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Things to do in Las Vegas without gambling

by Michael on September 26, 2014

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Strolling down the Strip in Las Vegas, our faces were overwhelmed by the glow of a million pulsating lights. We don’t gamble so what would we do in a city that is defined by casinos? We weren’t alone. Las Vegas is one of the country’s top convention cities, each year bringing in over 5 million people on business trips—and many of them aren’t into gambling either. To our surprise there were many things to do in Las Vegas without gambling.

Getting married in Las Vegas (or confirming your vows)

Larissa Michael Rocky Elvis (800x705)

Las Vegas is the wedding capital of America with over 300 ceremonies a day performed in two dozen wedding chapels; which is why the city’s marriage license bureau is open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to midnight. Rather than simply watch others take the plunge, on a lark we decided to renew the vows we’d made 27 years earlier. For the full-on experience we chose the Elvis Presley themed Graceland Wedding Chapel where Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi tied the knot. It’s a freestanding chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard South, a block north of the Gold and Silver shop featured on the TV series Pawn Stars. (Which is handy for those who need a spur-of-the-moment wedding ring.)

We expected the ceremony to be kind of hokey. But even though sequin-clad Elvis look-alike Brendan Paul made us promise, among other things, not to step on each other’s blue suede shoes, it turned out to be surprisingly sweet. Newly re-hitched we made Las Vegas our honeymoon playground.

Flying upside down over the Nevada desert

larissa sky combat ace gleeAnyone who loved Top Gun would find it hard to pass up an aerial thrill ride. Larissa donned a flight suit and boarded a propeller-driven aerobatic aircraft at Sky Combat Ace. For starters Richard “Tex” Coe, a former Air Force F-14 fighter pilot, performed several barrel rolls and flew upside down to test Larissa’s stomach . . . then handed the controls over to her!

LArissa sky combat ace upside down 2She flew the plane through an adrenalin-pumping inverted 360 degree loop as she pulled 7 Gs (that’s seven times the force of gravity), contorting her face into an odd Hobbit-like mien before reverting to unbridled glee at what she had just accomplished. Upon returning to terra firma Larissa declared, “My knees are wobbling, when can I go again?”

Playing with construction toys

To get our feet back on the ground we ventured to Dig This, an attraction that fulfills childhood dreams of playing in the dirt. We chose a session on the Caterpillar excavator, those forbidding looking pieces of equipment with steel-toothed buckets that loom overhead like escapees from Jurassic Park. After rumbling across the sandy site we dug Humvee-sized holes, maneuvered 2,000 pound tires into pyramid shaped piles and played a form of excavator basketball where even LeBron James wouldn’t dare block our shots.

Las Vegas dig this construction (2) (800x604)

We assumed all that getting dirty appealed mostly to men living out their boyhood fantasies, but owner Ed Mumm said that half of their customers are women. “Quite frankly they’re better at it,” he revealed. “They listen to the directions while men tend to barrel ahead.” (Somewhere in that observation is marriage advice waiting to be heeded.)

A range of shooting activities

The motto of the Gun Garage is “we make machine guns fun.” I had qualified as an Expert Marksman with an M-16 and other weapons in the Army but that had been a century ago. Larissa had never fired a weapon so we headed over to the Gun Garage on South Dean Martin Drive to take our best shots. At the indoor range we were set up by our NRA certified instructor with a Glock pistol and Uzi semi-automatic carbine. We aimed at the paper targets of attacking zombies and let loose. Larissa was surprised that the Uzi was so lightweight with little kick. After a few shots we got the hang of it but it ended too soon.

Quirky museums of Las Vegas

Las Vegas defines their history in more recent terms than our hometown of Philadelphia. The desert city was just hitting its stride only 60 years ago and some fascinating museums highlight the quirky events that have helped shape its identity.

There’s a retro-cool vibe at the Neon Museum, where the gaudy signs of former casinos are preserved. Visitors enter through the restored lobby of the scallop-shell-shaped La Concha motel, a circa 1961 structure that was designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects. Its white swooping roofline is a stellar example of the futuristic Googie architecture (think of the house on The Jetsons) that abounds in Las Vegas.

neon museum night tour las vegas

The huge signs, perched on the ground in an outdoor setting, are most evocative during a nighttime tour. Our guide, the jovial Ian Zeitzer from northeast Philadelphia, led us on a serpentine path through the neon boneyard illuminating his “history lesson of lost Las Vegas.” The fancy script letters of the Moulon Rouge sign once flashed outside the casino that was a trendsetter in 1955; it was the first integrated gambling hall in Las Vegas, attracting the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. and his Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

The picturesque Neon Museum has become a fashionable venue for outdoor weddings with a popular photo op beside the restored 1940s era “Wedding Information” sign, whose bright red arrow once pointed the way for nervous couples to tie the knot. During the summer we went for the popular nighttime tour.

Las Vegas Neon Museum wedding sign (800x568)

Back in the heyday of Las Vegas, the ownership of some of the casinos was murky, a topic that’s played out at the downtown Mob Museum, located in the former Federal Courthouse that was home to the Mafia hunting Kefauver hearings in the 1950s. You have to admire a city that isn’t afraid to highlight the sordid side of its history. The museum tells the unvarnished story of organized crime in America and how its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of casino ventures in Las Vegas. Visitors can also listen to tapes of undercover FBI agents as they ensnared the mobsters. A costume display reveals that Tony Soprano wore somewhat mundane Dockers on the TV show.

national atomic testing museum las vegas alien

While casinos were popping up like mushrooms, the US government was experimenting with mushroom clouds in the nearby desert. The National Atomic Testing Museum pays homage to the era when nuclear weapons were new and novel. Exhibits encompass the scientific and the social: some local hotels offered rooftop-viewing parties complete with bag lunches and heavy-duty goggles to watch the atomic detonations.

