There's a bride on every block in Vegas. Check into your hotel and you'll hear the pop of champagne and the giggle of a bridal party in the next room. Take a picture at the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, and you'll most likely step aside for a bride and groom exchanging vows. Walk down the strip after midnight, and you'll see a barefoot bride dressed in her groom's jacket, Manolos in one hand, balloon-crown on her head, being piggybacked by a grinning groom.
Decades before destination weddings were even a thing, Vegas had carved out its niche as the wedding capital of the world. A series of glamorous, high-profile celebrity weddings featuring Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman brought the city sharply into the world focus during the 1950s and 1960s, while Nevada's relaxed license laws, with no waiting period and no blood tests, made it the easiest (and quickest) place to get married in the United States.
Today, the myth of a Sin City wedding is firmly established in popular culture and social media. Movies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids frame Vegas as the centre of pre-wedding shenanigans and drunken shotgun weddings. Dare to wade into the murky world of bridal blogs and social media, and you'll find Vegas often mentioned as a stand-by temptation or elopement escape plan, a place for fed-up couples fatigued by family expectations or the sheer financial cost of a wedding to get it over and done with.
However, the reality is much different: take a closer look at the wedding industry in Vegas today, and it's clear the city has shaken off its shotgun-wedding reputation.
"People used to think of Vegas as a place where spontaneous wedding took place; where no planning was involved and maybe even considered by some to be disreputable," Graceland Chapel manager Brandon Reed says. The chapel has operated in Vegas for 50 years.
"I think it's safe to say that the notion of getting married in Vegas has changed along with Vegas' reputation ... over the last two decades. Vegas has redefined itself to be a world-class destination – sexy, chic, and fun – and in many ways, getting married here shares the same idea," Reed says.
Over at the Bellagio, wedding planners time the casino's famous water show to begin as the couple have their first kiss, and the Eiffel Tower observation deck at Paris, Paris can be booked out for ceremonies. Meanwhile, at the iconic Graceland Chapel on the Strip, Elvis is doing a brisk trade in nuptials.
At Graceland Chapel, pictures of famous celebrities who have married here line the walls, including Jon Bon Jovi and Billy Ray Cyrus. In the lobby, a groom in his 50s pins a buttonhole on his plaid T-shirt, wearing something suspiciously close to a bumbag around the waist of his jeans. As we leave, another bride and groom arrive for their big day. In stark contrast to the more casual couple inside, this one is in a full princess gown, a tiara on her perfectly coiffed hair, a full bouquet of stunning red roses in hand. Her groom is dressed in a pressed, charcoal-coloured three-piece suit, a bridal party of six trailing behind them. The two grooms couldn't be more different except for one remarkable coincidence: both have huge grins on their faces.
But it's not just first timers who are flocking to the altar in Vegas. One of the big trends to accompany the surge in wedding-related tourism is the popularity of vow renewals.
"It's a trend that has caught fire over the years," Reed says. "Everyone is celebrating and happy and the nerves and jitters that were present the first time around are long gone."
There's still plenty willing to take the plunge for the first time though. 80,738 marriage licenses were issued in Clark County, Nevada, during 2014, with tourists accounting for about 82 per cent of all licenses issued.
While the number of couples getting married in Vegas has decreased significantly since 2004, an estimated 4 per cent of Vegas's 41.1 million annual visitors travel to Las Vegas to attend a wedding, with wedding-related tourism estimated to have generated an impressive $2 billion dollars in 2014.
With a figure that lucrative, everyone wants a slice of the wedding cake, particularly given that entertainment and leisure revenue has begun to generate a greater share of income than gambling in Sin City. Hotels, casinos and chapels have responded by creating an exclusive range of budget, high-end and unique wedding experiences to cater to every budget, taste and bridezilla whim, from purpose-built wedding salons to buff and polish the bride, to built in transfers to pick up the marriage licenses.
Ultimately, the winners are the bride and groom: Vegas offers variety, accessibility and convenience, but the huge competition also means prices are competitive, a rarity in an industry notorious for charging a premium.
The writer travelled with the assistance of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor's Authority and Graceland Chapel.
Graceland Wedding Chapel has traditional and Elvis-officiated wedding packages from $US199 ($260). See gracelandchapel.com.
How to get married in Vegas
According to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Smartraveller website, marriages entered into overseas are generally recognised as valid in Australia. Currently, there is no requirement to register a marriage in Australia which takes place overseas, and the foreign marriage certificate is sufficient evidence in Australia that the marriage took place. See smartraveller.gov.au/tips/marriage.html for more information.
For those wanting to get married in Las Vegas, the Clark County Marriage License Bureau is open seven days a week from 8am to midnight. Both members of the wedding party must appear in person, be single, show photo identification, and be at least 18 years old. The marriage license is valid for one year and costs $US60 (although there is talk about raising this to $US77 – a play on the gambling belief of "lucky sevens"). Nevada legalised same-sex marriage in 2014.
For those wanting to skip the queue and cut back on the wait times, couples can pre-apply online and join the express queue at the office. Many chapel and hotel wedding planners assist with the process as part of a package deal.
Official certificates for vow renewals are not offered by Clark County. However, many chapels & hotels offer a certificate for couples re-tying the knot.
See clarkcountynv.gov/depts/clerk/services/pages/marriagelicenses.aspx for information.