Vegas is so brightly illuminated with neon that it’s one of the few places so bright that you can recognise it from space. Times Square is another, in case you were wondering, but neon is what Vegas is known for! Located in downtown Vegas, a short taxi ride from the strip is the Neon Boneyard Museum, a graveyard for old retired Vegas signs that are preserved and on display to visitors 7 days a week.
When I was last in Vegas I really wanted to go along and see it, but I didn’t realise how popular it is, and there was only one hour slot available for the whole time I was there. So my biggest tip if you’re wanting to pay a visit, is book well in advance! It wasn’t expensive, daytime tours are between $15-$19, evening &22-$26, and late night $24-$28. My tour was 9am, trust me the struggle was real getting up and getting along there for that time, but I’m so glad I did.
You arrive into the visitors area, which I later learned is in itself built from the giant concrete archways that once belonged to La Concha casino. Here you can by sunshades and water, and even at 9am in the Vegas heat you’ll need them. They also recommend that you wear sensible shoes, and not flip flops due to the dusty ground and chance of broken glass lying around from the broken signs. They look after the place so well that I saw nothing out of place along the public walkways, but better to be safe than sorry.
You aren’t allowed to take any filming, a lot of professional photography equipment or large bags on the tour at all. They’re very strict about this, you can take one camera and your phone obviously, but no camera bags with extra lenses or tripods. Any photos you do take are not allowed to be used for commercial purposes.
When I went along, to be honest I thought it would just be a case of wandering around and looking at all the signs, but it’s a lot more than that. The Neon Boneyard a combination of a museum, the coolest history lesson you will ever encounter, and a Vegas show. You’re taken on a guided tour, and like everything in Vegas it’s extravagant and over the top.
I can’t remember the name of my guide but she was fabulous, and had an incredible way of telling the tale of the history of Vegas neon, entwined with casino owners ego’s and big spenders.
The museum itself doesn’t actually own any of the signs, they’ve all been donated over time as casinos have been torn down and rebuilt, rebranded, renamed and modernised. The majority of signs have been donated from YESCO – the Young Electric Sign Company.
Rather than destroy or abandon the old signs, the Neon Boneyard displays them across 6 acres of outdoor land, preserving both what remains of them and passing on the Vegas tales that go with each one. As you walk around the display with your guide, you learn a hell of a lot about the history of Vegas neon. I’ll recount some of what I learned.
Neon began on Fremont Street, Vegas in 1928 with the Overland Hotel. The LVNSC – Las Vegas Neon Sign Company was created and expanded within a year due to the number of contracts it received from hotels also wanting their names up in lights.
In 1931 slot machines and table games were legalised in Vegas, and with the marriage and divorce laws were so relaxed that Vegas became a magnet for tourism. (Some things never change!) This led to the increase of motels on Fremont Street, and a subsequent increase of neon signs to attract guests.
Over time three different types of neon signs were developed. Who knew neon had such a science behind it? Firstly there’s the two dimensional sign that would sit flat against a building wall. Then there are super pylons, these are neon signs or displays that are stood on top of a big pole outside the building. Thirdly there were 3D neon displays, that were part of the buildings themselves, and extended out to form grand entranceways and lobbies.
The Neon Boneyard itself has it’s own super pylon outside on the path opposite, marking it’s location. The Silver Slipper sat on top of a big metal pole came from a hotel that was originally named the Golden Slipper. There was already a Silver Slipper casino in town which is why the colour changed, but in the 1960s it was renamed back to the Silver Slipper. When the casino was later demolished the shoe was given to the boneyard, and became its super pylon.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the theme of emerging Vegas casinos was American Western, which saw the opening of casinos such as The Boulder Club, El Cortez, Last Frontier, Pioneer Club and El Rancho. Their original signage is all on display.
In 1946 the famous Golden Nugget opened, and the 1905 date at the top of it is a reference to the very beginning of ‘Vegas’. It was one of the most striking signs in the collection, with the unmistakeable bright yellow and red signs, and hundreds of bulbs covering the surface.
This original Golden Nugget neon sign was replaced in 1956 when the hotel was sold, replacing its original neon that took over the entire building with this. Nearly all of the original neon is at the museum.
