The city slickers up in Las Vegas used to turn up their noses at Laughlin, the town about 80 miles south, when the little burg began to try to lure visitors there and away from The Strip. But for a place that didn't exist 43 years ago, Laughlin has come a long way, baby.
It was back in 1964 that a former Vegas nightclub owner, Don Laughlin, flew over the place and decided to buy a boarded-up motel and six acres on the riverfront in South Pointe, opposite Bullhead City, Arizona, for $250,000. In less than two years, the motel offered all-you-can-eat chicken dinners for 98 cents, 12 slot machines, two live gaming tables and four rooms to sleep in. (The Laughlin family bunked in the property's other four bedrooms.)
Now, there are nine big casino resorts, outlet shopping, several good golf courses, annual rodeos, a SCORE racing car series, and nightclub entertainers the likes of Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Wayne Newton (of course) and ZZ Top, to mention only a few of the town's attractions. And to top it all, CBS pilot film crews at the Aquarius are shooting right now for a musical TV series called Viva Laughlin, based on the huge British hit, Viva Blackpool. (Blackpool has been a put-upon resort town for years and the butt of thousands of jokes about its provincial character in British comedies.) Hugh Jackman will play the part of Don Laughlin. (Mr. Laughlin is still active in town and casino affairs, and if you can't manage to meet him in person, you can shake hands with his life-size statue at the entrance to the town's own Strip of casinos.)
Laughlin claims it has 300 days a year of sunshine with an average temperature of 75.4 degrees, but it can get cold and rainy in January and the locals boast of how hot it gets in July (120 tops, they say). In addition to casinos, you can come here for boating on the Colorado River, or golf, or fishing, camping and water skiing at the Lake Mohave/Lake Mead National Recreational Area, nine miles north of town.
For a few decades, many of Laughlin's visitors were retired people in their motor homes, and the average visitor's age is still 65, said a spokesperson for the visitors bureau. That changes during such events as the Laughlin River Run, when the motorcycle riders roar into town, and stay roaring for five days, however. Generally, she said, winter sees visitors coming from the Midwest for the sun, and summer sees the boating people from California and elsewhere nearby.
Note that as Laughlin, Nevada is on the Colorado River opposite Bullhead City in Arizona, many area activities are in the latter state, which is also in a different time zone, so you have to decide whether to wear two watches or just keep to one time or the other. Arizona in 2006 became the fastest-growing state in the nation, with Nevada Number 2, so it's fitting that Arizona (Mountain time) is one hour ahead of Nevada (Pacific time) on the clock dial.
Check these out, as they are just a sampling of what can be done this spring and summer in Laughlin: Laughlin River Stampede (rodeo) from March 29 through April 1; Laughlin Xtreme Bulls (rodeo) from April 14 to 15; the 25th annual Laughlin River Run (over 60,000 motorcyclists, the largest Harley-Davidson-oriented event on the West Coast) from April 25 through 29; and Rockets over the River (fireworks) on July 4.
A 40-minute drive takes you to Oatman, in Arizona, an Old West mining town with staged cowboy gunfights on the main street, which happens also to be Route 66. The "wild" donkeys that roam the highway here are used to tourists feeding them carrots, which you can buy in several of the main street shops. (A caveat: don't feed carrots to the baby donkeys, whose stomachs can't handle the vegetable.) The most famous visitors here were Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, who stayed in the Oatman Hotel while on their honeymoon way back in the 1930s. I saw a real wedding performed here, also on the main street, and joined the bridal couple in their frustrated laments about not finding a table at the hotel's popular dining room (they don't take reservations for anyone, including a bride and groom). Their "stinky" (garlic) burger costs $6.95, BBQ pulled pork sandwich ditto. You can arrange a wedding or gunfight through Bitter Creek Outlaws ("Member of Shop with a Cop Association") at tel. 928/279-0205. After the fight, a cowboy passes the hat "so we can build a better public toilet here", the current one being a portable affair.) More on Oatman at www.oatmangoldroad.com or at tel. 928/768-6222.
For me, a big Laughlin highlight was the Haunted Laughlin Ghost Tour, operated by a genial comedian from Vegas, Robert Allen. The three-hour tour costs $32.95 and takes you to Oatman, the Hardyville Cemetery and other spots. Allen hands out flashlights and dowsing rods, the latter to locate any spirits that might be floating around in the vicinity. It's worth the tour just to hear him tell of the Red Ghost (a skeleton-bearing camel) and Oatie, the sometime-ghost of Room 15 in the Oatman Hotel. More information at tel. 866/218-4935 or www.hauntedtoursusa.com.
You can visit an old goldmine a couple of miles outside of Oatman, part of the tunnels running under Route 66 at one point. Daily one-hour tours at $12.50, tel. 928/768-1600. One company offering tours to Oatman and the Gold Road Mine, among other places, is Extreme Adventure (tel. 888/758-5080 or 928/758-5080; www.extrememinirails.com), with programs starting at $79 per person. The Grand Canyon is also available on tours from Laughlin, with day packages costing about $169 from such companies as Outback Off-Road Adventures (tel. 877/299-0433 or 702/299-0400; www.outbackadventures.us).
