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?
At 10:30, we beelined it from the bar to the hotel's front entrance, bottles raised in a drunken war-whoop. Some of the guests cheered back. Most didn't look up from their slots.
After a few minutes, a stretch Hummer rolled up to the Plaza's driveway and we piled in. Our destination: Risque, a club in Paris Las Vegas. As farcical as casino themes may be, it's stunning how unironically we assimilated them. The clove cigarettes emerged. My shirt somehow came unbuttoned.
Come 3 a.m. we found ourselves back at the Plaza, face-deep in the buffet, topping off the unholy amount of alcohol in our stomachs with full plates of fried chicken, stir-fry, home fries, pancakes, bacon and the occasional string bean. We drained our water glasses, chewed the ice, headed upstairs and let gravity do the rest.Day 2: A Strip Tease
Given our diet, our band of four decided to power-walk the Strip. We drifted from one mega-hotel to another, spectators in the never-ending game of one-upmanship among competing Las Vegas resorts -- like an arms race, but with eyesores. First the Venetian, then New York-New York, then Luxor . . . It was Epcot Center for people who find Epcot too deep. We even had our own idea for a hotel. Call it the Las Vegas Las Vegas. Inside is everything you would find in the city itself, except now you don't have to leave the hotel to get to it!
That night we rode a yellow limo, dubbed the "banana-wagon," to Mandalay Bay, the three-pronged luxury hotel that overlooks the rest of the Strip. After bypassing the line to the penthouse Foundation Room, we lit up factory-second cigars on the balcony, surrounded by outdoor heaters. As we beheld the Strip, laid out below us in its pointillist glory, we searched for the words to describe this level of partying. Oh right, "beyond our means."
In college, a girl may be out of your league. In Vegas, she is out of your tax bracket. At Mandalay Bay, they were both. After blowing a few dramatic smoke rings, I struck up a conversation with some girls from Chicago staying at the MGM Grand. I made the mistake of bragging about my discount tour package. I then enthusiastically told one of them I major in history. If the conversation hadn't been over before it began, it ended there.
"It's okay, man," Chi told me. "They were beasts in disguise."
Three botched pickups later, we returned to the hotel to rest up. A big day lay ahead.Day 3: Beer Pong or Bust
We ate a breakfast of champions. I carbo-loaded and chugged water. Chi ate the better part of a melon. Brad sandwiched a layer of fro-yo between two chocolate chip cookies. Today would require discipline, physical and spiritual. For only one team would win the intramural Beer Pong Tournament, and we would be that team.
An hour later, 28 guys -- 14 teams of two -- sat along the periphery of a large party space, sizing up the competition. Ten foldout tables stood bare except for basic equipment: plastic cups, Ping-Pong balls and "Mint Tingle" Trojans, the last serving as yet another sad reminder that we all had Y chromosomes. The premise of Beer Pong is simple: Whichever team sinks the most Ping-Pong balls in their opponents' cups wins.
Kanew shushed the room and announced the teams. Alex and Chi were Michael Irvin's Glove Compartment. Brad and I, ruling out physical intimidation, had signed up as the Apostles of Pain. The winner, Kanew said, would receive a bottle of Grey Goose vodka and VIP treatment at the club that night.
"And these aren't fat dudes serving drinks," he reminded us. "These are hot waitresses."
Brad and I sat out the first round and studied the other teams' strategies. A skinny guy named Thomas chanted obscenities as Mitch, who was approximately the size of a flatbed truck, released the ball into a high arc and -- splish -- sank it.
Thomas chugged the cup, shook himself loose, soaked the ball in the wash cup and prepared to retaliate. All he had to do was ignore the massive, hairy butt that now provided the heinous backdrop to his target. "None of you [gentlemen] are drinking my Grey Goose!" Mitch shouted, spanking himself.
I looked away. Our turn was up. We knew our distraction technique paled compared with what we had just witnessed. But we took off our shirts anyway to reveal "St. Chris" and "St. Brad" tattooed in Sharpie pen across our pasty chests. Our opponents, a team called Pretty Good, stared blankly. Then, "Ha, I get it, apostles . . . funny." They proceeded to crucify us, only with Ping-Pong balls.
