History of the Las Vegas Strip

The history of the Las Vegas Strip, a 4.2-mile stretch of South Las Vegas Boulevard, is a fascinating journey that has seen the transformation of a barren desert into one of the most famous entertainment destinations in the world.

Here is a brief overview of the key milestones in the history of the Las Vegas Strip:

Early Days (1930s – 1940s):

The development of the Las Vegas Strip began in the 1930s. In 1931, the state of Nevada legalized gambling, opening the door for the development of the gaming industry in Las Vegas.

This decision was partly a response to the economic challenges of the Great Depression, with the hope that legalized gambling would attract visitors and boost the local economy. The area was relatively isolated at the time, and gambling was legalized in 1931 as a way to attract more visitors to the region.

The first hotel-casino on what is now known as the Las Vegas Strip was the El Rancho Vegas, which opened its doors in 1941. It was located on what is currently the intersection of Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue. El Rancho Vegas was a modest establishment compared to later developments, featuring a casino, a restaurant, and a motel.

El Rancho Vegas in the 1940s

After World War II, Las Vegas experienced a period of growth and expansion. The city’s proximity to military bases and the allure of legalized gambling attracted an increasing number of visitors.

One of the most significant developments in the 1940s was the opening of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in 1946. The Flamingo was the brainchild of notorious mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. It was a luxurious resort that aimed to bring a touch of Hollywood glamour to the desert.

While Bugsy Siegel’s involvement ended in tragedy with his murder in 1947, the Flamingo set the stage for the upscale and lavish resorts that would come to define the Las Vegas Strip.

In the late 1940s, additional hotels and casinos began to emerge along what would become the Strip. These included the Last Frontier (1942) and the Thunderbird (1948).

These early establishments were relatively modest compared to the mega-resorts that would later dominate the Strip, but they played a crucial role in establishing Las Vegas as a destination for entertainment and gambling.

The 1940s also saw the introduction of entertainment as a key component of the Las Vegas experience. Showgirls, live performances, and entertainment acts became synonymous with the city. Additionally, the use of neon lights to illuminate the resorts and casinos contributed to the distinctive visual appeal of the Strip.

Post-War Boom (1950s – 1960s):

The 1950s and 1960s were transformative decades for the Las Vegas Strip, solidifying its reputation as the entertainment capital of the world.

During this period, the Strip underwent significant growth, with the construction of iconic resorts and the emergence of legendary performers.

In the early 1950s, Las Vegas had strong ties to organized crime, and several mobsters invested in the city’s casinos. The Rat Pack, a group of entertainers led by Frank Sinatra, played a crucial role in shaping the city’s entertainment scene. Members of the Rat Pack, including Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and others, regularly performed in Las Vegas, adding to its glamorous image.

The Sands, which opened in 1952, became a hotspot for entertainment and celebrity performances. It was a favorite venue for the Rat Pack, and its Copa Room hosted legendary performances. The Sands contributed to the trend of integrating entertainment into the casino experience.

The Flamingo, despite its troubled beginnings, continued to play a significant role in the 1950s. It underwent expansions and changes in ownership, solidifying its status as one of the premier resorts on the Strip. The Flamingo set the template for luxury and glamour that other resorts aimed to replicate.

The Desert Inn, opened in 1950, was another milestone in the 1950s. Under the ownership of billionaire Howard Hughes in the 1960s, the Desert Inn became a symbol of opulence and attracted high-profile guests.

The Dunes (1955), the Riviera (1955), and the Stardust (1958) were among the notable resorts that opened in the late 1950s. The Stardust, in particular, was known for its innovative architecture and the largest electric sign in the world at the time.

The 1950s saw an influx of tourists, in part due to the proximity of the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear tests were conducted. The novelty of witnessing atomic explosions attracted visitors, contributing to the city’s popularity.

The Moulin Rouge, located off the Strip, deserves mention as it was the first integrated hotel-casino in Las Vegas. It opened in 1955 and played a crucial role in breaking racial barriers in the city’s entertainment and hospitality industry.

The 1960s marked a shift toward diversification, with resorts offering a wide range of entertainment beyond gambling. The iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign, designed by Betty Willis, became a symbol of the city’s allure and was erected in 1959 but gained popularity in the 1960s.

Caesars Palace opened in 1966 and quickly became a symbol of opulence on the Strip. The resort was inspired by Roman architecture and boasted a grandiose design. Caesars Palace featured luxurious accommodations, a vast casino, and top-tier entertainment. The opening of Caesars Palace set a new standard for extravagance in Las Vegas.

In the late 1960s, billionaire Howard Hughes became a prominent figure in Las Vegas. He purchased the Desert Inn in 1967, marking the beginning of his involvement in the city’s casino industry. Hughes’ influence extended beyond the Strip, as he acquired several other hotels and casinos.

The Aladdin Hotel and Casino opened in 1966, featuring an Arabian Nights theme. It underwent multiple ownership changes and renovations over the years.

Las Vegas in 1964

Circus Circus, which opened in 1968, targeted families with its circus theme and became one of the first hotels on the Strip to focus on a broader demographic.

While the Las Vegas Strip was booming, Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas continued to be a major gambling and entertainment hub.

However, the glamour and star-studded performances on the Strip increasingly drew attention away from downtown.

