For many years after its creation via a land auction in 1905, Las Vegas was a mere whistle-stop town. That all changed in 1928 when Congress authorized the building of nearby Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam), bringing thousands of workers to the area. Although gambling still happened in the backrooms of saloons after it became illegal in 1909, the lifting of those prohibitions in 1931 is what set the stage for the first of the city’s many booms. Fremont Street’s gaming emporiums and speakeasies attracted dam workers and, upon the dam’s completion, were replaced by hordes of tourists who came to see the engineering marvel (it was called “the Eighth Wonder of the World”). But it wasn’t until the early years of World War II that visionary entrepreneurs began to plan for the city’s glittering future.
The 1940s: The Strip is Born
Contrary to popular lore, developer Bugsy Siegel didn’t actually stake a claim in the middle of nowhere—his Flamingo opened in 1946 just a few blocks south of already-existing properties.
The true beginnings of what would eventually become the Las Vegas Strip started years earlier. According to lore, Thomas Hull was driving toward Downtown’s already-booming Fremont Street area when his car broke down just outside of the city limits. As he stood there sweating in the desert heat, he envisioned, or perhaps just wished for, a cool swimming pool in the scrub brush next to the highway. Luckily, Hull was a hotel magnate, and he put his money where his mirage was. El Rancho Vegas, ultraluxurious for its time and complete with a sparkling pool facing the highway, opened in 1941 across the street from where the upcoming SLS Las Vegas (formerly the Sahara) now stands. Scores of Hollywood stars were invited to the grand opening, and El Rancho Vegas soon became the hotel of choice for visiting film stars.
Beginning a trend that continues today, each new property tried to outdo existing hotels in luxurious amenities and thematic splendor. Las Vegas was on its way to becoming America’s playground.
Las Vegas promoted itself in the 1940s as a town that combined Wild West frontier friendliness with glamour and excitement. Throughout the decade, the city was Hollywood’s celebrity retreat. The Hollywood connection gave the town glamour in the public’s mind—as did the mob connection, which became clear when notorious underworld gangster Bugsy Siegel built the fabulous Flamingo, a tropical paradise and “a real class joint.”
While the Strip was expanding with major resorts like the Frontier, Bugsy’s Flamingo, and the Thunderbird, Downtown kept pace with new hotels such as the El Cortez and casinos like the Golden Nugget. By the end of the decade, Fremont Street was known as “Glitter Gulch,” its profusion of neon signs proclaiming round-the-clock gaming and entertainment.
The 1950s: Building Booms & A-Bombs
Las Vegas entered the new decade as a city (no longer a frontier town), with a population of about 50,000. Hotel growth was phenomenal, with legendary names like the Sahara, the Dunes, the Sands, and the Tropicana all gaining neon-lit fame.
The Desert Inn, which opened in 1950 with headliners Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, brought country-club elegance (including an 18-hole golf course and tennis courts) to the Strip.
In 1951, the Eldorado Club Downtown became Benny Binion’s Horseshoe Club, which would gain fame as the home of the annual World Series of Poker.
In 1955, the Côte d’Azur–themed Riviera became the ninth big hotel to open on the Strip. Breaking the ranch-style mode, it was, at nine stories, the Strip’s first high-rise. Liberace, one of the hottest names in show business, was paid the unprecedented sum of $50,000 a week to dazzle audiences in the Riviera’s posh Clover Room.
Elvis appeared at the New Frontier in 1956 but wasn’t a huge success; his fans were too young to fit the Las Vegas tourist mold.
In 1958, the $10-million, 1,065-room Stardust upped the stakes by importing the famed Lido de Paris spectacle from the French capital. It became one of the longest-running shows ever to play Las Vegas. Two performers whose names have been linked to Las Vegas ever since—Frank Sinatra and Wayne Newton—made their debuts there.
Mae West not only performed in Las Vegas, but also cleverly bought up a half-mile of desolate Strip frontage between the Dunes and the Tropicana.
In the 1950s, the wedding industry helped make Las Vegas one of the nation’s most popular venues for “goin’ to the chapel.” Celebrity weddings of the 1950s that sparked the trend included singer Dick Haymes and Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Pepsi chairman Alfred Steele, Carol Channing and TV exec Charles Lowe, and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
On a grimmer note, the ’50s also heralded the atomic age in Nevada, with nuclear testing taking place just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. A chilling 1951 photograph shows a mushroom-shaped cloud from an atomic bomb test visible over the Fremont Street horizon. Throughout the decade, about one bomb a month was detonated in the nearby desert (an event, interestingly enough, that often attracted loads of tourists).
