Las Vegas doesn't have an especially long history behind it, yet it's one dense with colorful events, stories galore, starpower, and icons. Remnants of many Sin City icons can now be found in one place: The Neon Museum. The museum is dedicated to distinctive and quintessential signage from some of Las Vegas' most famed landmarks and buildings from the past and present.
In fact, visionary filmmaker Tim Burton used vintage signs from Las Vegas' YESCO, now found in The Neon Museum's boneyard, for his 1996 film "Mars Attacks!,"—a satire of 1950s and 1960s sci-fi flicks and comic books. Burton was so taken by its collection and design that he partnered with The Neon Museum to create a brand new exhibition of his original fine art titled "Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum," on display from Oct. 15, 2019 to Feb. 20, 2020. Meanwhile, celebrities including Bruno Mars, RuPaul, Drew Barrymore, and Meat Loaf—who shot an album cover here—regularly stop by to bask in the glow of Las Vegas' glamorous (and sometimes scandalous) yesteryear.
Established in 1996 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit "dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs for educational, historic, arts and cultural enrichment," the Neon Museum slowly but surely grew its collection of more than 200 retired neon signs. In 2012, it opened at its current location on 1.5 acres of land. There is a visitors' center with a retail store packed with nostalgia-themed merchandise, and the Neon Boneyard, a maze-like outdoor space lined with an ever-growing collection of hundreds of signs, some restored to their former glory and others awaiting such treatment.
The North Gallery, another section filled with unrestored signs, is the setting for an immersive, animated light and sound show at night titled "Brilliant!". Created by tech-forward designer and experimental multimedia artist Craig Winslow, this innovative, augmented reality production sees these signs take an animated trip back in time and flicker back to life to a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Liberace, and other legends that once graced stages of Las Vegas' finest hotel theaters and lounges. No matter what time you visit, The Neon Museum offers a rare and spectacular walk—self-guided, or with a tour guide—down one of the country's most inspired (and yes, kitschy!) memory lanes.
How to Visit
Located just north of Downtown Las Vegas and a half-mile from The Mob Museum, The Neon Museum is open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. You can't miss the entrance: the space age-y former lobby of the La Concha Motel. Visitors can choose between a guided tour of the Neon Boneyard ($28 per person) or self-guided general admission ($22 per person with a $2 discount for reserving tickets online). The 25-minute "Brilliant!" experience costs $25 (strobe light effects are used). Discounts for the Neon Boneyard are also available to locals, veterans, and senior citizens. Members of The Neon Museum—annual memberships begin at $75—receive benefits like unlimited free admission, discounts around Las Vegas, and early access to special exhibitions.
The museum recommends that, due to the presence of rusty metal and broken glass, daytime tours be restricted to visitors over 10 years of age, and over 12 years at night.
What to See and Do
After checking in at the Visitors' Center, you'll be met by a docent for your scheduled tour of the Neon Boneyard, which lasts about an hour. While items in the Neon Boneyard date back to the 1930s, one of the Neon Museum's most recent acquisitions is also one of the most instantly recognizable: The Hard Rock Cafe's iconic, 80-foot-tall, upright guitar-shaped sign, which previously occupied the corner of Paradise Road and Harmon Avenue.
Restored over a 4-month period for about $225,000—raised via social media, from contributors located in over 30 countries—the effort involved re-blowing the 28-year-old sign's 4,110 feet of neon glass tubing, repainting its front, and upgrading the electronics within. On March 4, 2019 it lit up the landscape once again in all its refreshed glory.
Some of the old school highlights from the Neon Boneyard include the restored Liberace Museum sign; signs from various casinos and hotels like The Tangiers (immortalized in Martin Scorsese's crime drama "Casino"), Stardust, Moulin Rouge, Golden Nugget, Stardust, Sahara, Silver Slipper, Hacienda, Yucca, and Caesar's Palace; plus businesses long gone, ranging from wedding chapels to a laundry.
The Neon Museum's 1,300-square-foot gift shop is stocked with an incredible array of clothing, mugs, magnets, and other merchandise emblazoned with graphics and logos from some of the casinos and hotels represented in the Neon Boneyard (including Stardust, The Mint, Ugly Duckling, and La Concha), along with books, photographs, and much more.
Tips for When You Visit
Midweek tends to be less crowded, making it easier to get last minute tour slots, whereas peak season weekends can book up weeks in advance. Although guided tours, with stories and anecdotes behind the signs and the establishments they marked, can be quite literally illuminating (at night), on a self-guided tour, you can linger and pose for Instagram shots with signs that prove particularly intriguing (hello, Liberace!) and breeze past those you find dull.
As for best time of day to visit, that depends on your priorities, according to Dawn Merritt, The Neon Museum's CMO. "People ask all the time, and we tell them if you want to see the fine details come during the day," she says, "but to step back in time and see what they looked like when in use, you can see them at night lit up.”
Since the boneyard is an outdoor attraction, scheduled tours are subject to cancellation if the weather proves problematic (e.g. lightning, rain, strong winds). In the event of a cancellation, tickets will be refunded and the tour will be rescheduled. Although smartphone and tablet photography is allowed, the Neon Museum forbids use of cameras and still photography for artistic or commercial use. Those who don't comply could be asked to leave.
Essential Information for the Tim Burton Exhibition
The hotly anticipated "Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum" exhibition will run from Oct. 15, 2019 to Feb. 20, 2020, with a general admission ticket price of $30, and $24 for a special Tim Burton edition of the "Brilliant!" light and sound show. Admission for children under 2 is free. The museum will also be selling his 2015 book, "The Napkin Art of Tim Burton: things you think about in a bar," which includes a first look at the exhibition.
The exhibition came about after Burton's curator, Jenny He, contacted the museum in Spring 2018 to discuss a collaboration. Somewhere between 12 to 15 pieces of Burton's art will be integrated into the Neon Museum's existing collection and serve as a retrospective.
Devoted Burton fans may want to consider buying an annual membership to The Neon Museum, since members can access the exhibition during members-only hours and dates, and can receive a limited edition exhibition tote bag.