The last time my wife and I were in Las Vegas was 1996. We were on our honeymoon.
Thanks to Hurricane Matthew and its impact on Savannah, Georgia, we were back in Vegas for our 20th anniversary. Our original plan was to tour one of America’s oldest cities and eat at Paula Deen’s restaurant, The Lady and Sons. But, at the last minute, we had to go to plan B.
My wife’s skillful management with rerouting flights and booking new hotel accommodations took us back to Sin City.
Vegas changed a lot in two decades. In 1996, there were still remnants of the old Vegas. Some of the hotels that had been run by the mob still stood. Today, there’s very little left of that. The Sands and other casinos that were associated with the Rat Pack have been razed and replaced by themed hotels that not only bear little resemblance to Vegas of the 60s, many are now kid friendly.
Circus Circus is a big stretch from the Flamingo and Bugsy Siegel.
Sinatra is probably turning over in his grave.
However, our last-minute change in travel plans turned out to be perfect. And I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some suggestions, should you be considering traveling to Las Vegas.
If you don’t do anything else while you’re there (other than gambling), take the downtown walking tour. Just a few years ago, downtown Las Vegas wasn’t that safe. It was populated by pickpockets and other less-than-reputable folks. But now, downtown is pretty amazing.
The Las Vegas Downtown Walking Tour: Past and Present, was worth twice the $35 per person charge. Our guide, Kelly, has lived in the city for decades and knew it like the back of his hand. Using a book of old photos and wireless headsets for each guest, he led us on a three-hour tour of only five blocks of the original Vegas.
We learned about the rise of the mob, the fall of the mob, and of the few remaining original buildings, including the city’s first air conditioned building, the El Portal, which in the early 1920’s served as the town’s movie theater and cultural center. It’s now a gift shop, but it remains architecturally the way it was when it opened.
Downtown has a microbrewery, where we took a load off after the tour and had a beer. Nearby, was an antique toy shop, whose owner is used as an expert appraiser on the TV show Pawn Stars (more on that show later). There’s also a display of old Vegas neon signs that have been restored, and plenty of street performers.
Old downtown businesses have been renovated into new restaurants of all kinds. There are cocktail lounges, gift shops; even a Walgreen’s and a Denny’s. Fremont Street has been largely closed to automobiles and is called The Fremont Street Experience.
Fremont includes one of the world’s largest video screens inside a 90-foot tall canopy which stretches nine blocks. Multiple computers and speakers on poles at every corner offer a unique presentation set to music hourly, beginning at dark.
If you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, add that to your Vegas trip list. For $78 each, we took a bus from downtown Vegas to the canyon’s south rim. This included a stop at Hoover Dam and one on Route 66. Be warned, the bus trip, including the tour of the Grand Canyon, took 16 hours. It’s a long day, but worth it if you’ve never been.
Vegas also has a mob museum. It was right across from our downtown hotel and was very interesting. The city’s former mayor, Oscar Goldman, put the museum together inside an old post office and federal courthouse where real mobsters were put on trial decades ago.
Oscar knows a little something about mobsters. He used to defend them for a living. He played himself in the movie Casino with Robert De Niro.
As for the TV show, Pawn Stars, I have to confess. Rick and his bunch are one of my guilty pleasures. The World Famous Gold and Silver Pawn Shop is located on Las Vegas Boulevard and I try to watch most episodes. The shop was on my list to visit while in town. However, I stumbled across it while walking somewhere else.
I expected long lines and a wait to get in. But the opposite was what I found. There was a film crew, but they were filming on the sidewalk. I was one of only about seven people in the store, and none of the rest were members of the TV cast.
Two things about the place: It’s small, and it’s more of a tourist destination than a pawn shop. If you’re looking for some of the cool items you’ve seen them buy on the show, you’ll be disappointed. If you want a Chumlee shot glass or T-shirt, you’re in luck.
We did some gambling in Vegas, but mostly, we learned about a most improbable city that sprung up in the desert in the early 1900’s and generates billions annually.
I’m sorry we missed Paula Deen’s fried chicken, but I hear she likes the slot machines. So, I’m sure she understands.
©2016 John Moore
For more of John’s musings, visit johnmoore.net/blog