The 1960s: The Rat Pack & the King
The very first month of the new decade made entertainment history when the Sands hosted a 3-week “Summit Meeting” in the Copa Room that was presided over by “Chairman of the Board” Frank Sinatra, with Rat Pack cronies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop (all of whom happened to be in town filming Ocean’s Eleven). The series of shows helped to form the Rat Pack legend in Vegas and, in many ways vice versa, making the town hip and cool—the ultimate ’60s swinging retreat.
It needed the help. After nearly a decade of almost constant building and expansion (no fewer than 10 major resorts opened in the 1950s), a crackdown on the Mafia and its money, which had fueled the city’s development, brought construction to a halt. Only two major properties opened during the decade—the Road to Morocco–themed Aladdin in 1963 and the Roman Empire bacchanalia that was Caesars Palace in 1966. Perhaps trying to prove that the mob was gone for good, Las Vegas became a family destination in 1968, when Circus Circus burst onto the scene with the world’s largest permanent circus and a “junior casino” featuring dozens of carnival midway games on its mezzanine level.
Elvis officially became part of the Vegas legend with the release of the film Viva Las Vegas in 1964, which not only furthered the city’s “cool” quotient but also gave it an enduring theme song that remains a part of the city’s identity more than 60 years later. But it was not until 1969 that the King’s place in Sin City history would be cemented with his triumphant return to Las Vegas at the International’s showroom with a series of concerts that made him one of the city’s all-time legendary performers. His fans had come of age.
The 1970s: The Glamour Fades
The image of Las Vegas that emerged in the 1970s was one that would take decades to shed: a tacky tourist trap with aging casinos, cheap restaurants, and showrooms filled with performers whose careers were on their last legs. With a few exceptions, investment had slowed to a crawl and Vegas didn’t seem as exciting anymore, especially when it was forced to compete with the sparkling newness of Atlantic City, where gambling was legalized in 1976.
There were some bright spots. In 1971, the 500-room Union Plaza opened at the head of Fremont Street on the site of the old Union Pacific Station. It had, at that time, the world’s largest casino, and its showroom specialized in Broadway productions.
The year 1973 was eventful: Over at the Tropicana, illusionists extraordinaire Siegfried & Roy began turning women into tigers and themselves into legends in the Folies Bergere. Meanwhile, just up the street, the original MGM Grand (now Bally’s) trumped the Plaza as the largest hotel and casino in the world, with Dean Martin as the opening evening’s host.
Las Vegas made its way into America’s living rooms with two very different television programs. Merv Griffin began taping his daytime talkfest in 1971 at Caesars Palace, taking advantage of a ready supply of local headliner guests. Then, in 1978, Vega$ debuted, instantly emblazoning the image of star Robert Urich cruising down the Strip in his red Thunderbird convertible on the minds of TV viewers everywhere.
As the decade drew to a close, an international arrivals building opened and turned McCarran Field into McCarran International Airport, and dollar slot machines caused a sensation in the casinos.
The Mob in Las Vegas
The role of the Mafia in the creation of Las Vegas is little more than a footnote these days, but it isn’t too bold of a statement to suggest that without organized crime, the city would not have developed in the ways that it did and its past would have certainly been less colorful.
Meyer Lansky was a big name in the New York crime syndicate in the 1930s, and it was largely his decision to send Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel west to expand their empire. Although the Strip had already begun to form with the opening of El Rancho in 1941 and the Frontier in 1942, it was Bugsy’s sparkling Flamingo of 1946 that began a Mafia-influenced building boom and era of control that would last for decades. Famous marquees such as the Desert Inn, the Riviera, and the Stardust were all built, either in part or in whole, from funding sources that were less than reputable.