If any portion of your youth was spent hunched over a pinball machine, you’re in luck in Las Vegas. The Pinball Hall of Fame features over 250 working machines dating from 1932 to the present day just waiting for itchy flipper fingers. Tim Arnold, a self-confessed “pinball nut,” created the Hall of Fame as a non-profit entity that donates its proceeds to charity. We were drawn to beautifully restored games of the 1950s and ‘60s, which cost only a quarter to play. A pinball geek can while away hours there for less than they’d drop on a blackjack table in ten minutes.

Pinball Hall of Fame Starjet backglass (800x530)

Epilogue: Newly remarried we were leaving Las Vegas when we stopped at a gas station on the edge of town. After ten days of living casino-free Michael just couldn’t resist a one-armed bandit seated right by the cashier. But each time he slid in a crumpled dollar bill the machine kept spitting it out, and so ended our one attempt to gamble in Las Vegas. We guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Pin it!There are plenty of fun and family-friendly things to do in Las Vegas without gambling!

If you really want to avoid the lure of gambling, here’s our review of hotels in Las Vegas that are casino-free or have placed them in a separate building.

28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Penelope October 6, 2014 at 12:28 am

I’m starting to think that there is no limit to what one can do when one is in Las Vegas. I have to get there someday!

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Marilyn Jones October 6, 2014 at 5:04 am

Who knew there was so much to do outside a casino!?!! Great article! I loved the Dig It attraction!

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Anita @ No Particular Place To Go October 6, 2014 at 8:06 am

We’re not gamblers either (maybe we’re too cheap?) but we’re big museum geeks. A nighttime stroll through the flashy neon museum
sounds like fun and, having watched the classic Godffather movies countless times as well as loving “Casino” and “Goodfellows”, I’d love to go to the Mob Museum!

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Michael October 7, 2014 at 11:43 am

Nighttime at the Neon Museum really is magical.

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santafetraveler October 6, 2014 at 9:42 am

I’m not a casino fan so good to know there are some things to do- thought not flying upside down in a small plane!

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Juergen | dare2go.com October 6, 2014 at 10:21 am

There’s certainly a lot to do in and around Las Vegas without spending a dime in a one-armed bandit. Some of the shows, like Cirque de Soleil, are worth visiting, and a few miles outside town you find the “Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area”, a large park reminiscent of landscapes found in Utah or Arizona.

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Michael October 7, 2014 at 11:42 am

The surrounding countryside gets overlooked sometimes but it’s gorgeous.

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Leigh October 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm

I think the “Dig This” activity would be a whole lot of fun. I also have heard that the hiking in the nearby state park is excellent.

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Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru October 6, 2014 at 6:38 pm

We really enjoyed the Neon and Atomic Museums. The Fremont district really impressed us as well – great restorations and good eats. We loved the Cirque de Soleil Zarkana show, very exciting. And the Blue Man Group is always entertaining, too. The Fine Art exhibit at the Bellagio is always high quality. You’re right, Vegas is much more than gambling.

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CaronC October 6, 2014 at 8:16 pm

Oooo, I’m jealous, the National Atomic Testing Museum is going to be on my list for my next visit! Valley of Fire State Park is fantastic. Great place for photos. Pack a lunch, drive over to Hoover Dam from the park and circle back to Vegas. Just touring the different casinos was a lot of fun for me, their architecture, exhibits, people watching. I think it was the Bellagio that has the fanciest bathrooms. We found that an overnight (two nights would have been better) in nearby Death Valley was well worth the drive from Vegas.

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The GypsyNesters October 6, 2014 at 8:52 pm

Wow, the flying looks incredibly intense! We loved the Neon Museum when we went too.

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Sue Reddel October 7, 2014 at 12:21 am

Loved this post! I grumble every time there’s another conference or meeting in Las Vegas – I can’t stand to be there more than two days because I’m not a gambler. You gave me some great ideas to pass the time much more pleasantly, thanks!

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Irene October 7, 2014 at 2:06 am

Looks like a wonderful time—including the vow renewal! How neat!

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Linda ~ Journey Jottings October 8, 2014 at 9:14 am

Las Vegas is one big man-made attraction! It must be one of the few places on earth that has no real heritage or deep rooted culture to boast about – which I guess is its ‘charm’ and its lure 😉

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Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel) October 8, 2014 at 9:29 am

Wow, what a great collection of things to do in Las Vegas that don’t include gambling. “Dig This” is especially unique!

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Nancie (@Ladyexpat) October 9, 2014 at 7:56 pm

I think it would be impossible to get bored in Vegas. I’d be up for flying upside down in the desert!

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alison abbott October 11, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Looks like you have covered everything not related to gambling. I never knew there were so many other places to visit there. Nice round up.

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Debbra Dunning Brouillette October 11, 2014 at 10:32 pm

You chose well for your vow renewal. :) (I am an Elvis fan, so this would be my choice, for sure!) For those not into gambling (like me), these other quirky, fun activities are good alternatives to check out while in Vegas.

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