By CARY ORDWAY
The one-time owners of a tiny eight-room motel on the banks of the Colorado River must be feeling a little like the Native Americans who sold Manhattan Island for, let’s say, less than today’s market value.
Not that these motel owners were short-changed by visionary Don Laughlin – it’s just that now, four decades later, Laughlin has parlayed that $235,000 investment into a big-time resort empire that so far has drawn eight other casino/hotels to his little stretch of the Colorado. In the meantime, Laughlin has pumped millions in casino profits back into such community projects as a bridge to Arizona and an airport capable of landing 737’s.
Who could blame folks if they named the town after him, too?
Laughlin had made a few bucks selling a gambling club in Las Vegas and, while flying over what is now Laughlin, Nevada, the soon-to-be resort magnate looked down and saw a stretch of the river nestled between two sets of craggy mountains. The river also is the dividing line between Nevada and Arizona, and California’s just a few miles up the road.
"If we build it, they will come." Not Don Laughlin’s words, but no doubt his sentiments as he looked into his unusually reliable crystal ball and foresaw the development of another Las Vegas just about an hour’s drive south of the real one. In 1966 he opened the Riverside Casino with 12 slot machines and two playing tables. Accommodations were limited to four rooms because the Laughlin family was living in the other four rooms of that tiny motel.
Fast-forward to 2004 and a Riverside Casino that, over the years, has grown to more than 1,400 rooms including two towers, various casinos and plenty of extras to make the property a favorite for visitors to Laughlin. Lots of other familiar names have now staked out claims along the Colorado, including the Flamingo, Golden Nugget and Harrahs. There are now 10,000 rooms and 60 restaurants serving the more than 5 million visitors who come to Laughlin each year.
Why people come to Laughlin is best explained when you look at the city’s visitor demographics. To start with, they’re a bit older – about two-thirds of them are 50 or older, and about a third are 65 or older. They spend an average of $33 a night to stay in Laughlin, but they’ll budget more than $400 to gamble while they’re in town for their two or three day stay.
In short, the people who come to Laughlin would rather spend money on gambling than on fancy hotel rooms, and chances are they’re also more than a little phobic about the traffic and parking problems they think they might encounter in Las Vegas.
As one hotel marketing person told us, Laughlin really is thought of by many visitors as the Old Las Vegas – the one that was more focused on providing cheap beds and cheap eats, but plenty of opportunities to gamble. Another phrase we heard was the "un-Vegas" that takes visitors back to a simpler time and place where you can still find cheap vacations.
Judging from our recent visit to Laughlin, the niche still seems to be working, despite more competition nowadays from Indian casinos that have siphoned off some of the California visitors who now may be content to stay and gamble at a casino closer to home. But Laughlin still pulls them in very well from several parts of California, and from many other places across the country including destinations in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Three different airlines now are providing charter service into Laughlin from dozens of destinations.
During our November visit, the weather in Laughlin was ideal – cloudless skies with temperatures in the mid-70s, which certainly is appealing to visitors from the northern states. In fact, winter is the best time to visit Laughlin because the locals will tell you that summer can be 10 degrees hotter than the already toasty LasVegas.
With consistently warm weather, another factor comes into play in Laughlin: The River. We read someplace that this is the only part of Nevada that really has this much water to play around in and, judging from the many ski-doos and speed boats on the Colorado, we would not be surprised. The hotels showcase the river as much as they would some big-name entertainer – they almost all have boat docks and shuttle boats for guests to cross the river, and there are also cruises on sternwheeler replicas and even high-speed river boats.
In fact, the river walk in Laughlin is not unlike the river walk in New Orleans – the Colorado at this juncture is quite a bit narrower than the Mississippi, but the festive walkway with restaurants and shops all along the way can be just as entertaining. And, of course, Laughlin has a series of casinos whereas New Orleans just has one in the riverfront area.
Being the "un-Vegas," Laughlin can be a little less than top-drawer in the entertainment area. The city does get high-quality and current acts, including many of the top country music entertainers on the charts today. But you also may be likely to see someone who has already peaked, possibly quite a few years ago. While we were there, the current and coming attractions included names like Vicki Lawrence, Charo, Mel Tillis, Roy Clark and a special "Where are they now" show at the Edgewater featuring several former child stars like Paul Peterson (the Donna Reed Show) and Ken Osmond (Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver).
On the plus side, the entertainment in Laughlin is comparatively inexpensive. If you’ve gone to Las Vegas and passed on the entertainment just because it was too expensive, you’ll be pleasantly surprised in Laughlin. Instead of $100 or $150 a ticket, name acts can be as little as $25 a seat. Those who like cheap vacations will love Laughlin.
Most of the big-name entertainment comes to the Riverside, which was our base of operations while in Laughlin. With little plastic signs in our guestroom saying "The customer is always King," we could not help but get a sense that Don Laughlin has trained his staff to focus on customer service. Throughout the Riverside complex there are special indications that the Riverside has been a work in progress. There’s a 34-lane bowling alley and adjacent Kids Castle that allows you to drop your kids off for $6.50 an hour. A "Loser’s Lounge" has pictures of famous losers on the walls. There’s a terrific antique car museum. Oh, and of course don’t miss the Watch Man, a place where you’ll find thousands of watches with thousands of designs including several with Jesus Christ on the dial. There’s something for everyone at the Riverside.
There also doesn’t seem to be much sin to this version of Sin City – no one handing out pamphlets advertising escorts, no over-the-top billboards or signs, no real attention to girlie shows with the exception of one "Showgirls" revue at one of the hotels. You get the feeling that many of the visitors here might be some of those voters concerned about moral values, and one guesses that whatever happens in Laughlin most certainly will not stay in Laughlin.
Reinforcing this was our chance encounter with some favorite relatives from Hemet, California, who were visiting Laughlin the same time as we were, and also staying at the Riverside. We know them as church-going, God-fearing people and they were in town for four days of what they consider to be good, clean fun.
Somehow, we think that’s exactly what Don Laughlin had in mind when he first laid eyes on that little eight-room motel on the banks of the Colorado River.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: Laughlin is at the southern tip of Nevada and about a five- or six-hour drive from many points in Southern California. If you're planning a California vacation, Laughlin is easy to add on.
WHAT: Laughlin is a trip back in time to the Las Vegas of 40 years ago. The strip of nine casinos can be walked, for the most part, using a walkway along the Colorado River.
WHEN: Any time of year, although summers can be very hot. The best option is to visit in winter when temperatures are in the 70s and the sun shines often. Certain times of the year you'll find more travel deals and vacation packages, so always check to see what's available during your visit. If you have last minute travel plans, chances are you can find a bargain.
WHY: Laughlin is a good place to visit if you’ve grown weary of, or are apprehensive about, the crowds, lines, traffic and prices of Las Vegas. However, it’s definitely a more subdued vacation experience when compared with the glitter of Vegas. You won't find the spa resorts of the desert -- here it's all about the gambling and entertainment and relatively cheap vacations.
HOW: Accommodations at the Riverside and other Laughlin hotels are quite reasonable. For example, a Thursday-Sunday package of lodging and air is only $149 from Burbank, California. There are flights from several California destinations. For a list of recommended lodgings, click here. For more information on the Riverside or travel packages that include air transportation, phone 1-800-227-3849, or visit www.riversideresort.com. For more information on Laughlin, call 1-800-4-laughlin. Or visit the Laughlin Visitors Bureau website at www.visitlaughlin.com.
Please visit California Weekend for more information on California travel .
Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway