If you’ve been to Vegas, you know about the Las Vegas Strip, but if you haven’t, it’s hard to express the sights, colors, and thundering, earthquake-like power it pulses.
Located south of Las Vegas city limits in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester, the Strip exudes power, fascination, excitement, and 29 amazing casinos with names like Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Mirage, Aria, and Venetian.
Technically, the Strip is a 4.2-mile main artery through the heart of town along Las Vegas Boulevard from the southern intersection of Russel Road just past the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” leading north to the now closed Sahara Casino at E. Sahara Avenue. Just past and on the opposite side of the boulevard towers the Stratosphere, the tallest structure west of the Mississippi at 1,149 feet.
Brave souls at the Stratosphere don’t worry about the dizzying height and get their thrills on one of four rides near the top of the tower. The Get Your Scream On attraction twirls riders around a canopy hanging 1,100 feet high above the Strip, and if that’s not enough of an adrenaline high, you can always jump off the top of the building with the bungee-rappel Sky Jump, a life-crackling drop from the top to the street below.
When you reach the safety and permanence of street level, you’ll see the 24-story hotel tower holding 2,427 rooms and 80,000 square feet of gaming space. Originally conceived and built by Bob Stupak in the mid-’90s to replace his dated Vegas World property, the Stratosphere is now operated by American Casino & Entertainment Properties.
At the other end of the Strip sits Mandalay Bay, opened March 2, 1999, by Circus-Circus Enterprises. Today, MGM Resorts International owns the property which offers 3,309 rooms, 135,000 square feet of gaming space, and a 1,000,000 square feet convention center. Mandalay Bay also offers 11 acres of wet entertainment with three heated pools, a wave pool, and a lazy river. And don’t forget about the Shark Reef Aquarium with a shark tunnel, rays, reptiles and other fish in exhibits that change regularly.
Nevada’s Most Popular Casinos
According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Strip casinos generated more than half ($475 million) of the state’s $886 million total gaming revenue.
By comparison, the town of Reno that had the most successful casinos in the world back in the 1950’s, generated just $47 million.
Things have certainly changed, and the ability of the early Strip casinos to expand was a big factor. Reno, on the other hand, stayed with a downtown casino center much like Las Vegas offered until the FSE.
Along the 4.2-mile drive from one end of the Strip to the other, casinos dot the boomerang shaped boulevard. And, the casinos offer a wide variety of events, attractions, amenities, and of course, gaming. Although the Strip offers the best Blackjack odds in the state, most other games from Keno to slots to poker are no different than anywhere else. The only difference is minimum and maximum wagers.
Older casinos like Circus-Circus, Slots-a-fun, Bally’s, Excalibur and Luxor have low to moderate cost table games sometimes as low as $5 per hand or spin of the roulette wheel. They also offer penny slots and $1 or $2 per game Keno. The largest casinos like Bellagio and the Wynn are predominantly $25 per wager for blackjack and craps and maximums as high as $25,000 per wager. They offer multiple denomination slots among their mix of 2,300 games, including 15 $100 machines. And, their clientele expects the best; after all, it’s a Five Diamond AAA property.
If you want a room, you can book anything from a single bed to a 3000 square foot room overlooking the fountains below. Or you can call a special number and ask about luxury reservations.
Yikes! Attractions inside the property include sumptuous restaurants, a 40-table poker room, a huge race and sports book, pools, wedding chapel, spa, a conservatory and botanical garden, and still, there’s more. Big name entertainment includes stars like Cher and George Strait.
Getting Around on The Strip
Seeing the Strip is one thing, moving about is another. At over four miles it’s tough to manage a walk from one end to the other. Fortunately, there are several ways of moving about besides walking and cabs. One option is the Deuce, double decker busses that run from Mandalay Bay down to the Fremont Street Experience in Downtown.
You can also catch the RTC, which offers express bus service (SDX) from the Strip to Downtown. If you just want to move between casinos, well, there are options there too.
There are small (free) monorails between certain properties, including the Mandalay Bay Tram that connects Mandalay Bay with the Luxor and Excalibur. You can also catch the Aria Express that connects the Aria with Monte Carlo, Crystals, and Bellagio. There is also a tram between Treasure Island and The Mirage.
If you are on the opposite side of the Strip, you can pay and ride the Las Vegas Monorail which runs behind the casinos from Tropicana Avenue to Sahara Avenue. Getting across the Strip can also be a minor challenge, with some intersections closed to foot traffic. In these cases, visitors will find overhead walkways within a block. Wear comfortable shoes.
Other Strip Attractions
Not everyone who comes to Las Vegas wants to gamble, and there are other things to do on the Strip. There are too many nightclubs and bars even to mention, with several choices at nearly every casino.
And, there are plenty of shopping options, starting with the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, the Shoppes at the Palazzo, Fashion Show Mall next to Treasure Island, Grand Canal Shoppes inside the Venetian (with canals and gondolas winding through), and the Bonanza Gift Shop, 40,000 square feet of souvenirs.
Between the Linq and Flamingo is the LINQ Promenade, an open-air retail and dining center that offers the High Roller. Located at 3545 Las Vegas Boulevard, the High Roller, at 550 feet, is the world’s tallest Ferris wheel. The attraction can accommodate up to 1,120 passengers at one time with 28 40-person cabins that soar into the sky along the wheel.
Visitors can also ride the roller coaster at New York New York Hotel Casino; or try those at the Adventuredome inside Circus-Circus. Non-arcade style entertainment includes Madame Tussauds Las Vegas inside the Venetian, CSI Experience inside the MGM Grand Las Vegas, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, Titanic Artifact Exhibit inside the Luxor, and Real Bodies inside Bally’s.
