LAS VEGAS -- Huddled inside the Luxor hotel-casino, a trio of newly minted 21-year-olds are big on dreams, but short on know-how. The girls want to play blackjack, but where do they get the chips?
Leslie Berlin, a junior at Vanderbilt University, shrugs off their inexperience and throws her arms around her best friends.
"We're gambling virgins!"
And so the odyssey begins for the barely legal in this city of megajackpot dreams and sinful excesses, the destination for those seeking their first legal drink and roll of the dice. After all, what better place to celebrate turning 21 than the town that turns on 21?
Whether it's that last party before getting hitched or actually doing the deed in one of the area's dozens of wedding chapels, Sin City is a rite of passage for tens of thousands each year.
And for many of those celebrating their 21st birthday, this desert oasis has become America's must-see partyground.
"In Las Vegas, every night is a Saturday night," says Jenn Michaels, vice president of public relations for MGM Mirage. "It's always a party."
For the visitors from Vanderbilt, it truly is a Saturday night in Vegas. Sashaying through the crowd in skirts that would make a cheerleader blush, they enjoy the moment.
"I've been waiting for this day my whole life," says Ellen Africano, a pre-nursing student who turned 21 the day before.
Spotting a nearly empty blackjack table, the young women sit down and nervously pull out a few twenties, giggling.
"I'm scared they're going to laugh at us," Africano whispers.
Holding out the money to the dealer, which is a minor casino faux pas, they are quickly asked for their IDs.
"It's the skirt," Berlin says. "It makes me look 12."
The dealer motions for them to place their money on the table and casts a wary eye at the little plastic cards. An all-access pass in Sin City, IDs guarantee a seat at the table of indulgence.
"You can't get in anywhere unless you're 21," says Sarah Pachtman, a Vanderbilt senior. "It's the hardest of the hard to get in. It's the holy grail of IDs. Nothing but the real thing works."
The heady rush of a spinning roulette wheel. The buzz of asking a bartender for a rum and coke. The ease of getting into a club with a legitimate ID. It all makes for a winning combination in this city of all-nighters and anything goes attitudes.
But why has Las Vegas become the place to be and be seen for 21-year-olds?
"Sin is in. Skin is in," says Anthony Curtis, editor of Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer newsletter that tracks casino promotions and gambling trends.
Curtis says Las Vegas always has drawn those crashing into adulthood, although the city has seen a boost in recent years thanks to Hollywood.
There was that salacious season of MTV's "The Real World," in which a group of twentysomethings lived it up at the Palms hotel-casino. Then there was "Ocean's Eleven," in which George Clooney and Brad Pitt evoked the old-school cool of vintage Vegas. And most recently, NBC's show "Las Vegas" has captured audiences with its sexy plot lines and even sexier cast.
"When somebody turns 21, they feel like all the boundaries are broken. They're going to drink and party and start their adult life, and what better place to do that than in Vegas?" Curtis says.
New York may be the city that never sleeps, but the tick-tock of the Vegas party clock is unrelenting. The girls from Vanderbilt leave gambling behind as they head to the MGM Grand hotel-casino and Tabu, a chic club that bills itself as "ultra lounge."
With European house music blaring in the background, the girls empty a bottle of vodka and dance on the table (it's encouraged).
"Las Vegas has every vice that exists," says Candace Carrell, the club's general manager.
The girls are ready for their next adventure so they head to the club of all nightclubs - Studio 54, where everyone dares to be decadent.
Recreated in all its sinful glory, Studio 54 is one of the oldest of the trendy clubs on the Strip. Its promise of "erotically delicious entertainers" is too much for most to ignore.
On this night, the club is packed and those lined up 100-deep are drawn to the staccato rhythms emanating from the three-story club.
"There's something magical and surreal about Las Vegas. There's something magical and surreal about doing something you were never supposed to," Africano says. "And when you put the two of them together, it's awesome."
Standing in line, the girls dance and sing along to "I Love Rock N' Roll," blaring from nearby speakers. The line inches ahead, moving one step closer to the promise of lost inhibitions.
At Studio 54, the bouncers automatically ask the girls for their ID.
Berlin, who turned 21 two weeks before flying to Vegas, doesn't hesitate. The card is her ticket to freedom.
"It feels worry-free," she says.
The doorman ushers the young ladies through the line.
"This is where all the walls come down," he says. "It's the ultimate place for the ultimate sins."
It's well after midnight when the trio gets inside. They work their way through the crowd, head to the bar and later the dance floor, where the bump-and-grind never ends and includes more than a few gropes and grabs.
But even the party-hardy eventually run out of steam. After watching one girl get sick on the bar, Pachtman heads back to the hotel. Berlin and Africano soon follow.
Her feet aching, Africano has a moment of indecision. She is torn over whether she should take her shoes off and walk barefoot - a frequent sight as the sun rises over the Strip.
"My mom always said a real girl never takes off her shoes," Africano says.
In the end, her feet win out. But moments later a young woman, apparently struggling with the same decision, walks by and tells her friend, "See? She's not wearing shoes."
Horrified, Africano quickly puts her shoes back on.
"I would rather bleed than be trashy," she says. "We had the most gangsta night in my 21 years of existence."
Berlin smiles and throws her arm around her best friend.
"At least I wasn't the girl vomiting on the bar."
If You Go...
LAS VEGAS TOURISM: Contact the city's official Convention and Visitors Authority via www.lvcva.com or call (702) 892-0711.
TABU: At the MGM Grand, 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 p.m. to dawn. Call (702) 891-7183 or click on "Entertainment" link at www.mgmgrand.com.
STUDIO 54: At the MGM Grand, 3799 S. Las Vegas Blvd. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 p.m. to early morning. Call (702) 891-7254 or visit www.studio54lv.com.
MGM GRAND HOTEL: Visit www.mgmgrand.com or call (877) 880-0880. Room rates begin at $59.95 per night.
LUXOR: Visit www.luxor.com or call (888) 777-0188. Room rates begin at $59 per night.
PROOF OF AGE: You must be 21 to gamble, drink or get into clubs like Tabu or Studio 54. Be prepared to show proof of age, such as driver's license or passport. Luxor issues a wristband through its security office to show workers that a guest has been cleared to gamble.