In addition to walking along the riverside and visiting the casinos, you can take water taxis to accomplish the same objective, or to take you across the river into Arizona and back. There are four public golf courses within a 25-minute drive from Laughlin, the visitor bureau spokesperson said. There's also a fairly large shopping center at Preferred Outlets, down near the casinos. (The town of Laughlin itself is five miles away from the river.)
You can ride horseback with Oatman Stables (tel. 928/768-3257; www.oatmanstables.com) on one- and two-hour rides, and they also offer group BBQs, cattle drives, and more. Off-road desert tour take you into the Mojave Desert, Black Mountains and Thumb Butte, for instance, prices ranging from $70 and up. Contact Outback Adventures through its website www.outbackadventures.us.
I can't think of a better place to golf than the Laughlin Ranch (tel. 866/866-5729; www.laughlinranch.com), which is so environmentally alert that it sought approval for its plans from Audubon International, among other groups, so that migrating birds, for instance, wouldn't be inconvenienced by its development. (The outdoor lights, for instance, don't point up to the skies, but only downward.) It's a huge golf community, but the course is open to the public, and there are a spa, restaurant and pro shop, too. Golf Inc. magazine this year called their main building the "Number One Clubhouse on a Public Golf Course in America."
Casinos & Lodging
Room rates fluctuate wildly and depend on season, date, how full the place is, "yield management," and which way the wind is blowing. Most websites don't list any prices, so you have to phone. I will say that the Aquarius was advertising rooms for only $34.99 Sundays through Thursdays when I was in Laughlin in January, however, just to give you an idea.
At the Aquarius (tel. 888/662-5825; www.aquariuscasinoresort.com), you'll find more than 1,900 guest rooms and over 1,500 slots, as well as nearly 60 table games. The largest resort in Laughlin, the property was known as the Flamingo until November 2006.
The Colorado Belle (tel. 800/47 RIVER; www.coloradobelle.com) looks like a huge paddle-wheel steamer, and it sits right on the river's edge. There are 1,200 rooms, a 600-foot replica of a Mississippi riverboat, and the city's only microbrewery. At the Edgewater (tel. 800/67 RIVER; www.edgewater-casino.com), you can stay in one of the 1,500 rooms, and spend time at its slots or tables. Also situated on the Colorado.
The Golden Nugget (tel. 800/950-7700; www.goldennugget.com/laughlin) has 300 rooms and also sits along the Colorado River. Harrah's (tel. 800/HARRAHS; www.harrahslaughlin.com) is perhaps the most famous gaming name here, and its Laughlin face doesn't disappoint. Said to be Laughlin's second-biggest hotel, there are over 1,500 rooms and a sandy beach on the river. The Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall (tel. 800/634-3469; www.pioneerlaughlin.com) tries to look like an Old West property, with its cowboy décor and 400 rooms, about 80 of them overlooking the river.
Yes, there's a casino in the Ramada Express (tel. 800/243-6846; www.ramadaexpress.com), which aims a lot of its marketing ideas at military veterans and boasts a working railroad (free) on the property. They've recently spent over $11 million on room renovations here, and there are separate towers for families and adults with no children. The River Palms (tel. 800/835-7904; www.river-palms.com) has more than 1,000 rooms and the usual mix of casino, health club and pool areas. The Riverside Resort Hotel & Casino (tel. 800/227-3849; www.riversideresort.com) is where Laughlin began, and now, instead of an eight-room motel, there is a huge edifice (28 stories) with over 1,400 rooms.
There's one hotel without a casino, the Bay Shore Inn (tel. 702/299-9010), with 104 rooms, restaurant, pool and spa, video poker and a pool table.
As in Las Vegas, the cheap buffets are a thing of the past, but I can say that in my short stay, the best restaurant I ate in was the Fresh Market Buffet at Harrah's, where the chef said they cook everything on site, including the desserts and pastries (which are often outsourced in other places). They have won "best buffet" awards from locals and gaming publications alike. And yes, they have a chocolate fountain for dipping fresh fruit into. The buffet is $10.99 for breakfast or lunch, $13.99 for dinner. If you want to eat in their steakhouse, the prices range from $32 to $44.
At the other casinos where I ate, I could only give passing grades to the food. At the Ramada Express, their buffet for breakfast or dinner (not lunch) is $8.99 plus tax.
There is no scheduled air service directly into Laughlin, so you may want to fly into Las Vegas and take a shuttle or rent a car in order to reach Laughlin. One service is River City Shuttle (tel. 888/948-3427 or 928/874-5253; www.rivercityshuttle.com). Some resorts have arrangements with charter airlines such as Sun Country and Allegiant Air to fly guests in and out of the Laughlin Airport.
For more information on Laughlin, go to www.visitlaughlin.com or phone 800/4 LAUGHLIN.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Nevada Message Boards today.