“People have always come here looking for a sign,” jokes the glossy card advertising the Neon Museum, and what you’ll find there are more than 200 of them. It’s the only place in the world that has a large collection of historic neon signs set up in this manner.
They call it a boneyard, but it isn’t just an assortment of old neon signs. My initial observation was that the place is more of a collection of whatever historically relevant, supersized Vegas kitsch the curators could get their hands on. Some signs are chock-full of light bulbs while others are covered with fading paint. Several items, like Mullet Man, aren’t signs at all. It’s all semantics, but few people leave here disappointed.
Here is some advice for visitors to the Neon Museum:
Wear sunglasses and a hat on day tours. This suggestion reminds me of the joke on one of the signs at Jimmy John’s Sandwich chain: “We’d love to see you naked but state code requires shoes and shirt.”
On the subject of shoes, definitely wear actual shoes rather than flip-flops, sandals, or Crocs. Quick question: Does anyone even still wear Crocs?
Bring water and use sunscreen. The museum loans out umbrellas that you can use to block out the sun.
Don’t touch the rocks. They get extremely hot from the scorching sun. Because of the desert heat, it might be more comfortable to do a tour in the morning or during the winter.
The restrooms are outside behind the visitors’ center. Everyone is offered an opportunity to use them before the tour heads onto the dirt path. You are also permitted to use the restroom when you first arrive even without a ticket in your hand, but if you try to slip away and wander around the grounds, it won’t end well. Big Brother is watching you.
Arriving a little early for your scheduled tour is highly recommended. It’s easy to kill time by looking around the gift shop filled with unique souvenirs related to the museum. You might want to buy one of the 26 separate refrigerator magnets, each with a photo representing of one of the letters of the alphabet. The photos of the letters are all lifted from different neon signs in the boneyard. They even threw in a hashtag, heart, ampersand, and star.
If you get there a few hours early, you can go a little farther north to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Or just keep on going another 420 miles and catch a movie in Salt Lake City, Utah (not recommended).
What to expect on a tour of the Neon Museum:
I knew nothing about the museum before I got there, and I was half expecting a hike through the Mojave Desert just to see one dusty sign. The reality is there isn’t much walking involved at all. The boneyard is only on two acres, and the length of the oval-shaped dirt path isn’t any kind of problem.
Each tour maxes out at 20 people and lasts about an hour. Manny, the guide on my tour, told everyone they had the option to hang on his every word or ignore him and take pictures. Either way, everybody was given ample time to ask questions and take photos.
Manny was both knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. He is from Las Vegas and studied art and film at Hunter College in New York City and Portland State University in Oregon. What he really brought to the table were specific, behind-the-scenes stories that the typical visitor might not already know. For example, when he talked about the sign for the Moulin Rouge Hotel, he informed the group that it was the first casino in the United States that was not segregated.
Some people choose the day tour ($19) to get crisp, clear pictures. Others go for the night tour to see some of the neon signs fired up as they once were in their heyday. The night tour is more expensive ($25) and sells out faster. You can get a discount if you are a senior, student, active military, veteran, or Nevada resident.
Rules, rules, and more rules!
The rules for visitors are understandably strict. Some of them are posted on their website; others are on signs at the museum. To help sort out the confusion, here’s a comprehensive list of all of them:
Very important! You should not arrive at the Neon Museum without buying tickets in advance on their website. Because there is limited space, the museum has put an online reservation system in place to manage the large number of visitors. If you show up without a ticket, your chances of getting in are not good.
All ticket purchases are final. There are no refunds. The only exceptions are when the tour is cancelled due to high wind or lightning. Lateness may or may not be accommodated. If you try to use your tickets for the wrong tour, the staff will figure it out pretty quickly and deal with it accordingly.
You will need to show identification when you pick up your tickets. Just a heads up: your Tropicana Marquee Rewards card is not considered a legal form of ID.
No backpacks or large bags are allowed in the boneyard. If you bring one, you can check it at the front desk.
No commercial photography without prior permission. The museum has an almost crazed paranoia about people photographing their signs for commercial purposes. Posting pictures on Facebook, Instagram, and personal blogs is not considered commercial photography.
No video or audio recordings are permitted. Cameras are perfectly acceptable. Smartphones with cameras are fine too, but the phone’s ringer should be off.
No alcohol. No weapons. No smoking products of any kind. That includes bongs.
Selfie sticks are prohibited. On my tour, one woman brazenly used one anyway. When the guide told her to put it away, she said she shouldn’t have to because she “wasn’t taking selfies.”
