9.5 DOWNTOWN stroll ...Old Las Vegas
The famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign on south Las Vegas Boulevard really is not located in (or even close to) Las Vegas. While many people believe this sign marks the official entrance to Las Vegas, the city limits are actually some four miles north. The area between the sign (on the southern end of the strip) and the Stratosphere Hotel-Casino is actually in the township of Paradise, Nevada. The real Las Vegas is down town.
The downtown area is completely separate from the Strip. To get there, you go about a mile north of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard to Fremont Street ...named after John C. Fremont, an early (mid-1800's) explorer of the American West. Fremont Street was the first street to be paved in Las Vegas ...in 1925.
Gambling was legalized in 1931 and Fremont Street was transformed into Glitter Gulch with hundreds of neon signs. But little by little, casinos opened south of town on what would become the Las Vegas Strip.
The era of the megaresort arrived in 1989 when Steve Wynn opened The Mirage. It was followed by about a dozen new hotels along the strip. Instead of gambling, the main attraction was now family vacations ...something down town never adopted. Downtown is all about gambling.
Over the next decade, there was a mass exodus of tourists and construction away from downtown to the Las Vegas Strip. To combat the drop in visitors, the Fremont Street Experience was built in 1994 to lure tourists back downtown.
To get downtown, take the No. 301 or 302 Strip bus north from any location along the Strip. Get off at Fremont Street, about a mile north of the Stratosphere Hotel. The Fremont Street Experience is west of Las Vegas Boulevard.
After you get off the bus you will notice, Neonopolis ...the first building on the right. This multimillion dollar attraction opened in 2002 and was supposed to have been a three-story entertainment, restaurant and shopping complex to compliment the existing Neon Museum and its antique signs. But multiple anchor tenants backed out. A 14-screen theater is a major component of the project. By agreement, there is no casino and, so far, the complex is largely empty. The future of this struggling complex is unknown and the property has been put up for sale.
The Fremont Street Experience is a one-of-a-kind entertainment venue extending four blocks along Fremont Street. It consists of a 1,500 foot long, 90-foot high overhead canopy between several hotels along Fremont Street from Las Vegas Boulevard to Main Street.
This section was permanently closed to automobile traffic and made into a covered pedestrian promenade for tourists to stroll along.
The canopy’s twelve million lights are computer animated to make up the world’s largest cartoon screen. At the top of the hour beginning at dusk and continuing until midnight, all of the casinos turn off their neon lights, and the ceiling comes alive with a stunning light show. A state-of-the-art sound system pumps more than half a million watts of music and sound effects into speakers placed along its length.
The objective of the Fremont Street Experience was to revitalize downtown and make it an exciting place to visit. So far, the success has been limited. But some 10 to 15 million visitors do come downtown each year to see and hear the free concerts, special events, and roaming street performers every night.
Let’s walk down Fremont Street on the right (west) and come back on the other side of the street. The first hotel along the Fremont Street Experience is the Fremont.
The Fremont Hotel-Casino opened in 1956. It has 447 small rooms, a 32,000 square foot casino ...and little else. Table minimums are lower than on the Strip, typically $5, and is a favorite of elderly local low-rollers. It is owned by Boyd Gaming who also own the California Hotel-Casino and Main Street Station Casino Brewery and Hotel downtown.
Binion's Gambling Hall & Hotel originally opened as the Horseshoe in 1951 and became Binion’s Horseshoe in 1966 ...named for its founder, Benny Binion. The family-owned hotel is the original home of the legendary World Series of Poker (WSOP). It was closed by the IRS for non-payment of taxes in January 2004. Two months later, Harrah's bought the Horseshoe for the purpose of obtaining the brand name and the World Series of Poker.
The 366 room hotel-casino was then sold to West Virginia-based MTR Gaming, a racetrack operator. Binion’s is home to the Poker Hall of Fame photo gallery which highlights winners of the annual World Series of Poker. The gambling is OK, but the rooms (even though low priced) are lousy.
The Vegas Club and the Plaza (next door)was bought by Barrick Gaming in March 2004. The property has a large collection of sports memorabilia in its Sports Hall of Fame,. The walls are covered with photographs, posters, jerseys and an autographed baseball bat exhibit. Waitresses wear cheerleader outfits. Barrick is currently in the process of restoring and updating these properties. Hotel has 418 sports-themed rooms with low prices ...and quality to match.
The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce unveiled a neon sign character named Vegas Vic - a 40-foot neon cowboy - on Fremont Street in 1947. He is still there and is downtown's most famous neon sign. It can be found near the west end of Fremont Street underneath the canopy.
