’t your thing.

5 p.m.: A little flesh
What would a night out in Vegas be without a little flesh? (Answer: Phoenix, Ariz.) The Penthouse Club Steakhouse offers one variety of flesh on a plate and another on a pole. The prices can be a little, er, stiff — $45 for a 12-ounce aged New York strip steak — but you’re here for the food, right? (If you show up after 8 p.m. only to consume the Penthouse stripping, and not the steak, it’s $10 to get in.)

7:30 p.m.: A Tampa landmark
Tampa’s answer to Wayne Newton is Johnny Charro. Charro no longer performs in Bay area hotel ballrooms as he did when he was 40 years younger. Instead, he makes regular appearances at the American Legion and Tampa Bay Sports Grille. The setting may be less elegant (and the cocktail waitresses not up to Vegas standards), but Charro is still a crooner and a charmer — at least, if you find pudgy crooners charming.

9 p.m.: Fountains
Vistors to Las Vegas, our Vegas tourism expert assures us, love the Bellagio fountains on the strip, where they can watch the water come alive as it dances to nauseatingly melodramatic Celine Dion songs. On your way back from the Charro show, you’ll want to stop by the fountains in front of the Fox 13 studios on Kennedy Boulevard. Actually, you won’t — they’re painted swimming-pool blue and have no water in them — but it’s as close to the Bellagio’s fountains as the Bay gets, unless you count the flooding on south Howard after a good summer drenching.

9:30 p.m.: Artificial fun
You can’t have the true Vegas experience without spending some time in an artificial environment built solely for amusement. The Las Vegas strip has New York, New York, but the Bay has the world’s largest bowling pin and the rest of the supremely cheesy Channelside Bay Plaza. (Full disclosure: The Tampa Tribune and have a business arrangement with the plaza.) Options for late night entertainment include Splitsville, a combination bowling alley, bar and restaurant, and Howl at the Moon, a lounge with dueling pianos. Stump’s Supper Club features a shag-carpet-covered stage and house band Jimmy James and the Velvet Explosion. Cirque du Soleil they are not.

You’re in good shape to ride out the night in Channelside and let whatever happens happen — because for one night, at least, what happens in Tampa Bay, stays in Tampa Bay. Not that it does you any good when you get home.