The Flamingo is one of Vegas’ most loved old hotels, with a longstanding history. It opened in 1946 with a giant pink neon flamingo sat on it’s roof. The neon Flamingo was then moved down to street level and put up above the entrance in the 1950s. Due to less space down at street level some of the tail feathers weren’t needed, and currently lie in the boneyard in all their pink feathery finery.
The Binion’s horseshoe sign has a great story behind it. The El Dorado casino was bought in 1951 by Benny Binion and he renamed it first to Horseshoe, and then to Binions Horseshoe. The neon horseshoe was put over the entranceway upside down, a deliberate move with the intention of bringing bad luck to everyone walking in to his casino. Maybe that’s why the house always wins…
Vegas Vicky was the neon cowgirl that stood proudly outside the strip club known as Sassy Sally’s, which is what changed her name from Vegas Vicky to Sassy Sally. The cowgirl sign is still there today, but Sassy Sally’s isn’t and is now the Mermaid Casino.
Throughout the 1950s Vegas shifted from a Western theme to a more exotic style, and that brought with it a big influx of casinos, shows and need for neon. Casinos such as Desert Inn, Dunes, Sahara, Algiers, Tropicana and the Mint opened.
The Moulin Rouge and Showboat also opened during the 1950s, bringing with them the concept of Vegas showgirls. The Moulin Rouge sign was so big that it had to be broken into sections for display in the museum.
Stardust was a unique casino in that it was the first one to adopt a ‘comic font’, which was popular at the time. It also chose to showcase its resident danceshow ‘Lido’ in neon, not just its own name. Both signs are sat in the boneyard.
Vegas became bigger and more complicated throughout the 1960s, and was starting to resemble the Vegas we know and love today. Motels expanded and started to open conference centres and theatres, and big name casinos opened such as Lady Luck, Caesars and Aladdin, who’s lamp was part of a renovation project that cost $60million.
The Queen of Hearts, Treasure Island, La Concha and Landmark all opened as well, and the lobby of the museum that I mentioned earlier that was the trademark shape of La Concha is now the Neon Museum visitors area.
Throughout the next decades Vegas and its neon shifted styles again, with signs and architecture changing to become part of the actual casino buildings themselves. The giant green building that we know as MGM opened in the 1970s, and The Mirage was the first to have no neon in the 1980s. Instead it came with a gold plated look across the each side. No neon but pretty unmissable!
Architecture changed again in the 1990s with the opening of New York New York, built to look like the New York skyline, the Luxor, an Egyptian themed pyramid and Paris Casino complete with Eiffel Tower.
The Neon Museum is also home to some one off Vegas signs, such as The Black Jack Motel, which openly displayed the gambling traditions of Vegas. The sign had two playing cards at the top of it, and was donated to the museum in 2006 when the motel was demolished.
It wasn’t just hotels, casinos and motels that invested in neon. All sorts of businesses were competing to be seen, and some of the most popular neon at the time came from wholesalers and supply shops. The famous ‘Steiners Cleaners’ happy shirt hung outside the launderette.
The oldest sign in the boneyard was The Green Shack steakhouse sign, which opened in the early 1930s but was demolished in 1999. The restaurant was initially built to feed the construction workers of the Hoover Dam, and the museum only has a part of the sign – the rest was lost.
These signs below were dotted along the tour, donated because they would otherwise have been destroyed. The Neon Boneyard Museum exists to uphold the history of Vegas, a non profit organisation that has all of its work donated.
You can contribute to their business by purchasing souvenirs from the gift shop. I learned all the facts and figures in this post from a combination of the tour itself, and Spectacular – A History of Vegas by Melissa Johnson, Carrie Schomig and Dorothy Wright which I bought in the shop.
The Neon Boneyard tour took in total just less than an hour, and I really enjoyed it. I would definitely recommend a visit if you can get tickets while you’re there. If I go back to Vegas I’d love to see it at night when they light it all up, I bet that’s a pretty amazing experience.
You can also book a private professional photo shoot for yourself at the Neon Boneyard too. Not my style at all, but if tacky wedding shoots are your thing, (and why wouldn’t it be if you’re getting married in Vegas), then it’s probably a cool location to do it. The original Wedding Chapel signs are there for you to pose next to.
I have a few more Vegas posts heading your way over the next couple of weeks too.
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