Plaza Hotel-Casino is located right at the very end of the Fremont Street Experience. This hotel (which dates back to the 1940's) is located at the Union Pacific Railroad terminal and trains still use it as a depot. In 1971 the Union Hotel was renamed Union Plaza, and in 1992 it became Jackie Gaughan's Plaza. The hotel has 1,037 (375 square foot) rooms ($50/night class) in two towers and an 80,000 square foot casino. At one time, it was the biggest hotel in Nevada. The Plaza is now one of the downtown hotels owned by Barrick Gaming. They used to have $1 blackjack tables and penny slots but maybe not now with the new ownership. This 24-floor property is showing its age but Barrick plans to update it.
The Main Street Station Casino Hotel & Brewery opened in 1977 and is located at the far northwest corner of downtown, a couple of blocks from the Fremont Street Experience. Owned by Boyd Gaming, this turn-of-the-century old world Victorian-themed property has a large collection of antiques, memorabilia and stained glass. There is also a piece of the Berlin Wall in the men’s restroom. Their Garden Court Buffet is one of the best ones downtown. (Breakfast is only $5.75.) This may be second best hotel downtown. (430 rooms.)
The California Hotel & Casino is a 781 room (23 floor) Hawaiian-themed hotel owned by Boyd Gaming. It opened in 1975 and caters primariy to tourists from Hawaii. Rooms are about $50/night.
You should be at the corner of Main Street and Fremont. Next, let’s walk back (east) toward Las Vegas Boulevard under the Fremont Street Experience canopy.
The historic Golden Gate Hotel-Casino first opened in 1906 as the Hotel Nevada and is the oldest (their address is One Fremont Street) and smallest hotel on the street with only 106 rooms (3 floors.) It is where Las Vegas started. In 1931 gambling was legalized and the hotel changed its name to Sal Segav (Las Vegas spelled backwards.) In the 1950's the name became the Golden Gate ...named by its San Francisco owners. They started serving their famous shrimp cocktail in 1959 and has been doing so ever since. (Cost: 99 cents, available in the back Shrimp Bar & Delicatessen.) It served its 25 millionth shrimp cocktail in 1991. A piano plays nightly in the center of the casino. (Rooms cost around $50/night and are VERY small ...original size: 100 sq. ft.)
The Golden Nugget is the best and most upscale hotel in downtown Las Vegas and is also the largest with 1,805 guest rooms and 102 suites and penthouses. The property, one of the oldest in Las Vegas, opened as just a gambling hall in 1946.
In the early 1970's, Steve Wynn obtained a controlling interest and renovated and added hotel rooms to the Golden Nugget. It was a huge success. (Rooms usually cost around $50 to $75/night.) The Golden Nugget buffet is excellent.
The hotel has the world's largest gold nugget at 61 pounds 11 ounces on public display. (Trivia: It was found behind a school in 1980 by an individual using a metal detector in Victoria, Australia.) There is a painting in the lobby by LeRoy Neiman that depicts high-stakes table games. In February, 2005, the hotel was bought by Landry Restaurants of Houston, owner of Joe’s Crab Shack (and many other brands).
The Four Queens, named after the owner's four daughters, opened in 1955 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. With dazzling lights out front, the Four Queens takes up a whole city block. It started out with 120 rooms and, after several expansions, now has nearly 700 rooms (Rates: $40 to $50.). The Four Queens has one of the best gourmet restaurants in Las Vegas, Hugo’s Cellar. Ladies get a rose. (Entrees: $30-$50.)
Weddings in Las Vegas are booming! – An interesting place downtown to visit is the Marriage Bureau at 200 S. 3rd Street, 1st floor. It is located on South Third Street between the Four Queens and Fitzgerald’s Hotel-Casino ...go about a block south of Fremont Street. It is open every day until midnight and 24 hours on holidays.
There will you see people getting marriage licenses so they can get married in Las Vegas. About 10 thousand marriage licenses are issued in Clark County, Nevada, every month ...that’s about 350 weddings a day!
Fitzgerald's opened in 1980 as the Sundance hotel and casino. In 1986, new owners put in an Irish theme and renamed the place Fitzgerald's. At 34 stories, it is the highest building in Downtown Las Vegas. (624 rooms, rates from $50/night.) One of the best places to catch a Fremont Street Experience light show is from the second-floor balcony.
The Lady Luck opened in 1964. (Its original name was Honest John’s.) 25 floors, neary 800 rooms. It has been sold again and is in the process of being renovated. (Rooms about $50 night.) It is located at East Ogden Avenue and Third Street, one block north of Fremont Street ...in back of Binion’s Hotel.
That ends our little visit to downtown Las Vegas. To get back to the strip, take the No 301 (local) or 302 (Express) Strip bus from Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard, South.