by Sarah Jane Woodall
If I hear one more crusty old-timer in Vegas ramble on about how much better this town was ?when the Mob ran Vegas,? I?m going to puke. What exactly is so idyllic about a bunch of murderous thugs running a city? But, love it or hate it, the history of Vegas is inextricably linked with the history of the Mafia?and in finest opportunistic Vegas fashion, the city has figured a way to capitalize on this rampant nostalgia.
Two ways, in fact ? in another of Vegas?s finest traditions (excess), there are ?rival? mob-themed attractions. The Mob Museum, located downtown in the old Federal courthouse building, is a real, big-city style Museum (with a capital M)?whereas the Tropicana Hotel, down on the Strip, makes no such pretensions with its Mob Attraction, featuring more of a Disney-style tourist attraction.
As a long-time Vegas resident and history buff, I very eagerly attended both sites, beginning with the Mob Museum, downtown in the actual building where the Kefauver anti-racketeering hearings were held back in the ?50s.
I was very impressed with the presentation and setup of this place ? the building itself lends an air of authenticity, and it is designed as a real museum-museum ? not like the fake tourist trap ?museums? that dot the Strip. There is actual history on display here, in a series of thorough, interactive exhibits starting on the 3rd floor, which is devoted to the early days of Vegas and the gambling industry, down through the 2nd floor, which deals with mobsters in the golden age of Vegas (the 50s through the 70s), finally ending up on the ground floor, which covers organized crime of today, as well as the Mafia mystique as glamorized by Hollywood.
To its credit, the Mob Museum doesn?t really glamorize the mob ? rather, it presents it in a gritty, sober fashion befitting a real Museum. Even the advertising speaks to this ethos: their ads read ?There are Two Sides to Every Story?? and indeed, this museum devotes an equal amount of time and floor space to the history of the FBI and the crime fighters themselves. That?s not to say it?s dull ? the exhibits are designed in a very clever, fun way, and it would be easy to spend at least 2-3 hours in here browsing around in here (not to mention the well-stocked gift shop). I enjoyed it thoroughly ? my only beef being that it closes at 8pm on weekends. Come on, this is VEGAS! Who has time to do all this before 8pm??
Next I cruised down the Strip to the Mob Attraction, at the Tropicana. I admit, I had low hopes for this place, having assumed from the ads and media hype that it was little more than schlock pandering to tourists. Plus, it?s located in a casino?and I hate parking at casinos, because it takes FOREVER to walk from your car to wherever you?re going. In the case of the Mob Attraction, it?s located all the way in the back of the sprawling Tropicana complex, back by the convention area?and is somewhat tricky to find.
Fortunately, immediately upon entering the Tropicana I ran into a strolling actor dressed as a mobster, who was basically roaming the property trying to lure tourists into the Attraction. This kind gentleman, who introduced himself as ?B. Genovese? in a stereotypical goombah accent, kindly led me all the way back through the casino to the Attraction ? and my low expectations were totally blown away!
True, the Mob Attraction is less formal about the presentation of its subject matter ? but formality is something of a liability in a city like Vegas, where the streets are clogged with flip-flop wearing fanny-packers toting yard-long daiquiris. Most Vegas tourists would rather eat at Hooters than a 5-star restaurant ? and along those same lines, I think most tourists would prefer the Mob Attraction to the Mob Museum.
The Mob Attraction has the look and feel of an elaborate Disney ride. You enter through the ?port of New York,? stopping at ?Ellis Island? to have your photo taken and to be issued ?immigration documents.? After these formalities, you enter the actual Attraction, which is a warren of exhibits and theme rooms peopled by live actors doing their best ?Fuhgeddaboutit? routines. As cheesy as it sounds, it?s actually done very well, and some of the rooms are very cleverly appointed: after meeting with a notorious ?crime boss,? you encounter an angry cop and a crooked casino employee who asks your advice on how best to punish a man caught cheating at cards. You walk through an Italian caf?, a courtroom, a casino count room and a casino surveillance room, among others. It?s VERY interactive, and very fun.
After the interactive portion of the tour, you enter a more traditional museum-like exhibit space, which showcases artifacts of clothing, jewelry and other items belonging to actual mobsters. But even this area feels more ?fun? than the exhibits at the Mob Museum. There are interactive touchscreens in every room, and everything is presented in such an engaging manner that you don?t even realize you?re learning about history. Perhaps most significantly, there is even a bar located in the middle of the museum part, so you can booze it up while browsing the exhibits. Just try that at the Mob Museum!
Other things to consider when deciding between the Attraction and the Museum: the Museum admission is $18 ($10 for Nevada residents), while the Attraction is more expensive, at $25 ($22 for NV residents). The cheaper price of the downtown Museum is probably due to the fact that you?ll have to take a cab to get there?whereas the Tropicana is right on the Strip, near a Monorail stop. But if you?re a compulsive shopper, it should be noted that the Mob Museum gift shop is much better stocked, and with more inventive inventory, than the one at the Mob Attraction.
All in all, after having digested both experiences, I find myself in a mild state of shock: I consider myself part of the liberal elite ? I listen to NPR, and prefer reading books to watching TV, and all of that sanctimonious crap. But it pains me to say that even I preferred the low-brow antics of the Mob Attraction to the more traditional approach of the Mob Museum. Maybe I?ve lived in Vegas too long, and my attention span has been warped.
Or maybe, the Mob Attraction is just more fun… plain and simple.
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