“A Disneyland for adults.” Las Vegas has worn that nickname for decades, even though a day in Las Vegas is arguably more affordable than one at Disneyland. But there was a time, not too long ago, when Vegas tried to erase its demographic line by constructing roller coasters, motion-simulator rides and entire theme parks. Unsatisfied with the drawing power of star entertainment, legalized gambling and topless ice shows, Las Vegas built attractions that could pull in entire families—in essence becoming a Disneyland for everybody.
It didn’t quite work. By the mid-2000s Vegas reverted to its core (adult) strengths, and much of that family fun got ripped out. What follows is our attempt to divine the 20 all-time best of those rides, dancing fountains and roadside attractions. We limited our focus to man-made diversions (hence no Red Rock Canyon or Valley of Fire), excluding also special effects-heavy production shows (we already picked our top 20 of those in November 2016) and art galleries (because those might someday get a top 20 of their own). We considered all the things that make (or made) these attractions unique, groundbreaking and, above all, fun. And we imagined a Las Vegas where none of them had ever been closed or been replaced—one giant, multifaceted Disneyland. With nude ice shows.
20. Springs Preserve
This 10-year-old, 180-acre attraction houses the birthplace of Las Vegas: the natural springs that led Spanish explorers to name it “the meadows.” Today the spot includes nearly four miles of trails, botanical gardens, museum exhibits (including the Nevada State Museum), events and classes. Open to walking and biking, the trails reveal native plants and habitats along with archeological sites. Don’t miss the annual butterfly habitat, the Boomtown 1905 “recreated historical streetscape” and the new permanent exhibit, WaterWorks.
19. High Roller
This observation wheel opened in 2014, adding some futuristic amusement-park charm to the Las Vegas skyline. (It’s also a fantastic reference point for those of us who get lost on the regular driving around the Valley.) At 550 feet tall, it offers the best 360-degree views of the city, and it’s currently the largest such wheel in the world, dethroning the Singapore Flyer by just nine feet. Did we mention there’s a happy-hour ride, too? Nothing says Las Vegas like sipping an Old Fashioned 55 stories in the air.
18. Fall of Atlantis
Revamped in 2013, this free animatronic show just outside the Cheesecake Factory inside the Forum Shops rotunda at Caesars Palace comes to life every hour starting at 11 a.m., giving tired shoppers a moment (just over seven minutes, to be exact) to recharge before hitting the next destination. Does your hometown mall have a show with waterfalls, crystals, fire and giant robotic figurines of King Atlas’ kids fighting over the throne? Well, ours does.
17. Liberace Museum
You might not remember Liberace’s music, but you can probably picture what he was wearing when he performed it. A Fort Knox for mink coats and Swarovski crystal, the Liberace Museum collected the glitzy costumes, cars, pianos and household treasures of the legendary headliner in a Tropicana Avenue strip mall Liberace once owned. It was concentrated Vegas kitsch, pure and simple. When the museum closed in 2010, the city lost some of its inherent weirdness, too.
16. Seven Magic Mountains
Lots of Las Vegas’ larger-than-life attractions make you stop in your tracks, but how many make you wonder why you did? Beginning in May 2016—and scheduled to stay up through May 2018—Ugo Rondinone’s Play-Doh-like boulder towers have yanked visitors off Interstate 15 just north of Jean and challenged their notions of art and its purpose. Selfies abound, and yes, “Hella Spiders” have appeared, but so have brainy conversations about color, the desert and life’s impermanence. That’s hella awesome.
15. Midway at Circus Circus
A generation before Excalibur and Wet ’n Wild, there was Circus Circus, the first Strip diversion for children. Parents too guilt-ridden to trouble a relative could now bring their kids to Vegas, hand them one of their buckets of slot change and watch them hurl beanbags, roll wooden balls and whack mechanical moles for prizes. And when the money invariably ran out, there were always the circus acts, which, even in the age of diminishing Strip freebies, remain completely gratis.
