#1 Tourist Attraction? THE Sign
Sunday, September 12, 2010
They come by bus, by car and by foot. They are Las Vegas visitors, and their destination is the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.
Originally erected in 1959, the sign has become the symbol of Las Vegas, appearing on t-shirts, post cards, calendars and advertisements seen around the world. A year ago, the sign was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
The original iconic sign still exists, of course, expertly maintained just south of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard. Over the years, visitors with cameras increasingly have wanted to have their own souvenirs featuring themselves and the sign. We locals watched during the boom years as more and more visitors jaywalked their way to the sign to get a photo. Who knows how many tourists and parked cars were bumped or barely missed by oncoming traffic?
Sensitive to the safety issues caused by the sign’s popularity, in June of 2007, the Clark County Commission agreed to build a parking area adjacent to the sign. In December, 2008, the new parking area, with 12 slots for cars, two of which were for the handicapped, and two bus parking areas, opened to the public.
The cost of the original sign: $4,000. The cost of the parking area: $416,000. Public funds have seldom been better spent. Day and night, visitors are having photos taken at the sign. Events in Las Vegas are kicked off by films and photos at the sign. Tour buses stop there regularly. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority could shut down their advertising budgets entirely and still have millions of new images appearing in family albums, newsletters and web sites around the world.
One of my houseguests used her Las Vegas sign photo as a holiday card. At any age, being seen with the Las Vegas sign means…”I’m still having fun!” (My houseguest was over 80.)
So last Wednesday morning, I visited the sign once again. I wanted to know who was at the sign that morning and why. When I arrived, I noted a young man standing all alone, dressed to look like Elvis. When I got out my notebook, he left. My assumption was that he would gladly have posed in a photo…for a fee…but maybe he didn’t have the credentials to be there.
I first encountered a lovely couple from Minneapolis who didn’t want to give their last names, but gladly talked and posed for a photo. They were celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary by coming to Las Vegas where they had spent their honeymoon. This was their fourth trip to Las Vegas in those 35 years and of course, they wanted a souvenir photo.
From Cologne, Germany was Gaby Kaetenbach and a gentleman friend. The Germans advertise Las Vegas as the gateway to the Grand Canyon and yep, Gaby and friend were soon to be on their way to the Grand Canyon.
Two couples from Australia were next to have souvenir photos. They said they couldn’t pass up “the good deal” to come to Las Vegas. They were Ann Marie and Bryce James and Julie and Roman Kowalczyk from Adelaide, Australia. Do they come to gamble? Not really “because we have gambling in every hotel in Adelaide”. The couples love the area shopping and had already attended the Titanic exhibit, Phantom, Viva Elvis and had enjoyed the Bellagio fountains while having “a great dinner” at Mon Abi Gabi.
From Toronto, Canada and Dallas, Texas came the Kamath family, Latha and Jeev and Satish and Sue. Latha and Jeev from Canada are Satish’s parents, and Las Vegas was the site of a family vacation. and a family photo by THE sign.
Wedding parties are no strangers to the sign and Wednesday was no exception. Jessi and Jay Rapcewicz were married earlier that day by the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay and then came to the sign for more photos. A group of 25 guests made the visit to both places.
From Orleans, France, I met David Bariselle and his mother, Juliet. They were on a holiday that included Las Vegas and California.
(Incidentally, I was not seeking visitors from outside the U.S. Those visitors were just there, at the sign, soon to take their Las Vegas souvenir photo many airmiles away.)
A gentleman with big cameras stood next to me. He was Brian Vangor, a mechanical engineer from Mahopac, New York. He and his family, a group of eight, were in Las Vegas to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. While the rest of the family was poolside at Mandalay Bay, Brian walked to the Las Vegas sign. “I love walking around Las Vegas taking pictures,” he said. “Photography is my hobby.” He said the family had also booked a Lake Mead cruise and a visit to Hoover Dam. “I visit Hoover Dam every time I’m here,” said Vangor. “As a mechanical engineer, I find the dam fascinating and I always go on the tour. But this year, I’m also interested in seeing the new bridge.”
A recent survey noted that only 14 percent of visitors to Las Vegas say they come for the gambling. Vangor is not one of those 14 percent. “There’s so much to see and do here besides gambling,” he said. “People of all ages should come.” (On behalf of all the workers in Las Vegas, thanks for the endorsement, Brian.)
And finally, I saw a young gal with a couple of cameras and I offered to take her picture. “No,” she said. “I work here.” (Really? She was not dressed as an official Las Vegas greeter might be.) “I’m here every day,” she said. And what does she do? She volunteers to take photos of folks with their own cameras…for tips. (While I watched, she got three $1 tips in about three minutes.) I mentioned to her that I wasn’t sure she should be asking for money, and she answered, “I have a business license.” Sure enough, Stacey Welling of Clark County Public Information told me that if a person has a business license, they have a right to be at the sign on public property. I wasn’t sure the young lady was the valley’s best representative, but I had to admit, folks want those photos at the sign, and if they’ve come from far away, they don’t seem to mind that “tip” at all.