From Desert Oasis to Entertainment Mecca

Fremont_Street_Experience,_Las_Vegas_NV Photo Credit John Phelan

by Tania Moffat   (Photo credit John Phelan)

Within the parched landscape of the Mojave Desert, natural springs provided an oasis in a part of Mexico that is known today as Nevada. This oasis was named Las Vegas, Spanish for “the meadows.” The American government sent John C. Fremont to build a fort that was later used to claim the territory. While there he wrote about the raw beauty of the land and lush natural springs.

If you’ve ever wondered about Vegas’ Wild West past, go and re-live it. Take a train ride through its hallowed birthplace at the Springs Preserve. More than just a historical site or museum, though history buffs can certainly get their fill here, the preserve offers 180 acres of breathtaking scenery and botanical gardens, desert wildlife interactions, and numerous exhibits and attractions to captivate and entertain. Be sure to visit the Flash Flood Exhibit and feel the rush.


The development of two intersecting railways and the Hoover Dam (then Boulder Dam) in the twenties created a population boom of mainly single working men. Fremont Street, homage to John C., was the place to be. Casinos, licensed by the state, were built along the street and the gaming capital was born.

Las Vegas became the first customer in Nevada to receive power from the Hoover Dam after its completion in 1935. As the workers moved out, tourists moved in. The Hoover Dam, the highest concrete dam in the Western Hemisphere, and Lake Mead, formed by the dam’s construction, began to draw their own tourists. But Fremont Street, or “Glitter Gulch” as it was known, glistened with brightly lit signs powered by the Hoover Dam and drew people like moths to a flame.

A modern day Glitter Gulch has been recreated at the Fremont East Entertainment District. A covered five-block mall, the district offers an hourly light and music show displayed nightly on the canopy overhead. Stop to watch free music shows, street entertainers or just people watch – you’re sure to get an eyeful. If you forgot your sensible shoes, stop at one of the hotels or restaurants to rest your dogs and grab a bite to eat. The younger crowd can get pretty wild as the night progresses, but between six and eight in the evening you can still enjoy the experience with fewer partiers. Fremont is a definite throwback to the Golden Age of Las Vegas. And by the way, it’s free.

The 1950s were exciting times for Vegas. Tempted by the gambling, organized crime began to show its influence, building casinos such as The Sahara, The Sands, The Showboat, The Fremont, Binion’s Horseshoe, and the Tropicana, among others. Travellers interested in the more notorious aspects of early Las Vegas might want to stop by the Mob Museum. This historic building was built in 1933 and later used as the city’s first federal courthouse to hold hearings on organized crime. Hardier visitors wanting to experience the shadier side of the crime world can go on the Mob Tour where your wise guy tour guide will recount true tales of the Mafia’s involvement in Las Vegas and visit locations where crimes actually took place, ending the evening at a pizza joint.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the signs of the casinos that once graced the gambling district, you can see them at the Neon Museum. This boneyard of vintage signs contains all of the oldies including the Pioneer Club’s cowboy “Vegas Vic,” Moulin Rouge, the Stardust “atomic” sign – a reminder of the atomic bomb tests once done near Vegas, and the Treasure Island skull. This fantastic tour twinkles with history and it is absolutely illuminating at night.

Frank Sinatra played Las Vegas from 1951 to 1994. He is credited with giving Vegas its swing and for bringing sophistication to the strip. The fifties were an exciting time; the Rat Pack, Elvis Presley and others began performing for audiences creating an entertainment mecca that stars eagerly flocked to. Exotic shows such as “Minsky’s Follies” and their famed showgirls also began to take hold around the mid-to-late fifties. After the shows, audiences would congregate at the gourmet buffets, a staple of the new casinos.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. The hottest stars of today still perform in Las Vegas, with regulars like Celine Dion returning year after year. Dion will be performing her latest show, celebrating 10 years in Las Vegas this June at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. This summer you can catch Olivia Newton-John performing “Summer Nights” at the Flamingo and Britney Spears is back in August with “Piece of Me” at Planet Hollywood.

The only original showgirls still performing on the Strip can be seen at Bally’s. Jubilee, a topless sin city institution since 1981, has just undergone a major transformation with new choreography, staging and music and a contemporary twist. This phenomenal show still represents old world glitz and glamour complete with feathers and rhinestones. Go behind the scenes with a Jubilee showgirl on a Jubilee All-Access Backstage Walking Tour to see the intricate details that go into putting on this complex spectacle.

A Las Vegas entertainment staple, Cirque du Soleil has eight shows currently playing – “O”, Criss Angel Believe, Mystère, The Beatles “Love”, Ká, Michael Jackson One, Zumanity, and Zarkana. If you have ever dreamt of being in the show, wondered what it was like to be suspended in silk, your body entwined swinging and falling into different positions then you should visit Shine Alternative Fitness. The studio offers classes where you can work out with actual cirque performers; try your hand at Xtreme boxing, ballet, ANTIGRAVITY® Yoga, or aerial arts classes.

Experience something new. Rose.Rabbit.Lie opened at the Cosmopolitan earlier this year; it is touted as “a grand social experiment that blurs the lines between show, club, restaurant and bar.” The performance Vegas Nocturne, created by Speigelworld, brings together a cast of world class talent in three unpredictable evening shows. A combination of scripted and improvised entertainment flows throughout the venue with the audience between distinct rooms: the library, study, music room, swimming pool and ballroom. From acrobats to contortionists, tap dancers and aerialists the show has been getting rave reviews. A menu of sharable plates and cocktails specific to each space are available for purchase, including signature drinks Down the Rabbit Hole and Treacle Trade. It’s a night out that will never repeat itself.

Festival lovers should not miss North America’s largest music festival held June 20 to 22. The Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to draw more than 400,000 fans with full-sized carnival rides, seven massive stages, several hundred theatrical and dance performers, hundreds of artists, and fully interactive art installations.