Upping the Ante on Downtown Las Vegas Hotels
Downtown Las Vegas hotels began their time as a tent camp near a train depot in 1900, with saloons, brothels and gambling halls that might have made Deadwood look like a kiddy park. And all the history that Vegas has to offer still lives here, starting with the circa 1906 Golden Gate Hotel and Casino -- the first Downtown Las Vegas hotel high rise -- with its preserved, pint-size rooms and 99-cent shrimp cocktails. But most of the hotel's 106 rooms have been upgraded since then with tasteful, muted colors and a $49 price. The old train depot is gone but the ambiance can be accessed at the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino that sits on the site and piles on the train cars and antiques for visitors to ogle.
If you squint in the right spots you can almost picture the stagecoach stopping in front of the Overland Hotel on Main Street, the first real Downtown Las Vegas hotel. But going east, the timeline ascends into the mid century when Vegas was beginning to grow teeth. The Golden Nugget opened in 1946 and at the time had the largest hotel sign in the world – which became Las Vegas' first attraction. Replaced in the 1950s by "Vegas Vic," a smoke blowing animated neon cowboy who waved his hand and bellowed "Howdy Pahdner," Downtown Las Vegas had its first icon.
Several Downtown Las Vegas hotels came on the scene to get in on the game in the 1940s: Binion's, the Mint Hotel and the El Cortez, which opened in 1941. It was owned by Bugsy Siegel when he was drawing up plans to create the area's first "carpet joint" ....'out in the middle of nowhere" at what is now the Flamingo Hotel and Casino at center Strip. The Mint is gone and Binion's is only a casino now but the El Cortez and the Golden Nugget are two Downtown Las Vegas hotels busy making modern changes in step with the new millennium.
In 1972, Steve Wynn purchased the smoky, dank Golden Nugget property and turned it into a golden chrome and white dazzler in the din of seedy downtown. He brought in such headliners as Frank Sinatra and started a revolution in renovations and sprucing along the Fremont Street corridor that continues to this day. The hotel's big attraction: the "Hands of Faith" -- the largest known gold nugget on display in the world today, still resides under glass in the North Lobby. It was found in Australia 1980, weighing in at 61 pounds, 11 ounces.
Today's Nugget, now owned by Landry's restaurant corporation, boasts the only spa in Downtown Las Vegas, VIP check-in areas for suites or for a minor addition to the standard room charge (but guests should not expect much more than a desk and a sweet smiling receptionist); sprawling Spa Tower and now Rush Tower suites for less than what standard rooms will cost on the Strip. New furnishings and appointments put sparkle and class into the hotel's 2,400 guest accommodations. It also has a signature attraction, if a mother lode nugget is not enough: a 200,000-gallon shark tank right in the middle of the pool with a thee-story waterslide running through it. Room rates average $54.
The El Cortez, meanwhile, is trying to put a chic sheen on Downtown Las Vegas hotels with its new Cabana wing. In the same dreary hallways where Sharon Stone gave her swan song performance as Ginger Rothstein before collapsing in the final scenes of Casino, guests now find bright colors, swirly white furnishings, and candies and refreshments in a quiet secluded lobby. Rooms are mostly neon green and white, shiny naugahyde with chic, retro '60s touches. And the smoke shops and liquor stores in the neighborhood have been replaced by bohemian coffee houses, artsy bars and artist lairs of Fremont Street East. Rooms in the Cabana Wing (across the street from the old El Cortez casino) run $51, suites $71.