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LAS VEGAS / SPECIAL ISSUE: UPTOWN STYLE, DOWNTOWN BUDGET

Ultimate low roller's guide

Just outside Paradise, it's a vintage revival

December 03, 2006|Marc Cooper | Special to The Times

LAS VEGAS — WHAT happens in Vegas mostly doesn't happen in Vegas.

Only half of the 41 million annual visitors to Sin City ever set foot inside the Las Vegas city limits and fewer than 10% ever rent a hotel room in the incorporated city of Las Vegas, which extends from the gritty downtown south to Sahara Boulevard. Every major Strip casino-resort resides outside the city limits -- most of them in the unincorporated township known as, yes, Paradise.

Downtown, the official Las Vegas, looms in the minds of most tourists as a run-down, honky-tonk of a city. Yet, the more I see of it, the more I like it. Doing downtown Vegas is the best way to avoid the Manhattan-scaled traffic jams, the velvet-rope apartheid, the hyper-corporate hustle, the human and economic crush that a visit to the Strip has come to include. The New Vegas, dominated by just two or three conglomerates, has converted the old Rat Pack hangouts into behemoths that now wring more of their profits from room, restaurant and club rates than from the slot machines and tables.

What a deal, then, to check in to a room at the venerable downtown Binion's, where the walk from the parking valet to the registration desk was about 10 yards -- with no waiting in line when I got there. I had splurged by reserving an $83 mini-suite, but when I mentioned that I intended to play some low-stakes poker, the desk clerk knocked the tariff down to the "casino rate" of $39 -- about a fourth of weekday room rates on the Strip.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 31, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Las Vegas -- A Dec. 3 Travel section story on downtown Las Vegas mentioned the Elvis-a-Rama attraction. The museum has closed.

And this is what makes downtown so tourist-friendly. With its traditional customer base siphoned off by the gargantuan resorts on the Strip and by burgeoning Indian casinos in neighboring states, downtown Vegas properties can remain competitive only by offering more for less. The rooms are cheaper, the shows are inexpensive or free, the slots are looser, the table odds are more liberal, the food is abundant and the 99-cent shrimp cocktail boldly lives on.

I threw my bag on the extra-wide king bed and headed out into the throb of Fremont Street. Neon-streaked Fremont, the main artery of vintage Vegas, was the original Glitter Gulch, pulsing with vice long before anyone imagined the Strip.

The iconic, electrified and once-towering image of cowboy Vegas Vic, first erected in 1947, still presides over the street. But now he's dwarfed by a dramatic 90-foot-high space-age canopy studded with more than 12 million lights and 220 speakers powered by a half-million watts of audio power.

The four-block stretch of canopy creates a unique 24/7 pedestrian mall, lined with casinos, saloons and souvenir shops, its pathway crowded with kiosks, street artists, performance stages, musicians and crowds of revelers bedecked with giveaway bead necklaces, many of them grasping clear plastic footballs full of brew.

"Why bother slogging five miles up and down the Strip when you could do the same thing here in only five blocks?" says my friend Andrea Hackett, a local club dancer-turned-writer.

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Lights, camera, lots of action

THE Fremont Street Experience, built in 1995 for $70 million, recently went through a $17-million upgrade and now bills itself with the usual Vegas superlatives as "the biggest big screen on the planet."

And its half-hourly light-and-sound show is probably still the best -- and most under-appreciated -- public spectacle in Vegas. Would you rather blankly stare at a placid waterfall at the Wynn, or shake and shudder to the rumble of the roaring sound-and-light show under the canopy, as Andrea and I did?

The streetlights suddenly dimmed, and a flaming pink and then an aqua blue flashed above us, dousing all of Fremont in the same pastel hues. A faux news report on the galaxy-sized roof above told of an alien invasion. The Good Guys, in screeching Earth-launched fighter jets, streaked across the canopy in gusts of purple and green.

Against a thunderous digital soundtrack, a cascade of reddish-orange fireballs exploded as the Martians got their earthly comeuppance. The crowd broke into applause and then hearty laughter as the defeat of the aliens was celebrated on the canopy-screen by casino players grateful that the world has been made safe -- for more gambling.

Andrea and I celebrated the victory with a drink on the patio of the new hipster Vue bar at the very old Fitzgerald's hotel overlooking Fremont. It's not quite the view you get from the 52-story-high Ghost Bar at the trendy Palms just off the Strip. But neither is there a cover charge, a mysterious "list," an unbearable mass of strutting beautiful people, nor the usual bouncers in black.

The cheap and generous drinks at the Vue gave us just enough fuel to stroll the length of Fremont, and at the canopy's western end we landed at the Plaza Hotel, far enough off the usual tourist track that it adjoins the Greyhound station. We arrived in time to catch the free show at the Omaha Lounge, a collection of a dozen tables around a small, hardwood dance floor.

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