The Neon Boneyard is an outdoor “museum” of over 150 of Las Vegas’s historical neon signs, ranging in age from the 1930s to present time. Some people might flippantly describe the Boneyard as a place “where neon signs go to die”. In fact, I may have flippantly said that at one time. Now, I prefer to see it as a place where they can live out their “golden years” and continue to serve a useful purpose—for historians, Vegas enthusiasts, photographers, and tourists.
For three years, I tried unsuccessfully to book a tour of the Boneyard during my annual Vegas visits. I had heard such great things about this tour—even from people who otherwise hated Las Vegas. But every time I was traveling to Vegas, they were either booked solid or were closed. Finally, this past October, I was able to not only book one of their tours, but it was also one of their new night tours, timed perfectly for dusk so I could see the Boneyard in the fading light of the day and in the darkness.
The Neon Boneyard Visitors Center is housed in the relocated lobby building of the former La Concha Motel. Its unique architecture fits right in with the museum, although it is a bit small when you’ve got a dozen or so visitors standing around waiting for a tour. (There’s also no bathroom here–that’s inside the Boneyard–so you either have to wait until the opportunity during your tour or be escorted into the Boneyard by a staff member.) While waiting for your tour, you can browse souvenir items in the Visitors Center gift shop.
I assumed a night tour would be the best time to view the neon signs, because, well nighttime is a neon sign’s natural habitat, isn’t it? It’s when the neon comes to life, shining like a beacon of promise to tourists for cheap food and drinks, loose slots, great odds, and all manner of fun. In fact, only a handful of the signs at the Boneyard are in operating condition and can light up the way they’re intended to. The rest are lit externally by spotlights.
I’m afraid I didn’t catch the name of my tour guide, but he was a volunteer. He was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the signs, the businesses they came from, and the history of Las Vegas. From a science standpoint, we got to see the neon signs through his verbal deconstruction of their components—the neon tubing combined with incandescent lights, the gases used in the tubing, and the number of incandescent lights used, as well as how the signs evolved over the years.
Calling this museum a “boneyard” seems very appropriate. In a way, it felt like an archaeological tour through the ruins of old Las Vegas in order to learn more about its culture and history. First we saw signs from Fremont Street and Downtown (the oldest part of the city), then “Motel Row,” then other small businesses (like restaurants and laundries), and finally, the Strip of the recent past. For a city that considers any hotel built 30 years ago “old” and has so often imploded older hotels to build something shiny and new, it’s refreshing to see the city’s history so lovingly cared for here at the Boneyard.
In short, I loved it. I have not taken many tours in Las Vegas. You don’t really need to. The city is so compact it’s easy to explore on your own. But I do recommend this tour for anyone. It’s so unique.
You will definitely learn things about the history of Las Vegas that you didn’t know. I’ve been visiting Las Vegas and reading about it for going on 13 years now, and even I learned things I didn’t know. If you love the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas and are also a history buff, you won’t find a better tour in Las Vegas than this one.
Things to know:
- Admission is $18 for a day tour and $25 for a night tour.
- Photography is allowed, but no tripods.
- If you really want to see the Boneyard, book your tour online ahead of time. You can buy a walk-up ticket, but you run the risk of the tours being sold out that day or of not getting the tour time you want. Tickets are non-refundable.
- If you are cab-dependent, ask the front desk staff to call a cab for you when your tour is done. See if anyone else on your tour is headed in your direction; you can save some money by sharing a cab.
- The Fremont Street Experience appears close to the Boneyard, but I do not recommend making that walk. The neighborhood is sketchy.
- The Neon Boneyard Park is across a side street from the Museum. Arrive early and take a stroll through the park. The signs (not neon) are full of interesting information.
- If you’d like to see more pictures of the Neon Boneyard (about 200 of them), check out Jay Engel’s photos: Las Vegas Boneyard Museum Photos. He’s got some great shots there. Thanks for sharing, Jay!