Mega-Resort Era (1970s – 1980s):

The 1970s and 1980s marked a period of continued growth and transformation for the Las Vegas Strip. During these decades, the city solidified its reputation as an entertainment and gambling mecca, with the construction of mega-resorts, the rise of corporate ownership, and the diversification of attractions.

The 1970s saw a shift in the ownership structure of many Las Vegas Strip properties. Large corporations began to acquire and manage the resorts, replacing the earlier era of independent ownership. This corporate influence brought a more business-oriented and professional approach to the management of casinos.

In 1969, the International Hotel opened, later becoming the Las Vegas Hilton and eventually the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino. At the time, it was the largest hotel in the world, with over 1,500 rooms. The hotel’s main showroom, the Hilton Theater, hosted legendary performances by Elvis Presley.

The Mirage, opened in 1989, marked a new era of themed resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. Developed by Steve Wynn, The Mirage was known for its tropical theme, including a volcano that erupted regularly in front of the resort. It also introduced the concept of the mega-resort, featuring a large hotel, a casino, entertainment venues, and other amenities.

Following The Mirage’s success, other themed resorts emerged. The Excalibur (1990) embraced a medieval theme, while the Luxor (1993) featured an Egyptian pyramid design. The trend of themed resorts continued into the 1990s.

The Stratosphere Tower, the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States, opened in 1996. Located at the north end of the Strip, it added a distinctive structure to the skyline and offered panoramic views of the city.

The 1970s and 1980s marked an expansion of entertainment options beyond gambling. Headlining shows became a staple, and the city attracted world-class performers. The concept of the residency, where performers had extended runs at specific venues, gained popularity.

While the Las Vegas Strip continued to thrive, the focus on the downtown area, particularly Fremont Street, diminished.

The Strip’s mega-resorts and themed attractions became the main draw for visitors, leaving downtown Las Vegas with fewer high-profile attractions.

At the end of the 2000s, the CityCenter complex opened, featuring the Aria Resort & Casino. CityCenter represented a more modern and urban approach to resort development, with a focus on art, architecture, and sustainability.

Corporate Ownership (1990s – 2000s):

The 1990s and 2000s were dynamic decades for the Las Vegas Strip, marked by the continuation of mega-resort development, a shift toward family-friendly attractions, and a focus on entertainment beyond gambling.

The success of The Mirage in the late 1980s influenced the direction of resort development in the 1990s. The idea of themed resorts and high-quality entertainment became a hallmark of the Las Vegas experience.

The Excalibur (1990), with its medieval theme, the Luxor (1993), with its iconic pyramid design, and Treasure Island (1993), known for its pirate theme, were significant additions to the Strip. These resorts continued the trend of immersive and themed experiences.

The MGM Grand (1993), New York-New York (1997), and Monte Carlo (1996) further expanded the variety of themed resorts on the Strip. The MGM Grand, in particular, held the title of the largest hotel complex in the world at the time.

The Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada

The Bellagio, which opened in 1998, represented a departure from themed resorts. It focused on luxury and sophistication, featuring a famous fountain show in its lake.

The Venetian, opened in 1999, expanded its offerings in the 2000s with the addition of The Palazzo and the creation of The Grand Canal Shoppes, which featured indoor canals and gondola rides.

Modern Era (2000s – Present):

The 2000s marked a resurgence in the popularity of residencies, with major artists such as Celine Dion, Elton John, and Cher performing extended runs in Las Vegas. The city became known for hosting world-class entertainment.

The emphasis on non-gaming attractions increased during this period. Shopping malls, fine dining, and nightlife became integral parts of the Las Vegas experience, attracting visitors with diverse interests.

The early 2000s saw the completion of several iconic mega-resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. Notable additions included The Palms (2001), Mandalay Bay’s THEhotel (2003), Wynn Las Vegas (2005), and The Palazzo (2007).

In 2009, the CityCenter complex opened, which featured the Aria Resort & Casino and showcased a more modern, urban approach to resort development.

The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas opened in 2010, bringing a modern and cosmopolitan flair to the Strip. It featured a unique approach to luxury with distinctive dining options, a rooftop pool deck, and a chic atmosphere.

The High Roller, a giant observation wheel, opened in 2014 at The LINQ Promenade. It became a prominent feature on the Strip, offering breathtaking views of the city.

The T-Mobile Arena opened in 2016, becoming a hub for major events, concerts, and sports. It further solidified Las Vegas as a destination for entertainment beyond gambling.

The Las Vegas Strip

The transformation of the Monte Carlo into Park MGM was completed in 2018, emphasizing a new level of sophistication. The adjacent outdoor space, known as The Park, enhanced the resort’s appeal with greenery, art installations, and outdoor dining.

In recent years, there has been a focus on diversifying the offerings beyond gambling. The Las Vegas Strip has become a hub for world-class entertainment, shopping, fine dining, and conventions.

The history of the Las Vegas Strip is a testament to the city’s ability to reinvent itself and stay at the forefront of entertainment and hospitality. It continues to be a dynamic and iconic destination, drawing millions of visitors from around the world.

If you would like to learn more about the history of gambling, check out this article on the history of casinos in America.

Sources:
Zook, Lynn. Gambling on a Dream: The Classic Las Vegas Strip 1930-1955. Arcadia Publishing, 2018.
“Timeline.” City of Las Vegas, lasvegasnevada.gov/Residents/History/Timeline
“History in Las Vegas.” Frommer’s, frommers.com/destinations/las-vegas/in-depth/history

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