During the ’60s, negative attention focused on mob influence in Las Vegas. Of the 11 major casino hotels that had opened in the previous decade, 10 were believed to have been financed with mob money. Then, like a knight in shining armor, Howard Hughes rode into town and embarked on a $300-million hotel and property-buying spree, which included the Desert Inn itself (in 1967). Hughes was as “Bugsy” as Benjamin Siegel any day, but his pristine reputation helped bring respectability to the desert city and lessen its gangland stigma.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the government got involved, embarking on a series of criminal prosecutions across the country to try to break the back of the Mafia. Although not completely successful, it did manage to wrest major control of Las Vegas away from organized crime, aided by new legislation that allowed corporations to own casinos. By the time Steve Wynn built the Mirage in 1989, the Mafia’s role was reduced to the point where the most it could control were the city’s innumerable strip clubs.
These days, strict regulation and billions of dollars of corporate money keep things on the up and up, but the mob’s influence can still be felt even at the highest levels of Las Vegas government. Former Mayor Oscar B. Goodman, first elected in 1999, was a lawyer for the Mafia in the 1960s and 1970s, defending such famed gangsters as Meyer Lanksy and Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro. The popular and colorful Goodman cheerfully refers to his Mafia-related past often, joking about his desire to settle conflicts in the desert at night with a baseball bat like “in the good old days.”
As if to bring things full circle, Goodman championed The Mob Museum, a stunning facility that examines the history and influence of the Mafia in America and Las Vegas in particular. It is located in a former courthouse that was the site of the Mafia-related Kefauver hearings of the 1950s.
The 1980s: The City Erupts
As the ’80s began, Las Vegas was suffering an identity crisis. The departure of the mob and its money, combined with a struggling economy and Reagan-era conservatism, put a damper on the shining star of the desert. There was little new development, and a lot of the “classic” hotels became rundown shadows of their former selves.
A devastating fire in 1980 at the original MGM Grand killed more than 80 people, and just a few months later a fire at the Las Vegas Hilton killed eight more. In some ways these tragedies helped to further the transformation of the public’s view of the entire city. Las Vegas became tacky, desperate, and possibly unsafe.
Even the showrooms, once the magnificent Elvis/Sinatra klieg light that lured people from around the world, had become something of a joke. For entertainers, Vegas was where you played when your career was over, not when you were on top.
What Las Vegas really needed was a white knight, and they got one in the form of Golden Nugget owner Steve Wynn and his $630-million gamble on the Mirage. Financed mostly through the sale of junk bonds, the hotel’s construction would eventually change the course of Las Vegas history.
The hotel opened in 1989, fronted by five-story waterfalls, lagoons, and lush tropical foliage—not to mention a 50-foot volcano that dramatically erupted regularly! Wynn gave world-renowned illusionists Siegfried & Roy carte blanche (and more than $30 million) to create the most spellbinding show Las Vegas had ever seen, and he brought in world-class chefs to banish the idea that all you could eat in the town were all-you-can-eat spreads and $4.99 prime rib.
It was an immediate success; financially, of course, but more importantly as a matter of perception. Almost overnight, Las Vegas became cool again and everyone wanted to go there.
The 1990s: King Arthur Meets King Tut
The 1990s began with a blare of trumpets heralding the rise of a turreted medieval castle, fronted by a moated drawbridge and staffed by jousting knights and fair damsels. Excalibur reflected the ’90s marketing trend to promote Las Vegas as a family-vacation destination.
Was that trend successful? Well, Chevy Chase did take his family on a Vegas Vacation in 1997, but the city kept the Sin part of its name alive, at least in popular culture, with Robert Redford making an Indecent Proposal (1993); Nicholas Cage hitting rock bottom in Leaving Las Vegas (1995); and Elizabeth Berkley strutting her stuff in the widely derided Showgirls (1995).
Canadian circus/theater group Cirque du Soleil transformed the entertainment scene in Las Vegas with the 1993 debut of Mystére at the newly opened Treasure Island. It would be the first of no fewer than eight Cirque shows that would launch over the next 2 decades.
The era of megahotels continued on the Strip, including the new MGM Grand hotel, backed by a full theme park (it ended Excalibur’s brief reign as the world’s largest resort), Luxor Las Vegas, and Steve Wynn’s Treasure Island.
In 1993, a unique pink-domed 5-acre indoor amusement park, Grand Slam Canyon (later known as Adventuredome), became part of the Circus Circus hotel. In 1995, the Fremont Street Experience was completed, revitalizing Downtown Las Vegas. Closer to the Strip, rock restaurant magnate Peter Morton opened the Hard Rock Hotel, billed as “the world’s first rock-’n’-roll hotel and casino.” The year 1996 saw the advent of the French Riviera–themed Monte Carlo and the Stratosphere Las Vegas Hotel & Casino—its 1,149-foot tower makes it the highest building west of the Mississippi. The unbelievable New York–New York arrived in 1997.
