A second chance to shine

The Neon Boneyard is where a glittering city's castoffs go to rest or be restored, writes David Whitley.

AMONG the broken light bulbs and faded paint stands a giant, smiling duck. It adds a sense of ridiculousness that no amount of earnest explanation about restoration costs can change.

The duck, on closer inspection, is made from an intricate network of tubes. At one time, these would have been illuminated through neon lighting. Now it's just another cast-off at the Las Vegas Neon Boneyard, along with a huge pirate skull, a rotund king and some supersize signs that once adorned the fronts of casinos.

Times move fast in Vegas, with newer, bigger and shinier always the goal. The casino signs are generally not owned by the casinos, they're leased from sign makers. And when the six- or seven-year lease is up, they generally feel the sign is out of date and ditch it.

Not everyone is so keen to move on, however. Since 1996, a group of individuals, companies and government organisations has been set on preservation. The signs, after all, are as much a part of Las Vegas's history as temple inscriptions are part of ancient Rome's.

It has been a long time coming but next year a dedicated Neon Museum should open, with many of the refurbished signs in it.

Until then, they lie in various states of dilapidation inside the Boneyard and the only way to see them is by pre-booking a tour.

Walking through the yard is a tremendously odd experience. Some signs have been reduced to a scattering of letters or have faded due to wind, sun and pigeon poo. Others are still imperious, even if they have to be stashed behind a few shabby-looking compadres due to their overwhelming size.

It's worth taking a few moments to disconnect from the guide's spiel and just amble through the surreal landscape. It is in equal parts cartoonish and apocalyptic.

Many signs have great stories attached to them, too. The huge clover from Downtown's Fitz casino is missing its companion - a leprechaun. Apparently, a homeless man crept in and used it for shelter on a cold night and lit a fire inside. Alas, the ginger-bearded leprechaun is now only recognisable from the head up.

Just outside the Boneyard is the Silver Slipper, which has been fully restored. This monument to camp once marked the now-defunct casino of the same name. However, reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes thought the toes contained hidden cameras designed to spy on him in his suite opposite the casino so he bought the casino and had the slipper removed.

It's one of those tales about which you don't actually want to find out the truth. But it's the slipper's location in the central reservation of North Las Vegas Boulevard that's most important for the future of these odd treasures.

After years trying to get funding to open the Neon Museum, most of the true classics won't be in it. A key part of the project has been to get many of the big guns lining the Boulevard, or those back on display in the Fremont Street Experience, the giant undercover precinct that is Downtown's bid to take on the razzle-dazzle of the Strip. And it is here, on Fremont Street, that the neon spirit lives on.

Set pieces, such as the comically large Aladdin's lamp from the former Aladdin casino, line the city's alternative Strip but you actually have to look to find them.

This isn't because they're hidden in shame, it's because they've got so much competition. During the day, neon and LED lighting grids shine but at night, the whole street is ablaze. The "roof" becomes a multiblock video screen, every wall seems to be flashing and blaring and neon cowboys compete for attention with sparkling cocktail glasses. Some of it is old, some of it is merely pretending to be old.

But in the era of sleek, classy mega-resorts, the gas-filled tubes that lit up Vegas during its childhood still have a role to play.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas flies to Los Angeles, then codeshares to Las Vegas with American Airlines. Prices start at about $1750 return. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.

See + do

Tours of the Neon Boneyard start from $US15 ($14). 821 Las Vegas Boulevard North. +1 702 387 6366, neonmuseum.org. The Fremont Street Experience is free. vegasexperience.com.

Staying there

The Golden Nugget is the best casino-resort to stay at on the Fremont Street Experience. Rooms start at $US55. +1 800 634 3454, goldennugget.com.

More information visitlasvegas.com.au.