A classic getaway: Revisiting the Las Vegas of my childhood to love it even more
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Las Vegas is known to the world as Sin City and the place that keeps your secrets with this promise: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”
But for me and my family, Las Vegas has always been a place where we could experience a little bit of the world, eat a variety of food on a budget and, of course, have a chance at an elusive jackpot.
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I grew up in Southern California with immigrant parents who worked blue-collar jobs. We couldn’t always afford lavish vacations, so whenever we wanted to get away, Las Vegas was one of our go-to destinations.
You can’t call yourself a resident of Southern California without making the four-plus-hour drive to Las Vegas at least once in your life. I remember going to Las Vegas more than going to Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm or any other Southern California theme park.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much Las Vegas was a big part of my childhood — and how much I missed it.
Would the Las Vegas of now ruin my memories of the Las Vegas I grew up with? I decided to find out.
Downtown Las Vegas
There’s the old downtown Las Vegas everyone knows, and there’s the new Las Vegas where locals mingle with the world.
While this is a city that constantly reinvents itself, you can’t beat visiting the iconic places that made it famous. One of these quintessential Vegas casino hotels my family often stayed at was the Golden Nugget off Fremont Street.
Golden Nugget Las Vegas
When I entered the Golden Nugget, the sights, sounds and smoky smells immediately transported me back to my childhood.
Growing up and reading Filipino newspapers my family picked up in front of Filipino and Asian grocery stores, I remember seeing advertisements announcing big singers and acts from the Philippines performing at the Golden Nugget.
Similar to the California Hotel & Casino just around the corner, which was heavily marketed to Native Hawaiians, the Golden Nugget was heavily marketed to Filipinos, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Despite the newer attractions of the resorts and casinos on the Strip, the Golden Nugget was bustling with people. Every area of the property was packed with guests.
My stay here was the first part of my Las Vegas trip, and I was eager to see how much things have changed.
While the rooms have definitely been refreshed since I last visited, they did not feature the more modern amenities available in much newer hotels, such as a phone app where you can control the room temperature and lighting.
That said, the Golden Nugget’s location right next to famous Fremont Street, where classic Las Vegas is alive all hours of the day, can’t be beat.
This was definitely not the Fremont Street of my childhood, when you could drive through this part of town.
The space has been transformed into an open pedestrian area reminiscent of New York City’s Times Square, with street vendors and performers looking to entertain and captivate the crowd.
The “Fremont Street Experience” is where you can see the world’s largest outdoor video screen, Viva Vision, by just looking up.
The 1,375-foot-long, 90-foot-wide screen is suspended 90 feet above the walkway below and features 49.3 million LED lights and a 600,000-watt sound system.
You can catch free light shows nightly paired with the latest and greatest pop music.
To make the experience even more Vegas, you can zip line along Fremont Street through SlotZilla, an 11-story attraction that draws inspiration from the Strip’s famous slot machines.
In many ways, I missed driving through this historic part of Las Vegas as my family did decades ago. At the same time, this new “Fremont Street Experience” allowed me to take my time and really soak in the area without having to worry about stopping in traffic.
The Strip of memories
After my stay downtown, I moved to another hotel near the Strip.
This part of town features a mashup of both new and newer casinos and resorts. Some of Vegas’ most iconic properties of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, including The Mirage, Treasure Island, New York-New York and Luxor, can be found here.
Besides Fremont Street, the area where my family and I spent the most time was the Strip — in our case, mainly at an older property, Circus Circus.
Circus Circus Hotel & Casino
Circus Circus was one of the few places that welcomed families in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Today, it sits in the literal shadow of Las Vegas’ newest casino, Resorts World Las Vegas.
I was anxious about going into Circus Circus. From the exterior, it hasn’t aged well. Its once bright pink coating is now faded throughout the property.
I didn’t want to ruin the memories I had by seeing the centerpiece of my Las Vegas experience in such a dire state.
However, much to my relief, the interior was not as desperately in need of a refresh as the exterior. Once inside, it was as if I was transported back in time.
Much of the interior and facade was the same.
Most of the midway games were the same, too, with the addition of more virtual reality consoles. The main difference was that a card was required to load and reload credits to play.
