Tabu, a bar at the MGM Grand, glows as a prime example of Las Vegas nightlife.
Tabu, a bar at the MGM Grand, glows as a prime example of Las Vegas nightlife.
For The Washington Post

Boys Gone Wild

The traveling foursome of, left to right, Brad Wilson, Chi Nguyen, Alex Gilman and Chris Beam pose in front of a Mandalay Bay fountain.
The traveling foursome of, left to right, Brad Wilson, Chi Nguyen, Alex Gilman and Chris Beam pose in front of a Mandalay Bay fountain. (Brad Wilson - for The Washington Post)
By Christopher Beam
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Spring break is no time for self-examination. College students tend to celebrate their emancipation by either sitting on remote beaches or just sitting by the remote. But after 96 beer-pounding, burger-devouring, cigar-smoking, limo-riding, craps-shooting, Britney-stalking, money-losing, poor-decision-making hours in Sin City, I feel like I know myself -- and my limits -- better than even the most reflective tanners.

It began innocently enough. Three college friends and I signed up for a spring break package sponsored by National Lampoon Tours -- yes, the same people who threatened to shoot the dog -- that included four nights at Las Vegas's Plaza Hotel and Casino, a 96-hour open bar, three buffet meals a day and, according to the Web site, "nightly VIP entry into the city's hottest clubs." For $350, it had to be a scam.

The Lampoon, best known for the 1978 frat classic "Animal House," has since revised the genre with 2002's "Van Wilder" and reestablished the brand in America's dorm rooms. Someone at the Lampoon saw the writing on the drunken pledge's forehead: If John Belushi were alive today, he'd be on permanent spring break.

So last year National Lampoon Tours launched trips to Las Vegas and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; this year it added South Padre Island, Tex. Since 2005, the Vegas trip has nearly tripled its attendance from 80 to 230 over four weeks in March, and now shows the most promise, according to Justin Kanew, NLT's operations manager and director of the Vegas tour. "We're focusing on people returning year after year," he said. "You don't outgrow Vegas."

By day, NLT spring breakers eat, drink, sleep and gamble all within the Plaza Hotel, a towering monument to both Old Vegas and, judging by its clientele, old people. For the ambitious (meaning those willing to wake up before 4 p.m.), the package provides free shuttles to and from the Strip. By night, NLT arranges limo transportation, included in the package, to a preselected club. High rollers willing to pay the price can book rooms closer to the Strip at the Stratosphere or the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. But the Plaza, which hosts the open bar and the 24-hour buffet, serves as home base.

If the tour feels like a seat-of-the-pants operation, Kanew wears the pants. Talking a ragtag crew of mostly male tourists into a different Vegas club every night requires more than money. But Kanew exudes the calm control of a pledgemaster, ferrying anywhere from 30 to 100 guests a night by limo from the Plaza to the promised nightclub where, thanks to a VIP hosting service, the magic Lampoon wristbands let them bypass lines and waive covers.

"Seeing people wait, that kills me," he said.

Everything about this deal sounded too good to be true. So, with a week in mid-March to burn -- one last indulgence (if you don't count college itself) before graduation -- I put my thesis on hold and booked a flight to Vegas.

Day 1: Welcome to the Plaza

The four of us, friends since high school now teetering on the brink of Real Life, arrived separately. Alex and Chi, seniors at Middlebury College in Vermont, flew in Saturday night intending to take full advantage of the Plaza's open bar, only to find themselves unable to get into their room until 11 a.m. the next morning. Brad and I joined them Sunday night from our respective New York colleges, Cornell and Columbia. The last thing Alex's mother had told him before he boarded the plane was, "Just don't get arrested." So far, so good.

We didn't quite fit the Plaza's target demographic, which appeared to be the geriatric community, plus that subset of the American population that resembles Kenny Rogers. That's where we came in. The Lampoon supplied the youthful spirit -- that week the group's ages peaked at 27 -- while the Plaza supplied the other kind of spirits, on the house.

We walked downstairs to the casino floor at 7 p.m., also known as beer o'clock, to find three guys our age already posting up at the bar. Jason, a tall kid with a patchy beard, "bought" us a round of drinks, meaning he slammed four unlimited-supply drink tickets on the counter. Where alcohol is free, generosity abounds.

Girls, however, did not. The NLT home page features three women with the words "ENDLESS POSSIBILITIES" superimposed across their backsides. But as I scanned the stubbly jowls lined up at the hotel bar, the possibilities for any love but the fraternal kind seemed limited. The majority of the 36 attendees were men -- 24-hour testosterone-trippers, albeit with less fear and loathing than beer and loafing. What happened to the three-to-one babe-to-dude gender ratio Kanew had promised?

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