famous Stardust sign, retired in 1991 for something
more sedate. What to do in Vegas if you don't
gamble? Get nuked, tilt a vintage pinball machine,
or avoid tetanus at the coolest museum.
you’re going to Vegas! Not your first choice, you say.
You’re tagging along. Well, there’s the exciting
casinos to visit, and — what’s that? You don’t
gamble? Hmm. Well, how about a show? There’s probably a
Cirque du Soleil in your hotel.
don’t like shows? Or poolside lounging? Don’t worry.
It’s not all gambling, gaping and groping in Vegas. Here
are four of the city’s most unusual points of interest.
PINBALL HALL OF FAME
nondescript building on a road by the airport, there’s a
world of binging, bonging, clacking examples of
coin-operated joy. Four hundred pinball machines from
every era are here, most in working condition.
Stubby-flipper old tables from the ‘60s with groovy
designs, snappy machines of the ‘70s complete with Elton
John in platform shoes, and the manic and often
incomprehensible tables of today. Looking for your college
pinball machine? They probably have it, next to the one
you played at the small-town ice cream parlor in the town
your family visited each summer.
You don’t have to play to appreciate the place. It’s
not quite right to call this a museum, since you can play
the exhibits. But it is a museum, devoted to a medium that
doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves: stylized
pop-art paintings that range from traditional to
psychedelic. It’s like looking at panels of comic books
from a parallel dimension — everything is a bit off, a
bit peculiar, the postures wrong, the faces frozen in
eternal unnerving glee.
Admission is free.
1610 E. Tropicana (pinballmuseum.org).
old downtown Vegas, the bulbous man is not entirely naked.
His groinal parts are contained in a piece of fabric the
size of a toddler’s sock. He’s here for your
Outrageous Tourist Selfies. Drop a buck in the pot, pose
with the naked dude. Whoo! Vegas!
A vast canopy shields the street from the sun. In a few
hours it will explode with light, and all the neon signs
that line the street will come alive. For now, in the
afternoon, the lights are off — a strange, weird rebuke
to the always-on Strip. Fremont doesn’t particularly
care about the glitz and the ballyhoo. It’s an
experience no matter when you show up. Just look down
there: an enormous slot machine three stories high. Every
few minutes people fly out of it on ziplines, amateur
angels screaming fear and delight as they soar over Mostly
Naked Dude and the rest of the impromptu crowd. The
casinos are open, of course; Binion’s, where you can be
photographed with a million dollars. The Four Queens, the
Golden Nugget — classic names over smoky dark caves
where the penny-slot crowd hunches around burbling
the end of the block, the Heart Attack Grill: a scale to
weigh yourself, in case you want to claim the free lethal
meat given to anyone who tops 350 pounds. The Neontropolis,
an utterly, completely failed retail complex with a few
classic signs and three floors of boarded-up stores. Old
Vegas history: one of the first movie houses, now selling
Indian souvenirs. The website made it sound like so much
fun, and perhaps it is, if it’s midnight, and you’re
young, and the classic signage makes you think you’ve
connected with some elemental Classic Vegas spirit, and
your idea of a rockin’ good time is drinking on the
street and smoking indoors.
a burlesque museum, devoted to the clothes whose prime
purpose was their removal, and the Mob Museum, where you
can kill a few hours and not worry about burying them in
Admission is free.
A five-block stretch of historic downtown Las Vegas on
say you went back to the Fremont experience to watch the
lights pop on. They were impressive, and they whetted your
appetite for more, so you headed up Las Vegas Boulevard,
drawn by some signs in the distance. A classic motel sign:
ELVIS SLEPT HERE. But there is no motel. A block down, a
fine neon sign for Quality Cleaners. But there is no such
store. Under the highway, past the hotels where rooms rent
for a day or a month; a neon sign for the Bow and Arrow
motel. There is no motel. In the distance, raised on a
pole: a shoe, covered in light bulbs. The sign of the old
Silver Slipper. But there is no casino here.
something else, our final stop.
old signs on the Boulevard are silent hints that something
unusual resides up the street: a repository of rescued
signage from bygone Vegas. The Boneyard of the Neon Museum
is where the gaudy and the gorgeous went after their time
was done, after their style was gone. Vegas chews up its
history with little regard; it’s all about the churn,
the turnover, the new, the exciting.
some signs were saved, and the Boneyard — the open-air
display case of the nonprofit Neon Museum — has
incredible hunks of history. You come not to bury Caesar’s
Palace, but to praise it. No, you can’t wander around
and look and touch — the glass is fragile, the metal has
rusted. Your guide will explain where the signs were, what
they meant (the Moulin Rouge: First integrated casino.
That simple chicken-steaks-cocktail sign? Longest-running
eatery in town) and why they matter. The signs were the
architecture of Vegas — glorious, kinetic, manic signs,
wrapped around the storefronts, leaping up into the sky.
not a big lot, but the tour takes an hour. Afterward you
can buy something in the La Concha motel lobby, an
exuberant example of Googie architecture rescued from the
wrecking ball and reinstalled as the museum’s HQ. On the
way back to the hotel you might notice that neon is less
important than it used to be. The new signs are LED
canvases, blank slates, infinitely programmable. The old
signs did one thing, and did it with panache.
they turn off the new lights, they’re empty. The old
signs still say something, even if they cut the juice. By
the Flamingo second-floor walkway there’s the classic
neon display, red and yellow. It’s decades of history in
an image known the world ‘round. It’ll stand forever.
it doesn’t. You might notice things have changed the
next time you come to town — and yes, you’ll be back.
Everyone’s relieved to leave — and everyone usually
says "Why not?" when they have the chance to
General admission day tours start at $18 for adults.
770 Las Vegas Blvd North (neonmuseum.org).
ATOMIC TESTING MUSEUM
better way to spend a broiling afternoon than studying the
history of thermonuclear detonation? This Smithsonian
offshoot collects the lore and mementos of the days when
mushroom clouds were visible from the casino rooftops, and
the days when underground testing rattled the ice in a
gambler’s drink. They blew up an ungodly number of bombs
in Nevada, and the lore and leftovers of this thunderous
era is all here, meticulously explained. Pose by an
enormous H-bomb! Back away with newfound worries from the
clicking Geiger counters! See the elements of bomb-test
culture you never imagined existed — the patches, the
jokey certificates of achievement, the varying styles of
dosimeter that told you if, and when, your goose was
highlight: Ground Zero Theater. It’s one thing to look
at inscrutable scientific artifacts and pictures of guys
standing around the desert pointing at things. It’s
another to feel the power of an atomic detonation. The
theater is a raw concrete bunker with three rows of
benches. The countdown begins; there’s a blinding flash
on the screen, and then gen-u-wine Sensurround rumbles
your buttocks while blasts of air buffet your face.
rest of the film interviews the scientists who worked on
testing — a short and respectful account of a culture
outsiders never saw. If that doesn’t slake your thirst
for small documentaries made up of faded film of guys in
1970s hairstyles, the Grain Silo Theater has two short
films on aspects of the nuclear program few people know
about — the successful Nuclear Mars Rocket Engine, among
not all Instruments of Destruction — you get a sense of
the impressive technical accomplishments the nuclear
program required. You also get the sense that the end of
testing meant the end of the weapons, and this is like a
Moon shot museum. If only.
$22 for adults.
755 E. Flamingo Road (nationalatomictesting museum.org).