But it all paled compared with 1998 to 1999. As Vegas hastily repositioned itself from “family destination” to “luxury resort,” several new hotels opened, once again eclipsing anything that had come before. Bellagio was the latest from Vegas visionary Steve Wynn, an attempt to bring grand European-style to the desert, while at the far southern end of the Strip, Mandalay Bay charmed. As if this weren’t enough, the Venetian’s ambitiously detailed re-creation of everyone’s favorite Italian city came along in May 1999 and was followed in short order by the opening of Paris Las Vegas in the fall of 1999.
The 2000s: The Lap of Luxury
The 21st century opened with a bang as the Aladdin blew itself up and gave itself a from-the-ground-up makeover (which in turn only lasted for a handful of years before Planet Hollywood took it over and changed it entirely), while Steve Wynn blew up the Desert Inn and built a new showstopper named for himself. Along the way, everyone expanded, and then expanded some more, ultimately adding thousands of new rooms. The goal became “luxury,” with a secondary emphasis on “adult.” Little by little, wacky, eye-catching themes were phased out (as much as one can when one’s hotel looks like a castle), and generic sophistication took its place. Gaming was still number one, but the newer hotels were trying to top each other in terms of other recreations—decadent nightclubs, celebrity chef–backed restaurants, fancy spas, and superstar shows.
“More is more” seemed to be the motto, and its embodiment was the massive CityCenter, perhaps the most ambitious project in Las Vegas yet. Composed of a 4,000-room megaresort, two 400-room boutique hotels, condos, shopping, dining, clubs, and more, it covers more than 60 acres and, as such, is a city-within-the-city. Gone are the outrageous themes, replaced by cutting-edge modernism—all sleek lines of glass and metal designed with the future in mind, not only from an architectural standpoint but from an ecological one as well. Sure, building the massive CityCenter probably made the earth shudder a bit, but its advanced green building and sustainable operating systems helped to ensure that the planet didn’t just collapse in on itself from the weight of it all.
The excess of Vegas was spotlighted in popular culture as well. Ocean’s Eleven got a new millennium makeover in 2001 with a cast of superstars like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Julia Roberts. Then in 2009, The Hangover took it all to a new level with a raunchy morality tale of a Vegas bachelor party gone horribly awry. The 2013 Hangover 3 brought the action back to Vegas to close out the trilogy.
Even Las Vegas’ motto, which became a popular part of the American lexicon, was a winking nod to the seemingly endless ways to satisfy the id: “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
Once known solely as an outpost of cheap spaghetti dinners and smorgasbord grub, Las Vegas became one of the top dining destinations in the world. Every celebrity chef worth his or her sea salt staked a claim here, and the level of culinary quality rose almost as fast as the prices. Take a look at some of the famous names attached to Vegas restaurants: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Gordon Ramsay, Bobby Flay, Hubert Keller, Mario Batali, Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller, and Julian Serrano. It’s a veritable who’s who of the culinary world. Dining in Las Vegas has become one of the top reasons people want to visit the city.
And proving that Las Vegas really is a 24-hour town, the nightlife scene exploded in Vegas. Megaclubs such as XS at Encore Las Vegas, Marquee at the Cosmopolitan, and Hakkasan at MGM Grand (billed as the largest nightclub in the world) pull in droves of the young and beautiful (or people who think they are, or who just want to be around them) who don’t seem deterred by the eye-popping high prices ($20–$50 cover, $10–$15 drinks), long lines, and lack of personal space. It’s a see-and-be-seen scene, where you’d better dress to impress or expect to be relegated to the darker corners.
Céline Dion made it safe to be a Vegas headliner again as she kicked off a 5-year residency at Caesars Palace in 2003 (and came back in 2011). She would be followed by big-ticket names like Elton John, Bette Midler, Cher, and Garth Brooks, all of whom made Vegas their performing home for a while.
Clearly, no one can rest on their laurels in Vegas, for this is not only a town that never sleeps, but also one in which progress never stops, even for a heartbeat.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.