The champions, a pair from Tennessee, handled their victory with poise. Not once had their zippers come undone. That night they nursed a tall bottle of top-shelf vodka in the VIP section of Studio 54, while acrobat dancers dangled from the ceiling. Beyond our means.Day 4: Oops! We Did It Again
Having failed to dominate in Beer Pong, we dedicated our last day to what we do best: eating. The Las Vegas Club, a casino across the street from the Plaza, offers a nine-pound burger free to anyone who can consume it in 24 hours. The competitive eater Sonya Thomas, aka the Black Widow, supposedly downed it in 48 minutes. She's a 105-pound woman. We're four healthy men. At least we were before we ingested an entire cow.
"We'll have the burger," we said as the waiter approached our booth. His face darkened. He knew the burger of which we spoke.
He returned 30 minutes later carrying the platter on his shoulder -- 40 pounds in all, including fries -- and sliced the foot-long burger into eighths, like a pizza. We each took one.
Patrons slowed as they passed our table, like drivers eyeing an accident. "I've never seen anything like that before," said a graying passerby. Halfway into the slice, I started to feel hot. Morgan Spurlock would have been weeping into his bun right now. "I'm in pain," Chi said. When I looked up again, he had his face in his hands and was breathing heavily.
When the bill came, half of the $50 burger remained uneaten.
On the short but slow walk back to the hotel, I questioned the logic of our consumption. We ate the burger . . . because it was a challenge? Because it tasted good? To say we did it? Certainly not because of hunger.
"It's Vegas," Brad said. "Never ask why."
Back in the room, I lay down on the bed and listened to my heart. Each beat was a pleasant surprise. Our recovery period lasted 45 minutes before we threw on clothes and piled into the banana-wagon.
When we entered Tao, the Japanese-themed nightclub tucked into the Venetian, we knew it was classy: Stone bathtubs sprinkled with flower petals lined the entry. We knew it was popular: Beautiful bodies bumped us on all sides. We did not know it was Kevin Federline's birthday.
Britney Spears sat in the corner below a reclining Buddha, sipping a cocktail and peering out from under a white cowboy hat. We reached the edge of her cordoned-off buffer zone and my heart skipped a beat -- probably the hamburger.
Brad and I knew what we had to do.
Whipping out his Polaroid camera, Brad wormed his way toward the velvet rope, where three linebackers with earpieces scanned the crowd. Alex and I positioned ourselves at the bar, ready to interfere -- or run -- at signs of trouble.
Brad leaned against a pillar and waited for the right moment. Soon three girls started snapping giggly photos of each other. Using their flashes as cover, Brad raised the camera over his head and aimed it down at Britney. Click .
Brad yanked out the print and tried to throw it, ninja star-style, to Alex. It veered off into a corner. The linebackers formed a triangle around Brad; a fourth dived for the photo and tore it up. The owner pushed through and seized Brad by the lapels. "Listen, [ugly]-face," he said. "I told you not to photograph the VIPs." They tossed him out.
"Don't let that [fellow] back in with that camera," the owner told the bouncer. Brad stashed the camera in a potted plant and joined us again inside.
Alex sidled up to Kanew, brimming with a story. "Dude, I invited Britney back to my place, but she said no!"
"Did you tell her about the buffet?" Kanew said, flashing a smile. "The prime rib?"
Somewhere, at the bottom of some Vegas dumpster, those 16 pieces of torn Polaroid are waiting to be taped together and tacked to our dorm wall. But whatever. She's out of our tax bracket anyway.
Back at the Plaza, we went straight for the buffet. Stir-fry and pancakes again. Britney had no idea what she was missing.
So we'd indulged ourselves a little. Of the Seven Deadlies, we'd only enthusiastically violated four. One a day. Some Sloth, a bit of Gluttony. No Wrath, though, and no Envy, unless you count my feelings toward Federline. In Sin City, a nickname that derives from the flouting of Scripture, that's not a bad record.
Next spring, National Lampoon Tours offers packages to Las Vegas (four nights, from $349), Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (four nights, from $505), and South Padre Island, Tex. (seven nights, from $475), during March, not including air. Prices subject to change. Details: 877-465-8687,http://www.nationallampoontours.com.
Christopher Beam is a senior at Columbia University.