Stratosphere employee Ruby Malalay thinks I’m a total wuss, and she’s probably right. She wants me to join her on the Stratosphere’s X-Scream ride, a long, green vessel that cantilevers 866 feet over Las Vegas Boulevard.
No thanks, I tell the 76-year-old pipsqueak nearly a foot-and-a-half shorter than me.
“You are scared?” she asks.
She shrugs, lets it go and does it herself, leaving me off to question my virility. Thrill rides are not my thing, so much so that I’ve turned down many assignments asking me to grade Vegas’ roller coasters. What would be the point if I was going to keep my eyes as tightly shut as possible until someone told me it was over?
To Ruby, thrill rides make life worth living. She’s done the Big Shot, which hoists you 160 feet into the air at 45 miles per hour, at least 6,458 times. She’s twirled around over the town 64 feet over the edge of the Stratosphere on Insanity more than 1,000 times, and she’s plunged on the SkyJump, which lowers you 855 feet in 60 seconds, eight times. The aforementioned turn on X-Scream marked her 3,085th go. She tracks her times on the Big Shot and X-Scream in a notebook at home; she’s less enthused about Insanity, so she doesn’t keep such meticulous records.
Stratosphere brass say Ruby holds the frequency records for the Big Shot and X-Scream, and it’s hard to imagine they’re wrong, because she can do so for free every working day year after year. She often does so on her breaks, insisting she never takes a front-row seat if others want them or makes a paying tourist wait.
“For me, when I ride, it’s fun, she says. “I forget my stress.”
Ruby was raised on a rice paddy in a rural part of the Philippines. Her son joined the U.S. Navy at the American base on the Pacific island nation, and she moved with him when he was stationed in San Diego in 1988. In 1996, after she and some cousins came to Vegas, she got a job at the newly opening Stratosphere’s observation deck snack bar. The 4-foot-8 woman found that gig too strenuous—she couldn’t lift the cases of beer—so she was reassigned to housekeeping. That, too, was a rough experience.
“I was crying because I could not do it,” she says, recalling being overwhelmed at handling 70 rooms a day on her own. “The third day, went to human resources crying. I said, ‘You don’t have to fire me. You have to give me another job I can do.’”
Oh, for the Las Vegas where jobs were so plentiful a resort could reassign someone to a job of her choosing! And her third position—a rides operator—not only stuck but became a claim to fame. She may be one of the biggest Vegas celebrities you’ve never heard of, having appeared on the Travel Channel and elsewhere as the unlikely face of Vegas’ most daring attractions. In the half-hour we spent together, two sets of tourists said they recognized her and asked for photos, and many others snapped pictures of her without asking.
She now takes tickets at the tower base and runs the elevator, having given up the rides operator post four years ago because she no longer could handle being out in the heat and wind. But she still does her part interacting with tourists either on the way up or when she’s on the rides.
If you’re up there with her, though, be prepared for an unusual pep talk when you’re in the thrall of pre-ride terror.
“When they ride the X-Scream, I ask, ‘Why are you holding on so tight? If it happens, we’ll all go down anyway,’” she giggles, hastening to add that the rides are actually totally safe. “I tell people to relax and enjoy. And raise your hands.”