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What Lights in Yonder Desert Shine?

  • Ted Landphair

Each night on Old Las Vegas's Fremont Street, lights and speakers create a show overhead.

Each night on Old Las Vegas's Fremont Street, lights and speakers create a show overhead.

Millions of bulbs and neon displays turn 'Vegas' into a light show

Paris may be the City of Light, but the city of lights is the gambling oasis of Las Vegas, in the western state of Nevada.

Along a downtown casino row that's often called Glitter Gulch, building facades pulsate with millions of lights and glowing neon displays. Even bigger illuminated signs and animated marquees line the Las Vegas Strip of casino resorts just outside city limits. Vegas shimmers all night long.

According to Nevada's power company, the electricity needed to illuminate just the outdoor signs on the Las Vegas Strip could power an entire city of 25,000 people. Aladdin's lamp from the defunct casino of the same name is one of many nostalgic signs of bygone Las Vegas saved in the Neon Boneyard.

Aladdin's lamp from the defunct casino of the same name is one of many nostalgic signs of bygone Las Vegas saved in the Neon Boneyard.

Seventy or so years ago, the tradition of light spectacles began downtown, and glittering Fremont Street became world-famous. But as the fancy new resorts on the Strip lured away more and more tourist traffic, downtown Vegas declined into a collection of worn-out casinos and run-down motels.

The city responded in the late 1990s by turning five blocks of downtown into a pedestrian and entertainment mall called the Fremont Street Experience, covered by a canopy of 2 million lightbulbs and 218 giant speakers that erupt into a spectacular show each night. The Hacienda Hotel was imploded in 1996 to make room for the gigantic Mandalay Bay Resort. But the Hacienda's beloved illuminated sign was saved, reconditioned, and remounted on a Vegas street.

The Hacienda Hotel was imploded in 1996 to make room for the gigantic Mandalay Bay Resort. But the Hacienda's beloved illuminated sign was saved, reconditioned, and remounted on a Vegas street.

These are not ordinary lightbulbs. Each is engineered to last 25,000 hours.

And a more delicate lighting experience - neon - is making a comeback as a decorative feature on the city's newest high-rise casino hotels.

Downtown, neon treasures from a bygone era were stored in a dusty field called the Neon Boneyard. It has evolved into a museum, full of old-time signs from places like Sassy Sally's casino and the Horseshoe Club.

Casino owners in the place they call Sin City are sometimes asked to dim their lights in the dead of night to help conserve energy for the regional power grid. The requests are usually ignored. Their city without lights, they say, would be like Venice without canals, India without the Taj Mahal, or Bali without the sea.

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