14. Stratosphere Tower
It’s more than just the defining feature of the Las Vegas skyline—it’s the tallest freestanding observation tower west of the Mississippi River. Its altitudinous bona fides are as varied as they are untouchable, from the 106-story-high views enjoyed by Top of the World diners and 107 SkyLounge revelers to the vertigo-inducing thrills induced by the three rides—teeter-tottering sled X-Scream, whirling claw Insanity and the launching, yo-yoing Big Shot—that crown our wower of a tower.
13. AKHOB at Crystals
The Strip is known for maximalist over-stimulation, but there’s a secret place where you can enter a colorful void. No, it’s not your empty wallet after a night of slot play. It’s a James Turrell art installation hidden inside Crystals’ Louis Vuitton store. And it feels like watching the sunrise on Antarctica. To preserve the sensory deprivation, only a few bodies are allowed in at a time, so reservations are required for the free attraction. Call at least a month out (702-730-3150).
12. Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Garden
With every change of season, starting with the Chinese New Year, a staff of 120 horticulturists morph the 14,000 square-foot conservatory into a magical wonderland filled with nearly 50,000 flowers, including Yellow Durangos and Fire Islands. In addition to the beautiful flora—and occasional, real-life butterflies and fish—are custom-built trees with silk branches, gazebos and bridges, water elements and ponds, playful animals, gnomes, nymphs and more. It’s a sight every garden lover must see—and smell—to believe.
11. Wet ’n Wild
Note the single apostrophe. It signifies not the current water park in Summerlin, but the original aquatopia on the Strip that babysat so many Las Vegas and tourist youths from 1985 to 2004. Summertime rites of passage included trying to climb up the slippery Bubble Up, skipping across the water on a Banzai Banzai toboggan, twisting down the disorienting Blue Niagara and, most infamously, braving the legendary freefall chute Der Stuka (and later, scarier sister slide Bomb Bay).
10. Pinball Hall of Fame
Las Vegas and coin-operated machines have been symbiotic partners for almost a century, but the ones at 1610 East Tropicana Avenue aren’t like all the others. For the past eight years, that industrial gray building—the Hall’s second location since 2006—has housed a historic and fully operational collection of pinball and other arcade games, beckoning local regulars and savvy tourists away from the Strip. A $20 bill can buy you hours of fun. Try accomplishing that on the Boulevard.
9. Adventuredome at Circus Circus
In 1993, at the height of the Strip’s short-lived family era, Las Vegas gained not one, but two amusement parks: MGM Grand Adventures at MGM Grand (see sidebar, Page 16) and the Adventuredome at Circus Circus. Only the latter remains, the five-acre indoor park boasting a mercifully controlled climate; arguably the best—and most gravity-taunting—roller coaster in Southern Nevada, El Loco; 24 other dizzying rides and activities; and the king of local Halloween haunts, Fright Dome.
8. Pirate Battles at Treasure Island
What’s more quintessentially Vegas than pirates? Okay, pretty much everything, but that was the true genius of the staged skirmishes that lit up the Strip’s night sky from 1993 through 2013 (as the Battle of Buccaneer Bay for the first 10 years, and the Sirens of TI for the final decade). Simply put, it was the strangest thing going every single time it happened, and that’s saying a lot in a city like ours.
7. The Mob Museum
It’s dedicated to the histories of both organized crime and law enforcement, but forgive us if we find the mob more fascinating. Attractions include a portion of the brick wall from Chicago’s 1929 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre; a re-creation of the Kefauver hearings in one of the very courtrooms where they took place; mobster Bugsy Siegel’s sunglasses; and, oh yeah, some historic wiretapping equipment. Special events, like book signings and mob lectures, give us a reason to return again and again.
6. Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign
Our most famous attractions are owned by casinos—and thus subject to eventual implosion—with the notable exception of this one. Nevada-born artist Betty Willis designed the sign in the late ’50s and left it in the public domain as her gift to Las Vegas. Willis’ generosity has made this relatively small structure—it stands only 25 feet high—an iconic, global symbol. As a free, Clark County-owned attraction, it recently became a site of public mourning and healing after the events of October 1.
