So 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.
You 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.
The Pinball Hall of Fame
In a 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.
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Note: 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.
Cost: Admission is free. Details: www.pinballmuseum.org.
The Fremont Experience
In 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!
Overhead: 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 machines.
At 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.
There’s 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 the desert.
And yes. It is indeed A five-block stretch of historic downtown Las Vegas on Fremont Street.
Cost: Admission is free. Details: www.vegasexperience.com.
The Neon Museum
Let’s 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.
There’s something else, our final stop.
The 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.
But 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.
It’s 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.
When 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.
Until 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 return.
Cost: General admission day tours start at $18. Details: http://neonmuseum.org..
National Atomic Testing Museum
What 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 nuked.
The 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.
The 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 others.
It’s 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.
Admission: $22. Details: http://nationalatomictesting museum.org.