Free attractions include M&M World next-door to the MGM (yeah, try to get out of there without buying any M&M’s), the Bellagio Fountains, and across the street, you can stand at the foot of Paris Casino and gaze up at a 540-foot tall (half scale) replica of the Eiffel Tower.
There is a fee if you want the full Eiffel Tower Experience, a high-altitude attraction 46 stories up with an observation deck featuring 360-degree city views.
Many of the casinos on the strip also offer showrooms with the world’s biggest stars from Elton John, Bette Midler, Donny and Marie Osmond, Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire, to Celine Dion, Cher and talented magicians like Penn and Teller and David Copperfield. Amphitheaters at the MGM and other properties also offer touring musicians like Jimmy Buffett as well as MMA and pro boxing events.
The Strip’s History
Nevada legalized open gaming in 1931, and most of the action was centered around the downtown area, with just one casino licensed on Highway 91 called the Pair-O-Dice Club.
The first casino opened on what became the Las Vegas Strip was the El Rancho Vegas; the brainchild of Hotelier Thomas E. Hull who rumor has it, was traveling through Las Vegas when his car broke down along the Los Angeles highway just a few miles from the comfort of the downtown casinos.
It is rumored that while leaning against his overheated car in the scorching sun, he lamented the lack of a swimming pool nearby and thought the spot would be perfect for a resort with a cool refreshing pool.
Another story credits James Cashman for convincing Hull to build a resort in Las Vegas. Perhaps both are true, but not matter the inspiration; the resort Hull built opened April 3, 1941, was set on 57 acres of sprawling, flat desert scrub that Hull had paid $100 per acre for.
The outside of the property was Spanish-style with a huge windmill easily seen from far away. The rest of the resort was Old West cowboy style, with a chuck wagon restaurant, horseback riding, a theater called the Opera House, and a small casino with two blackjack tables, a craps game, roulette and seventy slot machines.
Owners came and went over the years, with both Flamingo mastermind William Wilkerson leasing the casino for $50,000 per month and even Wilbur Clark taking a spin at running the property. As with most of Clark’s deals, there were irregularities, lawsuits and things that went bump in the night.
In 1947, Clark left to build the Desert Inn just down the road a piece, and Beldon Katleman bought out the remaining shareholders and was licensed to run the casino. A $750,000 upgrade to the original $500,000 property made the El Rancho Vegas the largest casino in Nevada. It lasted until 1960 when it was torched by Marshall Caifano, a Mafia enforcer and the first individual placed in Nevada’s Black Book of gaming undesirables.
The second casino built on the Las Vegas Strip was the Hotel Last Frontier. Frustrated by his inability to get licensed, Guy McAfee sold the land for $1,000 an acre plus $38,000 for the 91 Club building.
The buyer, R.E. Griffith, brought his architect, William J. Moore to town and they built the Hotel Last Frontier. It was patterned after the El Rancho Vegas and operated from October 30, 1942, until July 16, 2007. On April 4, 1955, it was renamed the New Frontier and a year later had the distinction of presenting Elvis Presley in his first Las Vegas performance.
Bugsy Siegel kept a suite at the Hotel Last Frontier and a grip on the gaming profits for his Mafia buddies. The property went through several owners of record and plenty of owners who were off the record in the 1950s.
In 1966, the government contended that the casino had underworld owners and the resort was purchased on September 22, 1967, by Howard Hughes for $14 million dollars. In 1971, Detroit Mafia Family members including Joseph Zerilli and Michael Polizzi were found guilty of concealing their interest in the casino.
Two other casino resorts opened in the 1940s, the Flamingo, made famous by Bugsy Siegel stealing the property from William Wilkerson, and the Thunderbird. Both properties had Mob ties with money being systematically siphoned off through a skim of the profits.
The property opened December 26, 1946, with much fanfare, but no finished hotel rooms. The crowds were reasonable, and the resort itself was a huge step forward towards the fancy casinos seen today. Beautiful carpets ran throughout the property. Large framed pictures adorned the wall, fancy lighting gave the restaurant and showroom a nice ambiance, but there were other problems, so Siegel closed the resort after a disastrous week that saw his casino lose more than $300,000.
When the property reopened the casino did a little better, but it was too little, too late, and Siegel was gunned down at girlfriend Virginia Hill’s mansion in Beverly Hills, June 20, 1947. At the Flamingo it was business as usual, and Siegel’s Mafia partners in the El Cortez and Las Vegas Club took over operations. Skim from the gaming profits flowed to Meyer Lansky who distributed the money to associates in New York and Chicago.
The resort changed ownership several times before landing in the hands of Kirk Kerkorian in 1967. Hilton Corporation bought the resort in 1972 and finally in 1993 the last bit of the original hotel was demolished. Today, the property is owned by Caesars Entertainment Corporation and offers 3,600 rooms.
Mega casinos on the Las Vegas Strip today like Caesars Palace, Treasure Island, and Encore have amazing amenities, excitement, and big name entertainers.
Still, the original casinos that came and went like the Sands, Sahara, Dunes, Riviera, and Stardust had a certain class of their own, and edgy realism and Mob ties behind the fun that drew people to Las Vegas just as well as modern casinos do today through modern advertising.
Vegas isn’t a land that time forgot; it’s a piece of history as well as modern-day culture that continues to thrive and live in the soul of millions of people, even those who have never visited.