5. Volcano at the Mirage
The original front-yard attraction has changed a bit since the Mirage altered the history of the Strip some 28 years ago. There’s more fire. The explosions are bigger. The music has been co-created by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Indian tabla icon Zakir Hussain. And the volcano only erupts at 8 and 9 p.m. during the week, with an added 10 p.m. show Fridays and Saturdays. But there’s still something thrilling and even transportive about catching one of the last remaining free spectacles on Las Vegas Boulevard.
4. Star Trek: The Experience
The Experience opened at the Las Vegas Hilton in January 1998 and closed in 2008, well into a fallow period for the franchise. For a time, if you wanted Star Trek, you had to come to Las Vegas to get it. And the Experience delivered with a queue that wound through a collection of Trek props, models and costumes, culminating in two separate adventures: a Klingon Encounter that included a clever “transporter” effect, a visit to a replica of the bridge of the Enterprise-D and a simulator ride; and the haunted house-like Borg Invasion, built around a 3D movie with live water and wind effects. Both emptied into Quark’s, a bar inspired by Deep Space Nine, populated by actors in full costume. The closing of the Experience, due to licensing issues, remains a minor tragedy. One year later, the Trek franchise was rebooted in theaters; now it’s back on TV, too. And a nation of weekend Klingons is deprived of an experience they can’t get anywhere else on this planet.
3. Hoover Dam
There are the flashy visual icons of Las Vegas—most of them rising up along a short stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard—and then there’s the one monument most responsible for the entire Vegas Valley, the 6.6-million ton marvel in Black Canyon stretching across the Colorado River to Arizona. It’s more than just an impressive physical achievement (the amount of concrete in the dam and power plant would pave a 16-foot-wide highway from San Francisco to New York City, and that’s just cool). In terms of global perception, Hoover Dam is the only local landmark as big as the idea of Vegas itself. Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry has an architecture exhibit featuring the world’s greatest wonders built with Lego blocks, and Hoover Dam is there. It’s the ultimate must-do tourist attraction, and close to 1 million visitors make the 30-mile trip every year to take the grand tour.
2. Fountains of Bellagio
It doesn’t matter if it’s “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Uptown Funk.” It could be a sunny Friday afternoon with Bellagio’s lobby packed with check-ins or a glowing Saturday night on the Strip when the show kicks into gear (every 15 minutes). These famous fountains always make us feel the way the suave burglars of Ocean’s Eleven look on their way out of the casino after the greatest Vegas caper ever—like we just won. Like we made it, and it’s time to celebrate, just as soon as this thousand-foot-high, wondrous water show is over. But that’s just us; all Vegas visitors and locals have their own fountain feelings and memories, which is why it’s the most easily recognized Las Vegas attraction of all time. It’s our Eiffel Tower or Egyptian pyramids, even though we have those, too, on the same street.
1. The Neon Museum
There’s just so much. See over there? That’s the original sign from the now-defunct Stardust; those jagged letters were replaced with generic typeface in 1991. That giant skull, the one that stares right at you when you look at the place in satellite photos? It used to belong to Treasure Island, before that property was rebranded in 2003. The neon signs for dozens of Las Vegas originals, both dead and alive—the Moulin Rouge, Binion’s Horseshoe, the Sahara, New York-New York—are all here, stacked like toy blocks. The entirety of Las Vegas—its amazing history, staggering confidence and mythic stature—is stored in the Neon Museum’s “boneyard.” And you can walk through it.
It’s difficult to explain what makes the Neon Museum the top attraction on this list unless you’ve been there. You wouldn’t believe a walking tour of decommissioned neon signs could be exciting until you wander those canyons of metal and glass. You wouldn’t expect to be delighted by a 10-foot-tall pool shark or by a giant genie’s lamp. And unless you’ve been there, you probably can’t imagine how a close encounter with these artifacts could be so informative and fascinating.
Some of the signs are functional, and some aren’t, but that hardly matters. Every object here—from the rustiest motel sign to the repurposed former lobby of the La Concha motel itself—has a story to tell, and the Neon Museum’s devoted volunteers know them all. You’ll walk out loving Vegas even more than you did walking in. Believe it.