by Elizabeth Adams

"I just don't like the Luxor any more," Gladys says to her daughter and the Rio hotel representative. "They took out the Nile River tour. It just doesn't seem like Egypt any more." Her eyes twinkle behind thick glasses. She and her daughter have the same curly brown hair, hers more loosely wound. "We just love this hotel! It's our favorite."

Las Vegas is no longer the place that the mob and Howard Hughes created. Family attractions and fantasy properties--full scale pirate battles and animatronic Roman gods and goddesses have come to stand side by side the gambling, showgirls, and the hope that Elvis could play the Hilton again if he'd just come out of hiding. And I am happy to report that the assault on the senses that is Las Vegas has a new attraction. The Parade in the Sky runs six times a day high over gamblers' heads at the Rio Hotel and Casino, an all suite property north of the strip. The parade is a series of "floats" that hang from the ceiling, running along a track much like Disneyland's rides, only upside down.

Loosely based on three great festivals--New Orleans Mardi Gras, Rio de Janeiro's Carnival, and Venice's Carnivale--the Parade features performers on the floats, circus-like trapeze artists who drop from holes in the ceiling, and an elaborate stage show where performers greet and receive guests for pictures (for a nominal fee, of course). There is live and recorded music, dancing, and the throwing of beads and drink coupons down to the outstretched hands of the audience. And this fantasy lets you ride along. That's right, your average Las Vegas tourist can pay the Rio a consideration and be in the parade.

Early one Tuesday morning I decided that we needed to ride in the parade. The force of my conviction (and $13) has led me and my reluctant partner to a rendezvous for the 10:00 show--Venice!

The two women standing near us segue from the Luxor lament to more personal matters. The older one introduces them, "Nancy and Gladys." She speaks to us in a low conspiratorial tone, "It's Nancy's fortieth birthday." They're from the Pacific Northwest and "love Las Vegas."

"I told her we had to do something really special for her fortieth birthday. We were going to have dinner at the top of the Stratosphere but she didn't feel good," Gladys tells us.

Nancy nods, indicating her assent, "slept right through the reservation."

Gladys is on a dispensing wisdom roll, "I think it's important that she do something today. You know that poem? The one about purple? 'When I'm old I'm going to wear purple.'" She turns to her daughter and says earnestly, "the purple thing is really important."

My partner hasn't committed to the experience yet. "We're not sure why we're here. Why are you doing this?"

Gladys smiles and points at her daughter, "Well, for her. And for my husband. He died last year and we loved to come to Las Vegas together. When I come here, I remember him."

This stops the conversation for a moment. Then we dutifully follow the Rio woman upstairs. After we watch a safety video ("no standing in the floats!"), she instructs us to get dressed. Like Gladys and Nancy, we're to be "phantoms" and we go to our lockers to dress in our black velvet robes, skull-caps and puffy tricorns. Gladys thinks we all look great. "Now do you know why you did it?" she beams.

We climb aboard our vessel--the riverboat--and buckle in. "We picked the riverboat, it's the best float and this is the best show," grins Gladys. "Is this your favorite?" When I confess I hadn't really formed an opinion or picked a float, she pats my hand. "It is the best one, don't worry."

Gladys is enraptured with the performers who all try to make us feel at home. One dancer tells us that she's going to play a trick on our pilot. Sure enough, as her float pulls out she lifts her skirt and gives him a lovely moon shot. Gladys howls.

The fifteen minutes we're out in the casino seem to fly by. We beat our tambourines to "I'm So Excited" and "Volaré" (it is the Venice parade after all). Gladys and Nancy keep their beating on time and without ceasing. I, who really have very little rhythm, keep losing the beat, and my energy flags with each new song. Gladys tries to keep me on the beat. I chastise myself. If she can bang a tambourine for fifteen minutes, then so can I. Then my puffy tricorn starts slipping down over my eyes. Gladys's is still perched on her head like a crown.

As we make our way around the Masquerade Village, people wave and smile at us. Gladys pokes me, "You have to wave at the children." I try to be more vigilant. As we enter the final turn, Gladys excitedly points out her son-in-law and hopes out loud that he'll take good pictures. "She needs to remember this day."

Nancy who was at first embarrassed by her mother and her enthusiasm, grins, "Yeah, I do."

After we float back in, sweaty and happy, Gladys checks in with us again. "Do you know why you did it now?"

My partner says, "Because it was fun." Gladys nods her approval.

We make our way down with them to the photoshop where our "professionally taken pictures" are waiting. We help each other pick the best shots and then part ways. Later, using our drink coupons in the bar, we see them walk by. "We should invite them up for a drink," my partner says. I smile. Maybe when I turn forty, I'll wear purple, just for Gladys.

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