What’s a Skeptic to Do in Sin City?

Celestia Ward

Ahead of the upcoming CSICon, I thought I’d offer some advice on my hometown of Las Vegas. Vegas is a town practically built on fakery—but our fair city has the class to at least be upfront about it. The glitter you see is not gold, the odds are not in your favor, the “marble” on the casino frontage is merely vinyl wrap … and don’t even get me started on the showgirls’ frontage. So, really, skeptics can find something to interest (or annoy) them just about anywhere they look. I figured I would not bother repeating the typical tourist fluff you can find advertised on internet ads, billboards, and cabs. If you want to see a cirque show or be dazzled by Penn & Teller, you know how to find that.

Those who want to simply sightsee, perhaps in hopes of catching glimpses of bottom-feeding species like the Three-Card-Monte hustlers or the dreaded timeshare barkers, need not venture far from the hotel. And I’ll advise you to read Kenny Biddle’s breakdown of Zak Bagan’s “Haunted Museum” to help you decide if you want to pay money to see that local huckster’s—I mean entrepreneur’s—collection of spooky baubles. There are plenty of local sites that also come with urban legends or tales of violent crime, many of which are true (you can look up everything from mob hits in the 1960s and 1970s to the curious 2016 case of the fellow caught in flagrante delicto with a woman other than his fiancée, quite publicly, on the High Roller observation wheel who was then murdered months later). If crime scenes aren’t your thing, you could even search out the “time anomaly” discovered by Joshua P. Warren out on Interstate 93—though I would not recommend it. What I would recommend are the things below, each a quirky little slice of Las Vegas for those wanting to explore beyond the casino floor.

Wonderground 10/17

As it happens, CSICon coincides this year with a monthly magic event called Wonderground. Set for Thursday, October 17, at 8:00 pm, about 15 minutes from mid-Strip at 3850 East Sunset Road (an Uber will run you about $17 each way), Jeff McBride’s Wonderground is a gathering of local and visiting magicians that has been going on for years. My friends in the magic scene have described it as “the hippie magic party,” for in addition to several performances of impressive magic (early show at 8 pm, close-up at 9 pm, and late set at 10 pm), there are also typically some belly dance routines, other “ambient art,” and a bit of hookah smoking. These are magicians showing off for other magicians, so they always bring their A-game. A $20 entrance fee gets you in for the four-hour extravaganza, and the venue (Olive Mediterranean restaurant) offers food and alcoholic beverages. See more at VegasWonderground.com.

Zamora’s Vegas Sideshow & Las Vegas ‘Séanc’ at Royal Resort

Many skeptics and investigators of the strange find themselves drawn to oddities and sideshows—not so much to debunk as to enjoy. Zamora the Torture King, one of the original members of the Jim Rose Circus, resides in Vegas and, as of this writing, is performing regularly on the second floor of the Royal Resort (near the Las Vegas Convention Center, about two miles from the Flamingo Hotel). There, you will find Zamora himself taking your ticket, ushering you to a seat in a dim, poorly decorated space called (perhaps ironically) the Majestik Theater, introducing himself on a small speaker, and then astounding you with his incredible feats of nerve damage. Crowds are typically small, and you may find yourself with a private showing among six or seven new friends. This type of up-close, intense performance is rare in any city, let alone Las Vegas, and you’ll not forget what you see there. Ticket prices are artificially low—at $12, currently—so be sure to leave an extra donation or purchase one of Zamora’s books to support the sideshow arts. The same room also hosts a weekly “Las Vegas Séance” event Wednesdays at 9 pm (again, for a reasonable ticket cost of $10), advertised as “An entertaining exposé of the tricks of fraudulent mediums of a bygone era—followed by a genuine séance with celebrity spirits.” So, make of that what you will. Both events can be booked at www.Eventbrite.com, where shows are listed about a month in advance, and you can see more about Zamora on his Facebook page.

