There are two versions of Las Vegas.
The Vegas most people recognize is the fabulous Strip, where dazzling light displays and palatial casino resorts draw visitors from around the world.
A few miles northeast of the Strip, there’s another iteration of Vegas that often flies under the radar. Downtown Vegas, specifically the Fremont Street Experience, provides an alternate version of the city that hearkens back to its historic roots. Like other unique destinations in the United States – Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Times Square in New York, or the boardwalks of New Jersey – there’s no place quite like Downtown Vegas.
“Fremont Street is a totally unique experience that anyone visiting Vegas should not miss,” says Deb Capan Moberg, a regular visitor from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “It has a little something for everyone: shopping, bars, casinos, dining, zip-lining, or enjoyable people watching.”
Days begin on Fremont Street just after the thoroughfare discharges the last of its late-night guests. Just after dawn, cleaning crews with industrial-strength power sprayers and what resembles a small Zamboni start scraping away the previous night’s detritus. Beer cans, plastic mixed drink cups, Styrofoam cartons, and pizza crusts are disposed of. The workers then polish the street until it’s not quite, but close to, gleaming.
Prior to a $70 million development project in the early 1990s, which included the installation of the lighted canopy that covers four blocks, Fremont Street was in decline.
“Fremont Street was suffering because it was old,” says Mayor Carolyn Goodman. “At the time they built (the canopy), Downtown had been the hub for everything. Fremont Street was where the high school students used to go. So (the revitalization) really came about to try to bring people and visitors and even locals into the heart (of Downtown) for entertainment. Not so much for people to go to Penney’s or Sears or other stores, but to come in and revitalize that aspect of it.”
Little did the developers know how successful the redevelopment would become. According to lasvegasnevada.gov, the Fremont Street Experience drives 26 million visitors per year to Downtown Las Vegas, its eight casinos, and other attractions.
The investment in Downtown would not have worked without the casinos buying into the premise. According to Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the Plaza Hotel & Casino, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2021, Downtown’s revitalization required more than acknowledging its history.
“What’s really changed in the last decade, and what’s made Downtown much better now, is the reinvestment (properties) have made in nice rooms, nice restaurants, nice pools,” Jossel says. “Now, that complements the history. And I think just the history; it was nice, right? But that wasn’t enough. You had to have reinvestment.”
In 2010, The Plaza was temporarily closed for remodeling. In 2019, 100 rooms and suites at The Plaza were renovated with new decor and Amazon Echo Dots that allow guests to communicate with hotel staff.
Developer Derek Stevens has made huge investments in Downtown Vegas, first purchasing the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino in 2008. In 2012, he bought Fitzgerald’s and rebranded it to The D. Stevens built Circa Resort Casino in 2020, Downtown’s first newly built casino since 1980, for an estimated $1.2 billion.
Even Downtown’s most storied venue, the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, underwent a $25 million renovation that included new carpeting and the refurbishing of rooms.
While the improvements add luster to properties, the true magic of Downtown Vegas is due to an alchemical blend of the attractions, the characters and performers, and the atmosphere. A fundamental part of the atmosphere is the canopy, which underwent a $32 million renovation in 2019.
El Cortez & Casino General Manager Adam Wiesberg says the canopy is essential to the success of the Fremont Street Experience.
“It creates that intense video and audio stimulation,” Wiesberg says. “You have the light shows and the street performers. And you have the contrast between the original casinos, like the Horseshoe, the Four Queens, and the Plaza from back in the ’60s and ’70s that are still going strong, and then you have Circa, which was just built for $1 billion. You have the old meeting the new here.”
“It’s just been over the last eight to ten years that there’s been a boom Downtown,” Wiesberg adds. “A lot of people have moved down here, there a lot of great eateries and bars that are enjoyed by the local millennials. And of course, when you have an authentic, artistic neighborhood, tourists want to come to that.”
Every night Fremont Street buzzes with kinetic, pulsating energy. There are bands and DJs blasting music from stages. The street performers – including hulking guys flexing muscles, free-style rappers and dancers, feathered and leathered women who will pose for photos for a price – create a carnival-like atmosphere that attracts a range of patrons.