The shin-high rock wall serves as a subtle barrier between the path and the exhibits. You should never stand on, sit on, or step over the rocks. There’s also no standing on the benches.
Don’t touch anything in the collection. My guide told the group that a visitor once knocked on the Treasure Island’s giant skull to check its integrity. It was so brittle he punched a hole in it. The hole has since been repaired. This is a perfect example of why there are so many rules.
You must remain with the guide and the group at all times, but you are not required to stand next to the guide. Visitors more interested in photography over information should stay at the tail end of the group. The Neon Museum is trying to strike a balance between freedom and oppression.
The Neon Museum is ADA compliant. Service animals are allowed.
The fine print on one of the signs is worth noting: “We care about you and your safety. By entering, you expressly assume all risks and dangers incidental to touring the Neon Boneyard. These risks include injury due to nominal mercury/chemical leakage, large metal signage, broken glass, sharp or pointed edges, twisted and rusted metals, and chat rock terrain.”
The last four words are not necessary. I tried to have a chat with the rocks on the terrain. They didn’t have a whole lot to say.
Tipping is not mentioned by anyone anywhere at anytime, but it’s perfectly fine to hand over a couple of bucks to your informative, hard-working docent.
Here are the positives (see below for the negatives):
The Neon Museum is a wonderfully worthwhile excursion, and anyone who is even slightly interested in this type of place will be thrilled. While there are other neon museums and exhibits around the world, the one in Las Vegas is truly one of a kind.
The vast majority of reviewers on the Internet write glowingly about the museum. One TripAdvisor reviewer remarked, “I never thought that learning about neon and fonts could be so interesting.”
Here are the negatives:
Most of the complaints about the Neon Museum are from people who failed to come across the abundant information explaining that you must buy tickets before taking the guided tour. If you’re angry that you need to buy tickets in advance, please understand that a level of control is necessary for visitor safety and protection of the exhibits.
Members of the one-star brigade make it sound like a human rights violation that someone can’t show up, buy tickets, and stroll the grounds aimlessly. One reviewer on TripAdvisor screamed “Horrible!!! They won’t let you wander around on your own to take pictures!”
There are only seven self-lit signs on the night tour. The unlit signs have lights shining on them from an external source.
There are no public tours of the separate North Gallery next to the parking lot. That area is used for weddings, special events, photo shoots, and educational programs. Word on the street is that they are not cheap.
The museum is not located in a touristy part of the city, so some effort is required to get there.
How to get to the Neon Museum:
The museum is located at 770 North Las Vegas Boulevard. Coming from downtown, it’s about a half mile north of Fremont Street. The visitors’ center is on the right hand side. It’s inside the impossible-to-miss, white, stylish La Concha Hotel.
Parking: A small, free parking lot is located on the side street between the La Concha visitors’ center and a pleasant public space called Neon Boneyard Park. There shouldn’t be any kind of problem finding a spot in the lot.
How to take public transportation to the Neon Museum:
From the Strip: Take the Deuce bus to the “Stewart and 4th Street” stop. Get off the bus and walk in the same direction the bus is heading until you reach the corner. Turn left and head north on North Las Vegas Boulevard. Continue with the instructions below.
How to walk to the Neon Museum from Downtown Las Vegas:
Although this is an easy 15-minute walk from Fremont Street, please be aware that much of the walk is in a desolate area. This could be off-putting for those not used to walking through sketchy neighborhoods.
Walk north on North Las Vegas Boulevard. If you see the Stratosphere in the distance, you’re heading in the wrong direction. Pass underneath the expressway (it’s Interstate 515). Continue north and cross East Bonanza Road. There is a 7-11 on the right. This might be a good time to get some bottled water for your visit.
Continue north and pass the restored Bow and Arrow Motel sign on the median. It is part of a collection of nine public exhibits from the self-guided Restored Las Vegas Neon Signs Tour.
Keep walking until you get to the large silver slipper on the median, which is another one of the restored outdoor exhibits. The visitors’ center is located across from the slipper.
If you want to get to the front door of the Neon Museum by public transportation with the least amount of walking, you’re going to wind up riding bus #113. Coming from The Strip, you can transfer from the Deuce or SDX bus to the #113 at Bonneville Transit Center. You might need to ask for help finding the correct bay.
The #113 bus will wander through downtown Vegas and eventually make its way up North Las Vegas Boulevard and pass underneath the expressway. The exact stop you are looking for is on North Las Vegas Boulevard immediately past East Bonanza Road. Ask the driver if you’re not sure. When you get off the bus, keep walking north. The visitors’ center is a couple minutes ahead on the right.
As they say in Las Vegas, “Good luck!” ♦