Laughlin, Nev., Suddenly a Good Bet

<i> Kovell is a Los Angeles free-lance writer</i> .

When you think of gambling in the United States, the places that come to mind first are Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Reno. But a new entry in legalized gaming caught the attention of the gambling fraternity early this year when South Lake Tahoe was bumped from its position as the state’s third-highest source of revenue from gambling. The upstart is Laughlin.

It’s a city that has given the term boom town new meaning. Savvy operators are scrambling to buy or lease land for the construction of hotels and casinos in a town that just four years ago had a population of 95. This year it’s projected that Laughlin will play host to more than 2 million visitors.

If it were not for Davis Dam, which was completed in 1953 on the Colorado River, there might not be a Laughlin today. The river serves as a natural border between Nevada and Arizona. During the building of the dam, Bullhead City was built on the Arizona side of the Colorado to house construction workers. It is 95 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

Town Renamed


On the Nevada side of the river in what was then called South Pointe, two small gaming clubs operated side by side and were patronized mostly by fishermen and construction workers from Davis Dam.

One of the clubs, the Riverside Bait Shop, was bought by Don Laughlin, who expanded the casino and added some guest rooms. Shuttle boats were put into service between Bullhead and South Pointe for the three-minute boat ride across the Colorado, which saved Bullhead workmen from driving upstream to cross over Davis Dam to get to the Nevada side, where the action was.

When a post office was proposed in 1968, the town was renamed Laughlin after its most prominent businessman.

Today Laughlin has nine hotel/casinos, which brings the city’s total of guest rooms and suites to more than 4,000. There are spacious casinos, cocktail lounges and casual entertainment, plus gift and specialty shops.


You’ll also find the ever-present bountiful buffets. For the sports-minded there are tennis courts, swimming pools and a bowling alley. An 18-hole golf course is scheduled for completion in 1990.

Excellent year-round weather makes outdoor activities practical at any time, but summer months can be blistering hot, with temperatures running to 110 degrees or even higher.

Life in a Penthouse

Pacesetter Don Laughlin, who lives in a penthouse atop his Riverside Hotel & Casino, felt that residents of Bullhead City, where 85% of Laughlin’s casino employees live, could save 15 minutes driving time between the two towns if they didn’t have to drive up to Davis Dam, across it and down into Laughlin, about 12 miles.


So he had a bridge built across the river, which he financed with $3 million of his money and then turned over to the states of Arizona and Nevada for operation and maintenance. It happens that the Nevada ramp of the bridge is adjacent to Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort with its 400-space RV park.

Experienced casino and hotel management personnel are keeping a lid on frills. As a result, hotel room rates in Laughlin average $26 to $29 a day for two people, Sunday through Thursday. Prices for weekends rise to $55 or $60 a day for two.

Much of the glitter and glitz typically seen in Las Vegas are not seen in Laughlin, which is part of the cost-saving process. Also, there is little competition for big-name entertainers because there is only one theater-style showroom. It operates sporadically with such down-home entertainment as Charley Pride, Waylon Jennings, the Oak Ridge Boys and Mel Tillis.

Food is as big a bargain in Laughlin as it is in most Nevada gaming centers, with 49-cent breakfasts and $2.49 lunch and dinner buffets. The city has become a mecca for the senior crowd, who seem to prefer the low-key aspects of the Laughlin resorts, the friendliness and the open spaces.


The games available include everything that can be found in Las Vegas: blackjack, roulette, craps, keno, bingo, poker, baccarat, race and sports books, plus an endless selection of slot machines. There are also sophisticated poker and keno video games. Minimum wagers of $1 and $2 are easy to find on table games, a practice that seems to have disappeared in most Las Vegas casinos.

Largest of the town’s hotel/casinos is the 1,238-room Colorado Belle, which also has a 60,000-square-foot casino. Last June the Ramada Station opened its 400-room high-rise, which has a full-size narrow-gauge railroad train encircling its parking lots.

Harrah’s has opened a 500-room hotel this year as well. Meanwhile, Don Laughlin still operates his Riverside Resort, now a 660-room high-rise with an adjacent RV park.

Laughlin’s airport is across the river in Bullhead City, which now has a population of 22,000. The airport is also owned by Don Laughlin, and is served by two scheduled airlines. States West serves Laughlin from Burbank, Ontario, John Wayne and San Diego airports. Air L.A. has also begun service from LAX to Laughlin via Lake Havasu.


It is served by one scheduled airline, Phoenix-based StatesWest, which serves Laughlin from Burbank, Ontario, Orange County and San Diego, plus Albuquerque, Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. All Laughlin hotels provide free pickup at the airport. By automobile, Laughlin is 300 miles from Los Angeles.

Besides gaming, other activities in the area include self-guided tours through Davis Dam, which pales in comparison to its mammoth counterpart, Hoover Dam. You can take paddle-wheel boat tours along the Colorado River, plus water skiing and fishing in the chilly waters.

Nearby Oatman is a Western ghost town and gold-mining area with staged gunfights. About 60 miles south is Lake Havasu, where a replica of an Old English village clusters at the base of the old London Bridge, which was shipped over from England and reassembled at Havasu in 1971.

The limited selection of sightseeing attractions near Laughlin has not proved to be a hindrance to the thousands of eager pleasure seekers who pour into town daily by bus, RV, automobile and boat. Investors, builders, resort employees and the growing residential population are gambling that they’ll continue to flock around.