Five Free Things: What to do in Vegas -- after the money runs out
LAS VEGAS -- If you've got the money, Las Vegas has a million ways for you to spend it -- the limo, the penthouse suite, the finest champagne money can buy -- and that's before you even hit the casino floor. But even in this town of glamour and excess, there's enough for the guys and girls who didn't get so lucky at the tables last night. Here's a sampling of the best Las Vegas has to offer without spending a dime.
"WELCOME TO FABULOUS LAS VEGAS" SIGN: A visit to Sin City can't really begin without a stop at this iconic sign. Located at the gateway to town and dating back to 1959, the sign is usually swarmed by dozens of tourists posing for photos and a bride or two just out of the wedding chapel. The sign is set in the median of Las Vegas Boulevard, better known as the Strip, and buses and cars can slip easily from the southbound lanes into the sign's very own free parking lot. Officials want to make it even easier to access, and recently approved funding that will triple the size of the parking lot and start plans for a pedestrian bridge.
BELLAGIO FOUNTAINS AND CONSERVATORY: The Bellagio resort, with its romantic Italian-inspired architecture, is something of a crown jewel in the heart of the Strip. But when night falls, the real stars are the majestic dancing fountains that emerge from the vast manmade lake in front of the hotel. Illuminated columns of water shoot from hundreds of powerful pipes below the lake's surface, soaring to impossible heights and moving in sync to songs by Andrea Bocelli, Faith Hill and The Beatles. The fountains dance periodically during the afternoon and at 15-minute intervals throughout the evening in a free show that, even to locals, doesn't get old. After the mist settles, head on into the casino itself to see the thousands of potted plants and flowers of the botanical gardens. The giant conservatory transforms with the seasons, boasting paper lanterns for Chinese New Year, hot-air balloons and larger-than-life ladybugs by summer, and a towering Christmas tree for the holidays.
NEON HISTORY: Las Vegas is a city not afraid to implode a high-rise casino that's past its prime. But history still lives on through the neon signs that once graced the casinos. A trip to the Neon Boneyard, which features more than 150 donated and rescued signs dating back to the 1930s, will cost you and requires an appointment. But you can see a handful of those signs -- lit up and restored -- for free on a stroll through the outdoor Downtown Gallery on Fremont Street. Among the freebies are a glittering high-heeled shoe from the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall and a horse and rider, circa 1967, from the old Hacienda Hotel.
HOOVER DAM: The Depression-era engineering marvel that harnessed the Colorado River and still supplies massive amounts of power to the Southwest remains one of the most popular stops for the Vegas tourist. While a guided tour will cost you, there's still plenty to see for free at the site located about 45 minutes from the Strip. Stroll the sidewalks of the new Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, which sits high above the dam itself, and see a bird's-eye view of the 726-foot-tall dam. At dam level, see sculptures by artist Oskar J.W. Hansen, including 30-foot-tall winged creatures flanking a flagpole. On the ground below the statues is a celestial map, designed so that future generations could determine the exact day of the dam's dedication even if all other evidence of the event disappeared.
BIG ELVIS: No trip to Las Vegas is complete without an Elvis sighting or three. While The King can be spotted posing for pictures on nearly any of the tourist corridors, visitors who want to hear him sing for free should head over to Harrah's casino on the Strip. That's where Pete Vallee -- aka Big Elvis -- presides over a piano bar from an oversize bejeweled throne. Big Elvis' 40-minute sets, scheduled three times an afternoon every weekday except Wednesday, include everything from the rock of his early years to gospel. But the crowd really gets going when the corpulent crooner launches into his rendition of "Viva Las Vegas." Big Elvis hands audience volunteers maracas and Elvis wigs and invites them to let loose -- something that just comes natural in Vegas.