You can always go downtown

In my seven trips to the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, I never had the chance to visit the Fremont Street Experience for the Downtown Hoedown in historic downtown Las Vegas. Frankly, I had never been that far north on Las Vegas Boulevard.

So, I decided to change that Wednesday night after arriving inLas Vegas for this year’s 10-day spectacle. I had seen pictures of the four-block Fremont Street Experience, its 12 million LED-light canopy and the casinos sporting a sea of light bulbs that make the area special, but photos can’t do the area justice.

This year’s Downtown Hoedown was the 25th installment of the tradition of providing fun and a flurry of activity to Fremont Street as part of Wrangler NFR week. It was the kickoff event for the “12 Days of Country,” a free concert series that runs through Dec. 11 and features stars such as Clint Black, Travis Tritt, Merle Haggard and Clay Walker.

Three stages were set up at different spots along the Fremont Street Experience, with Hunter Hayes, Glen Templeton, Lee Brice, Craig Morgan and the LoCash Cowboys playing for a street elbow-to-elbow full of people, many of whom were wearing cowboy hats, boots and Wranglers.

Glen Templeton entertained a big crowd at the Fremont Street Experience.

In short, if there’s something you wanted, you could find it on Fremont Street. Beer and liquor tents, street performers, artists, merchandise vendors and even a mechanical bull were just a few of the cornucopia of activities available at “the Experience.” NASCAR had held an event there earlier in the day, and people could get their pictures next to different drivers’ cars, including Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 Ford, Kurt Busch’s No. 22 Shell Pennzoil Dodge and Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge.

Even a steady and annoying wind – blowing bits of Las Vegas into my reddening eyes – couldn’t keep a big crowd from the Hoedown. I was there among the masses, edging my way through the diverse crowd and absorbing it all.

I stopped to get a slice of pizza at a restaurant tucked next to one of the casinos and ran into a group of cowboys from the Sikeston (Mo.) Jaycee Bootheel Rodeo. They were taking a break from walking through the Experience and were clearly enjoying themselves.

“It’s a nice experience and a nice change of pace from rodeo meetings,” said former Sikeston Rodeo Chairman Matt Matthews, who had been attending the annual PRCA Convention at the South Point Hotel, Spa & Casino with his fellow committee members. “We can come here and have a good time and really enjoy ourselves. It’s a visit to the past and to old-style Vegas. It’s a good time.”

Matthews, who has been coming to Vegas for 11 years, was right. Fremont Street features a group of iconic casinos like Binion’s, the Golden Nugget, Fremont, Golden Gate and Fitzgerald’s that are a throwback to the 1940s and the days of Vegas’ infancy. Heck, most people know Benny Binion helped the city grow and thrive, and he was instrumental in bringing the Wrangler NFR to “Sin City” in 1985.

It’s no secret that Vegas can be a freak show of “personalities,” and the Experience was no different. You name it, I saw it. Superman, Batman, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Darth Vader, Gene Simmons, SpongeBob SquarePants (and thankfully no one who could be called SpongeBob NoPants), Pee Wee Herman, Toy Story’s Woody, Tony Montana from Scarface and even celebrities I thought had died, like Elvis and Stevie Wonder.

The highlight of the celebrity appearances had to have been when Elvis, Superman and Pee Wee Herman were disciplined by security for some unseen infraction, and I couldn’t help but laugh as they were reprimanded. The lowlight, no doubt, was a long-haired, big-nosed man wearing a pink bikini, pink high heels and waving a feather duster around in one hand while holding a fistful of dollars in the other.

I’m not sure who or what he was doing an impression of, but people were amazingly stopping to have their pictures snapped with the “model.” Only in Vegas!

I left that disturbance and settled in by one of the stages, where bareback rider Tilden Hooper and bull rider Clayton Williams were signing autographs for a long line of fans for their sponsor Crown Royal. After he signed photo cards, gloves, shirts and handkerchiefs, I talked to Hooper, who enters this year’s Wrangler NFR in sixth place in the bareback riding standings.

“It’s really cool. I like it,” Hooper said of Fremont Street. “We came down last night, ate at Binion’s and had a pretty big time. When we were here last night, it just felt like you were taking a step back in time, and being here on Fremont Street is pretty dang cool.”

Tilden Hooper (left) and Clayton Williams signed autographs for dozens of fans.

Daren Wright, who opens chutes for the Dodge City, Kan., rodeo, agreed with Hooper after getting his autograph.

“Every time I’ve come (to Vegas), I have come here,” Wright, in his 15th trip to Las Vegas, said of the Experience. “It’s the atmosphere, the people and the partying, and that’s why I come to town early. Anything you want, you can get it here. It’s awesome.”

Scary sideshows aside, it was awesome, and I’m glad I went and checked it out. If you’re in Vegas now or plan on coming in the future, take an afternoon or a night and check out Fremont Street.

As the Petula Clark song says, “You can always go downtown.”

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