All of the lights: Neon Museum’s new visitors center is a bright idea

Las Vegas is world-famous for its vivid, glittering lights. After my visit to downtown’s  Neon Museum this week, I have a deeper appreciation of the old-school signage that first lit up the town.

La Concha motel lobby, designed in 1961 by famed African-American architect Paul Revere Williams. In 2007, the lobby building was saved from demolition and moved from its current location to serve as the museum's visitor's center. The museum center opened Oct. 27th (photo courtesy of the Neon Museum).

New visitors center makes experience more convenient

Up until last week, there really wasn’t an easy way to drop by and check out the museum’s boneyard of vintage Vegas signs. Not only did you have to call weeks in advance to schedule a visit, but there wasn’t an indoor area where you could relax before and after your tour. You met your guide in the desert. Also, if you were here for the weekend and wanted to drop by for any openings, you couldn’t.

Now, not only are there tour times available every half hour (Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.) but you have the luxury of signing up for a tour on the spot. Located inside the former La Concha motel lobby (pictured right), you can enjoy views through its floor-to-ceiling windows.

If you have time to spare, the visitors center offers two interactive stations powered by motion sensors. With a wave of a hand, you can listen to snippets of Vegas history through the years. Categories include ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and Beyond, Moulin Rouge, Stardust, La Concha motel and famous Vegas architects and designers.

Tour rich in history

The Neon Museum’s boneyard features more than 150 restored signs in a 2.5-acre outdoor exhibition space. At first, I didn’t know what to expect. But our tour guide Sophie Duncan immediately put the group at ease and shared tons of history on these old, iconic signs. One of the facts I learned was that the museum didn’t pay a single penny for these signs.

“Nothing in the museum is purchased — everything has been donated,” said Duncan. “We’re really lucky to have these generous people that donate to our collection.”

Moulin Rouge sign (photo courtesy of Jennifer Whitehair).

While the majority of the signs are from YESCO (Young Electric Sign Company), the museum also relied on casino owners to help preserve history.

The tour is about 45 minutes long, so make sure you bring bottled water. And depending on the time of year, make sure to dress appropriately since the entire walk-through is outdoors.

See the old Golden Nugget sign, the first one to be wrapped in neon. The visionaries behind Golden Nugget wanted to spruce up the casino without tweaking the actual architecture. Thanks to the neon, the Golden Nugget became one of the most visually stunning buildings in its time.
I found the history behind Moulin Rouge hotel one of the most intriguing parts of the tour. Most folks don’t know Sammy Davis Jr. had to take a different exit after he performed with the Rat Pack. During a time when racial segregation in casinos still existed, the  Moulin Rouge opened in May 1955 as the only integrated hotel.  It had 2:30 a.m. “breakfast shows,” a surprisingly popular time slot. Moulin Rouge hosted the biggest names of that era. And a few years later, casinos were no longer segregated.


As you stop in front of the old Flamingo sign, you’ll learn a little bit of history about mobster Bugsy Siegel, one of the owners of the property. Bugsy was shot and killed before he had a chance to see the outcome of the hotel. New management took over in 1947 and the Flamingo became the first resort to change the face of Las Vegas.

The Yucca motel sign is one of the museum's standouts. The curlicue neon tubing was actually bent by hand (photo courtesy of the Neon Museum).

You’ll also see the original Stardust sign (which spans 217 feet!), the Sahara sign (a property that closed just last year), Caesars Palace and the sign from the Desert Inn hotel, owned by world-famous businessman, Howard Hughes. See the massive skull from Treasure Island, which was so big that it needed to be built in the parking lot.

You can also date a sign by its maintenance runs. Before 1970, people climbed and held onto pegs on the signs – without a harness! Another fun fact? Neon signs 50 years ago cost $300,000. This may seem expensive, but today’s LED lights are a whopping $13 million.
The tour ends with history behind the original La Concha sign, which has its own quirky history.“If you think about all the signs you’ve seen in the collection, you’ll notice they’re made to sit on the building, made to complement their building but none of them are actually created to replicate the shape of the building,” Duncan said. “The sign replicates the shape and that makes it unusual.”
In addition to the towering “Mullet Man” sign (which stands twice my height!), my favorite sign is the cute 1950s-style gal from Cedar City, Utah (pictured right). The sign once stood over China Garden restaurant, and is the only out-of-state piece in the collection.


Photo courtesy of Jennifer Whitehair.

If you want to take a piece of the experience with you, T-shirts and other merchandise are available for purchase inside the visitors center.

This is a year of firsts for the popular attraction: In addition to the opening of the visitors center, the Neon Museum will start hosting tours at night. We hear it’s going to be an illuminating experience.


Most folks take their Vegas jackpot winnings back home, but my dad decided to stay here instead. That’s how I left Seattle almost 20 years ago. I moved from greenery and rainy days to hot summers, palm trees and desert. As much as I love my hometown, I decided to stick around Vegas. This city just has so much to offer. You don’t even have to be a gambler, bar hopper or an all-night partier. I love Vegas for its awesome vegan-friendly spots, concerts, swanky hotel suites and spas so big, they’re like castles. The pool scene is not too shabby either, which is why I love taking stay-cations. Besides living it up -- Vegas style -- I’m hanging out with my handsome hubby, adorable baby girl, two cats and super-fluffy Shih-Tzu. I’m also a huge fan of '90s music, shows and movies. You can find me on Google+ and Twitter.