The Neon Museum

A special installment is set to debut on October 15, featuring original fine art by Tim Burton and sculptural and digital installations inspired by his unique aesthetic. There has been much local buzz about this, so you might want to buy tickets in advance if you plan on trying to get into the event (they are sold for specific hours; it’s a walk-through experience, not a museum where you can mill about all day). The Neon “boneyard” itself is a fantastic sight, and the tour is an evocative walk through Las Vegas’s past. The museum has recently incorporated digital projection to bring many of the old signs back to life in a display they call “Brilliant.” See more at NeonMuseum.org.

Pinball Hall of Fame

This is a truly hidden gem—and I suspect the proprietor goes to efforts to cloak his beautiful creation in drab camouflage so that only the chosen few can find it. The website looks right out of 1998. The squat gray building on 1610 E. Tropicana (just a few miles off the Strip) looks like an abandoned liquor warehouse, with signage that leaves much to be desired. But step inside and you will find 10,000 square feet of beeping, chirping, clanging, multi-ball fun. All the games are playable, and each comes with a handwritten placard listing the date of release and other notable facts about it. The rows and rows of pinball machines from all eras are joined by truly vintage games from Coney Island, as well as early arcade favorites such as Centipede, Cliff Hanger, Tapper, and many more. If the Ms. Pac-Man joystick is broken, I apologize; it was probably me. Luckily, the owner, Tim Arnold, is often holed up toward the back, wearing his head-lamp and magnifying glasses as he tinkers with the machines to keep them all running smoothly. The games are all playable, most for just a quarter, and the museum operates as a 501c-3 nonprofit, with any funds after overhead going to charity. See more at PinballMuseum.org.

National Atomic Testing Museum

This Smithsonian Institution affiliate is a trove of information about Nevada’s atomic age. At 755 East Flamingo Road, it’s roughly a $10 Uber away from mid-Strip, and admission is $22 but there are usually Groupon deals to be had. You can easily spend a couple of hours learning about the rise of atomic power and seeing plenty of artifacts from the era. Retired scientists and engineers who worked at the test site and various once-classified locations are often on hand as docents, happy to answer your questions—yes, even questions about Area 51!

See more at NationalAtomicTestingMuseum.org.

Downtown Las Vegas/Fremont Street Experience

The crowded, “classic” Vegas scene can be found downtown, along with its ragtag band of wandering street performers, discount drinks, fortune tellers, photo-op showgirls, and excessive zipline opportunities. There are free concerts there every weekend, and the open-air concert slated for October 19 is “Mudfest,” featuring Puddle of Mudd, Saliva, Trapt, Saving Abel, and Tantric. Many locals suspect that these concerts are funded by the Las Vegas Society of Pickpockets, so my advice is to enjoy the show but keep your wits about you. The resorts along the Freemont corridor offer a few deals and oddities: the California Club’s coffee shop has what I consider the best prime rib deal in town, $9.99 for a full prime rib dinner complete with salad bar, the fixin’s, and dessert. Evel Pie is a surreal Evel Kneivel–themed pizza joint that has every imaginable bit of memorabilia dedicated to the sainted stuntman. At Main Street Station, there is a men’s restroom where you can urinate on part of the Berlin Wall—you’ll have to “miss” the urinal just a bit, which I don’t condone, but I won’t tell on you either. Ladies, don’t feel left out, it’s quite common to sneak in there for a peek; security will even help you do so. Fremont Street is about nine miles North of the Flamingo Hotel, and the easiest and cheapest way to get there would be to hop on the Strip “Deuce” bus headed North.

Escape Rooms

There are a bunch of escape rooms in Las Vegas for any aficionados of these interactive puzzles. I leave it to you to Google the many options, from Wild West adventure to chemical weapons crises to good old-fashioned murder mysteries … but skeptics who take an interest in cheesy cryptid-themed fun might want to check out the immodestly named Number One Escape Room Las Vegas for their “Bigfoot Sighting in Las Vegas” room. See more at NumberOneEscapeRoom.com.

Zoltar Workshop

No, this is not a CFI-led workshop on how to read fortunes like Zoltar. Characters Unlimited, the workshop that creates these iconic fortune-telling machines (and many variants) is located about half an hour out of Las Vegas in Boulder City. If you happen to be renting a car to go visit Hoover Dam, this makes a delightful stop along the way. Not recommended for any who have a phobia of creepy animatronics. See more at Zoltar.org.