The city started about a century ago as a watering hole for trains traveling between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, the latter of which is just 250 miles—and about two hours by Ferrari—to the west. For a glimpse of the Las Vegas history just go downtown. The Golden Gate Hotel and Casino still brings in the crowds for $1.99 shrimp cocktails as it has been doing since 1959 when they sold for 50 cents. As one of the town’s first casino hotels, it doesn’t take much imagination to see ghosts in the circa 1906 property. By the 1940s, the town was building a rep as a destination gambling town and began to catch the eyes of eastern Mob syndicates who saw what could be made—and hidden—in the desert free-for-all. They sent handsome don’t-call-him-Bugsy Benjamin Siegel to the front to stake a claim.
By 1946, Las Vegas had its first elegant “carpet joint” on what would be the “Strip.” The Flamingo Hotel opened off a two-lane dust road “out in the middle of nowhere.” Mob money continued to pour in and built the Frontier, the Stardust, the Sahara, the Aladdin, the Dunes, the Thunderbird … and the people came, mostly from California, braving the heat and distance to lie by the pools, bet their hands, eat comped casino food, see Sinatra or Louis Prima, and play big shot for a weekend.
Eventually Las Vegas history saw the Feds move in, and so did an addled Howard Hughes, who took over the top floor of the Desert Inn and began buying up the land and anything that stood on it. With Hughes came a new trend in finance and casino building: the corporation. Resort gambling in Las Vegas was now untouchable and the next wave of high rises staked their claims on the town. Caesars Palace opened in 1966 as the new standard in opulence and debauchery with Roman pools and statuary, cocktail slaves and a gourmet restaurant that offered sensual massaging of male patrons between courses. Frank Sinatra was now the “chairman of the board” in Vegas. He had regular gigs at the Sands and Aladdin with buddies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop and Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford. The “Rat Pack” seemed to keep the city floating in a permanent haze of “cool.”
By 1989, the smoky, boozy Rat Pack days of the 1960s were old news. In came Steve Wynn to light the town up again. All it took was a fiberglass mountain of crazy pyrotechnics and a new hotel that oozed luxury. The Mirage catered to everyone who had money to spend. Outside was a working volcano, while inside there were sharks, dolphins, white tigers, a rainforest and rooms that took on a plantation shine. Visitor numbers went through the roof that year and kept spiking. Las Vegas had found its new audience—and they had families.
The early 1990s brought the storybook-themed Treasure Island, the Oz-themed new MGM Grand with amusement park, and a bit of Camelot with Excalibur. But it wasn’t long before the bean counters discovered that families that play together do not necessarily gamble together. Up went Bellagio in 1998—destined to be the most magnificent hotel on the Strip in Las Vegas history with a firm caveat to baby-towing guests: no strollers allowed. Out went the MGM Grand theme park. Eventually the famed Pirates battle fronting Treasure Island turned into lascivious sirens torturing a wayward pirate in the lagoons.
Nightclubs became “UltraClubs” and began charging hefty fees for the privilege of sitting down; rooms and suites on the Strip were charging New York rates—and getting them. Nickel cuppa jo? How about $4 for watery well coffee. Shows, too, became big tickets. Sure, there were lounge shows for the cost of two high-priced drinks. But if you wanted to see the Cirque, Cher, Bette or Celine, it took a couple of C-notes.Fortunately for today’s traveler, today’s Vegas has all the value—the luxury amenities, the entertainment, the dining—without the high cost of even two years ago. Today’s Las Vegas offers opulent hotel rooms—many with gourmet kitchens, living rooms and views over the neon at a fraction of their original rates. Cirque du Soleil runs regular half-price specials and other shows often fill the house through cut-rate ticket kiosks. If ever there was a deal to be had, you can find it in Las Vegas.