Just like then, I still had no luck winning anything.
Even the McDonald’s that was on the midway floor with all the carnival games looked frozen in time.
While the entire property needs a major update, there’s something to be said about returning to a place that holds so many memories for me.
I remember my mom, aunts, uncles and the extended family members we often caravanned with to Las Vegas taking turns watching me and my peers while the others tried their luck at the card table or slot machines. Many of those aunties and uncles, related or not, are no longer with us.
As I walked around Circus Circus, I wasn’t sad — I just felt grateful for the memories I shared with them. I thought about my peers who I grew up with and where we are today as adults in our late 30s and early 40s.
While Circus Circus is undoubtedly in need of a refresh, it serves as a great reminder that it’s not the building alone that makes a destination special … it’s also the memories and the people who you travel with.
This realization only fueled my quest to try to relive as much of the Las Vegas I knew as a kid (think: arcades, buffets and more) on this trip.
In addition to Circus Circus’ midway arcade, its famous buffet looked exactly the same. However, it was closed the day I went.
Still, I wasn’t going to leave Las Vegas without going to at least one classic buffet from the 1980s or 1990s.
My family also went to Luxor’s buffet when we stayed at Circus Circus, so I decided to give that one a try.
Much like Circus Circus, Luxor was exactly the way I remembered it.
The food wasn’t anything spectacular — I had a mix of everyday breakfast staples like scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits and gravy — but it was cheap ($26.99) compared to other fancier buffets that can cost you $50 and up.
I realized these places, such as Circus Circus and the endless string of buffets, have made Las Vegas accessible in so many ways, not only in a financial sense but also in a family-friendly one.
While this visit was about reliving the Las Vegas of my childhood, it was also about making new memories.
Since my family always focused on a few casinos during our trips, I didn’t get to venture out to other attractions when I was younger. Returning decades later gave me a chance to check out some attractions that pay homage to Las Vegas’ history.
One of those places was The Neon Museum.
The Neon Museum
Just north of downtown Las Vegas is an outdoor museum that takes you back in time through lights. You can visit The Neon Museum during the day for $20, but to get the full effect, aim to arrive in the evening. This is when the museum’s collection of Las Vegas glitz and light glamour are illuminated.
A nighttime guided tour of the “boneyard” ($28) is a must to get the extra context and history of the signs on display, including the towering Hard Rock Cafe, iconic Sahara and restored Moulin Rouge signs. Just be sure to reserve a time and day ahead of time to guarantee admission.
National Atomic Testing Museum
Being a history junkie, the National Atomic Testing Museum was next on my list to check out.
The museum is a few miles off the Strip and is an affiliate partner of the Smithsonian Institution. As such, it’s great for those doing specific research or interested in nuclear history. Inside, visitors will find some recreations of control rooms, plus original artifacts and rare photographs from the past 70 years. It’s small enough that it only takes a few hours to see. General admission is $22.
Pinball Hall of Fame
If you are pressed for time and looking for a more interactive general museum to check out, there are plenty of other options, such as the Pinball Hall of Fame. It’s located near the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign and the airport, making it easy to visit at the start or end of your trip.
There’s no admission, but you’ll need to exchange your cash for coins if you want to play any of the museum’s hundreds of old-school pinball machines. From games focused on famous sitcoms to ones with classic Marvel Comics themes, the museum offers a fun mix of machines you can play. You can stay here for hours and spend less than $10.
I had way more luck getting the top score here than playing the midway arcades at Circus Circus. This is definitely on my list to visit again when I’m back in Las Vegas.
The last time I was in Las Vegas was in 2016 for a work conference that kept me on the hotel grounds the entire trip. Having the opportunity to return for fun to revisit some of the places my family frequented during my childhood, along with a few new areas, is why travel matters so much to me.
It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much Las Vegas has shaped my family’s love of travel.
This is a city that offers the old, the new and everything in between — the quintessential American city wrapped up in glitz, glamor and lights that’s accessible to all.
I can’t wait to come back and make more fabulous new memories.
What happens in Vegas … stays with you forever.
Featured photo by Leezel Tanglao/The Points Guy.
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