“You’ve got guys who come in with their college buddies who just want to drink a beer and catch up,” says Boyd Gaming Director of Operations Andre Filosi, who works at Downtown’s California Hotel & Casino. “You’ve got gals who come in for bachelor parties. You’ve got folks who are all decked out and want to have a great meal. You’ve got folks who just want to grab a slice of pizza and a beer.
“Each place has its own vibe. And if you walk into a place and it connects with you, there you are. You can find places where you are comfortable, but you are welcome everywhere.”
That welcoming aspect extends to how operators interact with patrons at Downtown casinos. Filosi spends a lot of his time on California’s casino floor, greeting patrons and exchanging stories as if he were the proprietor of a vintage five-and-dime store instead of a multi-million dollar operation. Jossel also tries to be available to customers, noting that he frequently gives his phone number to guests.
“You have more personalized service when you’re treated not just like a number,” Jossel says, “which is something our host team and our casino team try to play up here. The biggest feedback I get from customers and team members of why they want to be Downtown is this idea that they can talk to the owners, they can talk to senior management, and things get done more quickly.
“I’ve never worked on the Strip,” Jossel adds. “I don’t know what it’s like. But for us here, it’s something (interaction with management) we hear they like a lot.”
At the El Cortez, Wiesberg also spends a lot of time on the gaming floor, as does owner Kenny Epstein, who is at the property six days per week. Epstein will frequently ask about certain people on the hotel registry and where they are from, and then introduce himself to them on the gaming floor.
“We’re like any other property,” Wiesberg says. “We’re for profit, and we’re trying to have great margins and increase our business. But the image of El Cortez is something we focus on as much as any of that, and our authenticity, our history and reputation. These numbers that come through on these lists, they’re not a number for us, they’re a name, and we go down and meet the people. If Kenny can’t do it, he’s calling to make sure someone has met the person.”
On a Saturday morning in late April, a man with hypochondroplasia, a genetic disorder characterized by disproportionately short arms, legs, hands, and feet, places an order at the Dunkin inside the Fremont Hotel & Casino. He struggles to remove wadded dollar bills from his jacket pocket, and a clerk at the counter who knows the man by name helps organize his money. Another clerk helps him place his coffee and food comfortably in his hands.
It turns out the man is a street artist who bends reeds into crosses and other objects. When told Dunkin staffers treated the man as if he were Titanium Club member, Filosi is grateful but not surprised.
“We really try to foster relationships with our guests,” Filosi says. “You do have people who are infrequent visitors who just pop into a particular place we don’t have a connection with. But for frequent guests or locals, (team members) develop relationships with folks within that property.”
Goodman says the city’s reputation for hospitality – not just Downtown, but on the Strip and throughout Las Vegas – is something she takes pride in.
But Downtown Vegas, Goodman says, is old Vegas, “and old Vegas is all about personal efforts for hospitality. Gracious kindness, treating each guest as if they are the one and only, and not only courteous but fast service and personalized service.
“I know that when my husband (former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman) and I travel, he gets impatient because it takes forever to cleanup a room, or they aren’t as courteous. It’s not like it is here, where the courteous staffs are so well trained.”
A little less than a mile from the Fremont Street Experience on Las Vegas Boulevard is a glowing reminder of the past. The Neon Museum is the final resting place for some of Las Vegas’ most iconic signs. The museum’s Neon Boneyard is home to the angular letters from the Stardust’s marquee, the loopy lettering adorning the sign from the long-forgotten La Concha, and a blue arrow simply lettered “Wedding Information.” There are signs from the Yucca Hotel, the Hard Rock Café, and the Moulin Rouge.
In daylight, the signs are like cars in a junkyard, albeit carefully stacked and intact. But at night when the Neon Boneyard signs are lit, it’s as if the ghosts of Vegas are holding a séance beckoning the past.
Aaron Berger became the Neon Museum’s executive director in July 2021. In August 2021, the museum received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, one of only 3,000 of 30,000 U.S. museums to achieve that status.
As a relatively new resident, Berger immediately recognized that Downtown Vegas’ attractions – the casinos and resorts, the restaurants, arts organizations including the Mob Museum and Container Park – are connected. And he realized, like so many other newcomers and visitors, that Downtown Vegas is unlike anywhere else.
“I love it because it’s a tightly knit community,” says Berger, who came to Las Vegas after managing his own consulting agency in Atlanta. “This is a group that, whether you’re in gaming or in the arts, our paths cross, and we work on ways we can help one another out.”