Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2021

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High overhead: Upgraded Fremont Street Experience a $17 million gamble

Celebrities Rich Little, Sheena Easton and Gladys Knight strode confidently across the red carpet in downtown Las Vegas on Monday night.

Gov. Kenny Guinn took the mike on the temporary stage and recited words of encouragement. Speaking from the base of the stage, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman buoyed the assembled crowd -- numbering in the hundreds -- with promises that Fremont Street would soon be the place to see and be seen in Las Vegas.

And overlooking the festive scene was a big screen affixed to Mermaids, a hotel and casino kitty-corner from the Golden Nugget and sitting beneath the new-and-improved Fremont Street Experience.

As dignitaries unveiled the new $17 million upgrade to the 9-year-old Fremont Street Experience's canopy of lights, Mermaids' own big-screen event trumpeted its 99-cent deep-fried Twinkies (a sultry woman was shown eating one, and she really apparently really likes Twinkies).

Also available at Mermaids are 99-cent chocolate bananas and jumbo hot dogs, and free Mardi Gras beads. Oh, and congratulations to Rae Owens of Atlanta, who recently won a $10,000 slot jackpot.

It says something about downtown in that, in its shining moment, it couldn't escape the distraction of deep-fried Twinkies (and other similar promotions) at Mermaids.

But Fremont Street soldiers forward under its $17 million investment.

The new canopy of lights is part of an ongoing attempt by the city and Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Authority to rejuvenate business downtown. Monday's showcase included a full showing of the Fox reality show "The Casino" on the upgraded canopy.

The show was filmed over several months at the Golden Nugget and stars owners Tim Poster and Tom Breitling. Not many folks stayed for the whole show, however, as watching the hourlong program on a giant LED display directly overhead is not advised unless you have a masseuse or chiropractor in the family.

In essence, the Fremont Street Experience upgrades provide much finer definition than the original light show, which was finished in 1996 at a cost of $70 million and featured comparatively clumsy and outdated visual technology. The effect of Viva Vision -- a system of more than 12.5 million tiny LED lamps -- is that the entire canopy appears similar to a vast plasma TV screen.

The sound system is also far superior, or at least louder, than its predecessor, with 220 speakers blasting up to 550,000 watts.

In other words, the thing cranks.

Aside from "The Casino" broadcast -- which was shown on seven segments along the canopy -- were two new productions, titled "Area 51" and "The Drop."

"Area 51" is centered on an attack by aliens. It stars KVBC Channel 3 anchor Kendall Tenney (as himself), who warns of a mysterious cloud over Las Vegas (which is not related to Friday's Velvet Revolver show at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel).

Tenney's report is cut short and flying saucers soar overhead. A brightly colored battle ensues all along the canopy until -- well, I won't spoil the ending. But it wasn't a good night to be an alien saucer pilot.

"The Drop" is a spectacular, splashy celebration of color set to bass-driven dance music. Landscape shots of flowers, trees and aquatic life are cast in bright, flowing primary colors.

The full-scope visuals are unchanged from the old Fremont Street Experience -- you are still watching a very stretched-out light show. It's just a better-defined, very stretched-out light show. The colors are spectacular -- but the old show had plenty of color, too. And a decent sound system.

Also, oddly, whenever a person is shown up close on the new system, the shape of the canopy and viewing angle give the subject a giant, oblong head. As Steve Wynn and Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt were shown in videotaped testimonials, they looked like they were looking down from fun-house mirrors.

As a primary attraction, the Fremont Street Experience alone is not enough to carry downtown. It's merely a component. To give it full effect, when friends and family come to town, don't tell them about the upgrades -- or about the light show at all.

Just walk them downtown at the top of the hour and let the show catch them unawares.

Wham! The absence of expectations -- and pure shock value -- will enhance the experience.

And if your guests ask why you're heading for downtown, tell them it's to see the famous Golden Nugget -- or to try some deep-fried Twinkies.

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