Location: East of The Strip
2800 Fremont St.
Las Vegas, NV 89104
What’s There Now: Empty Lot
Hotel opens on September 3
Bowling alley opens
Ramada Corporation tries to buy the hotel but the bid is rejected
Nine floors of a 19-story tower open
The remaining floors of the room tower open
Bowling alley is expanded to more than 100 lanes, making it the biggest in the world at the time
Property is purchased by Harrah’s Entertainment
Property is purchased by VSS Enterprises, which remodels and rebrands the hotel as The Castaways
Property goes bankrupt in June
Hotel is taken over by the mortgage holder
Hotel closes on January 29
The Showboat is imploded
Before we sail into the history of The Showboat, we should make sure we are all on the same page about what, exactly The Showboat was, or more specifically wasn’t. When referring to the riverboat shaped casino hotel, most people presume you are talking about the Holiday Casino on the Las Vegas Strip, which eventually became Harrah’s. To further complicate matters, there’s often confusion between the Holiday Casino, which had a Holiday Inn branded hotel attached, and the Coney Island themed Boardwalk Holiday Inn further down the street, which was not related.
But The Showboat was neither of those and it wasn’t even on the Las Vegas Strip. It’s often referred to as a Downtown Las Vegas property but it was miles from Glitter Gulch hotels like Binion’s and The Golden Nugget.
In reality it was closer to what would eventually be the Boulder Highway strip of hotels like Boulder Station, located on east Fremont Street between Charleston and St. Louis Avenues. This is now a working class neighborhood but at the time it was mostly undeveloped, with only a couple of gaming nightclubs in the area that were designed to capture the traffic heading from Las Vegas to points southeast like Boulder City, Hoover Dam, and beyond.
The hotel was the brainchild of a partnership between two men who had become near legendary Las Vegas figures. JK Houssels had been the driving force behind El Cortez in Downtown and William Moore was involved in the design of his uncle RE Griffith’s project The Frontier on the Las Vegas Strip. In the early 1950s, they envisioned a Strip style resort only closer to Downtown and the only one to be within Las Vegas city limits (The Strip is in in unincorporated Clark County).
They raised the $2 million necessary to build The Showboat, most likely from the usual sources of such funds in Vegas in that era: the mob. The infamous Moe Dalitz, a mafia figure who had a hand in multiple Vegas projects including The Desert Inn, was listed as a manager of the Showboat’s casino while Houssels and Moore ran the hotel.
The Showboat opened on September 3, 1954. It had a main building with the front shaped like a riverboat sitting in water that acted as the hotel’s pool. Only the very front had the riverboat theme and the rest was a fairly bland boxy structure that housed the casino, restaurants, showroom, and more. The 100 rooms were in two-story motel style buildings that were separated from the main building by a driveway.
Houssels and Moore tried to market The Showboat to tourists as a Las Vegas getaway but its location hampered its success. It wasn’t within easy walking distance of Glitter Gulch or The Strip, and its lack of the kind of stylish amenities that were being built on Las Vegas Boulevard limited its appeal. The hotel struggled financially pretty much from the get go and never really took off until a new owner, Joe Kelley, took over a majority interest in the late 1950s.
Kelley refocused the property on value, attempting to appeal to residents of the burgeoning suburban neighborhood. In some ways, the Showboat was sort of the first “locals” resort, designed to cater to the people who lived in Vegas rather than those who merely visited. He did it by promoting cheap eats dining specials and by adding a bowling alley in 1959.
Incorporated as Showboat Inc., the various shareholder owners of The Showboat may have changed over the years but the parent company pretty much always remained the same. An attempt by Ramada to buy it in 1969 failed and Showboat Inc. kept steering the ship all the way until 1998.
The Showboat was expanded several times over the years, most notably in 1973 when nine floors of a 19-story tower opened and then again in 1976 when the rest of the tower opened. A 1979 expansion made the bowling alley the biggest in the world with over 100 lanes. A renovation in 1982 added the Showboat Sports Pavilion on the second floor of the main building, which became popular as a venue for boxing and roller derby.
The Vegas hotel got some siblings with the opening of the Showboat Atlantic City in 1987, the Sydney Harbor Casino in Australia in 1995, and the Showboat Mardi Gras in East Chicago in 1997.
Unfortunately, the company’s investments in other markets meant that not much investment was being made into the Las Vegas property during the 1990s and it became stagnant, especially when compared to the wave of new, palatial mega-resorts opening on The Strip.
In 1998 Harrah’s Entertainment sensed an opportunity and stepped in to buy Showboat Inc. including The Showboat in Las Vegas for $1.15 billion. By then their Harrah’s Las Vegas no longer had a showboat theme – it had been converted to the Mardi Gras theme it has now in 1997.
The problem for The Showboat in Vegas is that Harrah’s really only wanted the Showboat name and the opportunity it gave them to enter the Atlantic City and Chicago markets. The Vegas property didn’t line up with their strategy and they almost immediately put it up for sale.
In 2000, a company called VSS Enterprises run by a group of casino executives plunked down $23.5 million for the Las Vegas property, and by that I mean the building and land. What they didn’t get was the Showboat name so they remodeled the main building to remove the showboat theme and replaced it with a desert island look and feel. The new hotel was called The Castaways.
This, of course, has led to even more confusion when talking about the history of the place since there had been a Castaways hotel and casino on The Strip where The Mirage is now located. The two were not related in any way other than the name.
VSS wasn’t able to make a go of the property and it fell into bankruptcy in June of 2003. The lienholder, Vestin Mortgages, took over the property and kept it open for about six months until a bankruptcy judge allowed them to shutter the hotel once and for all on January 29, 2004.
Another company planned to purchase the shuttered Castaways in 2004 and market it to a Latin market, but before that deal could get done, local giants Stations Casinos stepped in and snatched the property away. It was viewed as a preemptive move to keep competition away from their Boulder Station hotel just down the street and to get another chunk of land zoned for a major casino that they could use for future expansion of their empire.
In 2005 the company planned to revamp and reopen the hotel as Castaways Station but found that the 50-year-old buildings were not usable and so they needed to start from scratch. The bulk of the property was demolished in late 2005 and the main hotel tower was imploded on January 11, 2006.
Nothing ever got built on the land, which remains an empty dirt and concrete lot today. Stations Casinos tried to sell the property when they went through bankruptcy proceedings in 2009 but were unable to find a buyer. They may develop it or try to sell it again at some point in the future.
Parenthetically, the venerable Showboat name came to an end in 2014 when the last remaining Showboat hotel/casino in Atlantic City closed its doors.