LAS VEGAS —  You could breeze through the outdoor Neon Museum in under 30 minutes, snapping a few photos of vintage Vegas signs for Instagram and Facebook before returning to the gambling action on nearby Fremont Street or the Las Vegas Strip.

But you wouldn’t learn about Liberace’s dry cleaner (Steiner Cleaners), the city’s first racially integrated hotel casino (the short-lived Moulin Rouge) or why the Golden Nugget casino featured the year 1905 on its glittery facade instead of 1946, the year it opened (to appear more established to gamblers).

The Las Vegas history lesson comes only with a guided tour of the downtown museum, a boneyard filled with 250 neon signs from Vegas’ past, 17 of them restored and still glowing.

Along with the can’t-miss bright-blue happy-shirt sign from Steiner, the hot-pink Liberace sign from the defunct Liberace Museum and giant nugget from the Golden Nugget hotel casino, visitors will find signs from defunct or renovated casino hotels. The giant skull from Treasure Island’s family-friendly pirate show days is there, and so is the genie’s lamp from Aladdin hotel and casino. There are signs from roadside motels and a mini-mart that beckoned hungover travelers headed back to California with free aspirin and “tender sympathy.”

The China Garden lady, from a sign for the Utah restaurant China Garden Cafe, is the only non-Las Vegas sign at the Neon Museum. (Photo: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY)

The vintage signs are scattered on both sides of a circular dirt path, stacked against each other like items at a yard sale. Visit more than once and you’ll see signs you missed on your first trip, especially if you dip into the boneyard’s nooks and crannies.  

The newest addition: the giant guitar from the Hard Rock Cafe, which closed in 2016 after a nearly 30-year run. The sign owner, Young Electric Sign Company, donated the guitar to the museum, which launched a $350,000 fundraising campaign in 2017 to transport, restore and maintain it. The sign debuted in March.

Binion's Horseshoe needed a new sign after it was sold and could no longer use horseshoe in its name. (Photo: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY)

In addition to Las Vegas trivia, the guide on our one-hour night tour taught us the chemistry of neon and about the notorious gambler, casino owner and criminal Benny Binion of Binion’s Horseshoe, who Vegas visitors have to thank for replacing sawdust with carpeting on casino floors.

And she gave us a tip for dating signs: Those built before 1970 have spikes or ladders, which workers used to climb eight to 10 stories to change the bulbs on signs. The practice went away with the advent of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971.

The guided tour was an hour — and $28 — well spent in Las Vegas. Guided tours for families with kids, led by youth volunteers, are $5 per person (kids 6 and under free) and available on select dates, but they are not offered in the summer. The last one for the season, in late May, is sold out. 

Other ways to see the Neon Museum

The new "Brilliant!" light and music show at the Neon Museum brings old signs to life. Can you spot the Denny's sign? (Photo: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY)

Self-guided tour: Visitors are free to stroll the grounds daily with a general admission ticket. I did a self-guided tour and a guided tour on the same day and took nothing away from the self-guided tour except some photos. (No audio tours are offered.)

Specialty tours and programs: In addition to the youth tours, the museum has a variety of special events and tours, including lectures and a popular $50 photo walk. Coming In October, a four-month exhibition of original fine art from director Tim Burton. 

“Brilliant!” show: Las Vegas is known for its shows, but not too many are evening outdoor performances. The museum’s lively new “Brilliant!” show, which opened in early 2018, is a choreographed nearly-40-minute light and music show that illuminates long-dead signs and offers some narrated Las Vegas history. Visitors dance and sing along to songs including Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Viva Las Vegas” and Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be A Lady.” The show is $23 for adults. The best option: a $42 combination ticket that includes a guided tour of the boneyard and the “Brilliant!” show, back to back. 

Advance reservations are recommended for any visit as tours and other programs sell out regularly.

Photo tour: In search of classic Las Vegas neon

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