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From Elvis to Elopements, the Evolution of the Las Vegas Wedding

Las Vegas has long been a stage where reality dissolves into fantasy. In the heart of the desert — a place where the Eiffel Tower, Egyptian pyramids and medieval castles all beam on one glamorous strip — the entertainment is virtually unlimited. It’s no wonder, then, that a city built on the promise of pleasure and escape has remained a popular destination for weddings.

According to the clerk of Clark County, Nev., about 80,000 couples exchanged wedding vows in Las Vegas in 2022, including some celebrities: Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker, and Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. Clark County also issued its five millionth marriage license in 2022.

On Sept. 23, Las Vegas celebrated its 70th anniversary as the “Wedding Capital of the World.” It was first recognized as such in the London Daily Herald in 1953, the same year that Frank Sinatra began performing at the Sands Hotel and Casino, which bolstered the city’s popularity as a tourist destination.

And the city is undergoing a lot of change; there is a new 3.8-mile Formula 1 Grand Prix track, along with the Sphere, a performance venue covered in 1.2 million LED screens and the home to U2’s 25-show residency.

Las Vegas weddings have been immortalized in movies like “Viva Las Vegas” and “The Hangover.” Earlier boldfaced names were also married there: Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow in 1966 and Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu in 1967.

According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the total spending in the tourism industry of Las Vegas hit almost $80 billion in 2022; the weddings industry was responsible for $2.5 billion of that, said the Clark County Clerk’s office. The office also said there are about 100 chapels and about 18,000 people who work in the weddings industry.

The city became popular for quick and easy weddings beginning in 1931, during Prohibition, when Clark County eliminated blood tests and waiting periods that were required of couples who were trying to get married. Las Vegas also marketed itself as a short ride away from Los Angeles — a four-hour drive and a 45-minute plane ride — which helped its draw as a celebrity hot spot, said Lynn Goya, the Clark County clerk.

“The focus is really on the couple rather than on a big production wedding that frankly makes people crazy,” Ms. Goya said.

Elopements have become increasingly popular in recent years, with many couples opting for more intimate wedding experiences.

Most Vegas weddings are elopements, according to Ms. Goya, because of the prevalence of the casual, no-frills, 15-minute ceremonies offered by chapels — the bread and butter of the industry. A marriage license costs $102, and chapel packages are as low as $99.

In 1991, the iconic wedding drive-through window was born at the Little White Wedding Chapel. The chapel’s founder, Charolette Richards, noticed that disabled guests struggled to get out of their cars to attend ceremonies. Also in the ’90s, themed weddings started becoming popular. Commonly requested themes include gothic, Elvis and Star Trek weddings.

The city is also home to grand and elaborate weddings, hosted at casinos and venues on the strip. (Custom wedding packages at the Bellagio start at $35,000.) “We’ve had people ride in on elephants, if that’s what you want,” Ms. Goya said. “You can hire Cirque du Soleil or Bruno Mars to sing at your wedding, if that’s what you want — it’s happened.”

She added that the Clark County Marriage License Bureau, which distributes about 219 licenses a day to couples, is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, 365 days a year. Many chapels are also open until midnight, with no appointment required, making it easy for couples to grab their license at the marriage license bureau, make a quick stop at a chapel and then celebrate on the Strip.

The Office of Civil Marriages is a short drive from the Strip, along Interstate 15. There, on a Thursday afternoon in September, a couple from Los Angeles — Pei Lin, a 24-year-old student, and Min Gjia, a 28-year-old taxi driver — were holding hands after just getting married. So-called courthouse weddings take place at the office every 15 minutes.

It was Ms. Lin’s first time in Las Vegas, and their parents, who traveled from Guangzhou, China, had joined them. Ms. Lin said she and Mr. Gjia got married in Las Vegas because “it’s romantic.”

When asked what their plans were that night, she shouted, “Strip club!”

The Office of Civil Marriages is just one of many options for speedy weddings. Along Las Vegas Boulevard, there are dozens of chapels, including Chapel of the Flowers and A Little White Wedding Chapel, which calls itself “the most famous wedding chapel in the world.” Ms. Lopez and Mr. Affleck got married there.

Later that day, at Chapel of the Flowers, Wendy Louise Hudson, a 48-year-old administrative assistant, walked down the aisle in a backless white gown and Converse Chucks while Steve John Moran, a 50-year-old I.T. product manager, stood at the altar waiting for her, teary-eyed. They had been in a relationship for 10 years, after reconnecting on Facebook 23 years after they first met as teenagers at an ice-skating rink in Yorkshire, England, where they now live.

“If we got married back home, we probably would have spent 10 times as much money, and you spend the rest of the time pleasing the guests,” Mr. Moran said. “We wanted it to be for us.”

After the wedding, the couple headed back to their room at New York-New York Hotel and Casino to drop off their marriage certificate. They then went to the Skyfall Lounge in their wedding clothes.

“Part of me wants to get this off because I’m not somebody to be looked at,” Mr. Moran said, pointing at his suit. But Ms. Hudson was excited to wander around the Strip in her Converse sneakers and wedding dress.

“We’re not really party people,” he said.

She added, with a whisper: “But tonight, we’re going to party.”

On a Friday afternoon in September, Ron DeCar, dressed as Elvis, burst through the doors of Viva Las Vegas Weddings, a chapel on Las Vegas Boulevard, in a pink Cadillac, shrouded by a billow of smoke, singing “That’s All Right.” A couple sat in the back seats, holding hands and smiling.

Mr. DeCar has been an entertainer in Las Vegas since 1981. When he started doing Elvis weddings in the mid-’90s, he said he knew only one other Elvis impersonator who officiated weddings.

Mr. DeCar estimated he does about 150 to 200 Elvis weddings a month. “He’s part of the Las Vegas identity,” Mr. DeCar said.

Brian Mills, the president of Las Vegas Wedding Chamber of Commerce and the lead minister at Little Church of the West, said that about 15 percent of the 2,500 weddings he officiates each year are Elvis weddings. He said he has worn his hair slicked back, like Elvis, every day since 2006.

When asked if he ever gets sick of Elvis weddings, he said, “Absolutely not. My voice and my hair bought me my house.”

On a Friday night in September, Mr. Mills was exhausted after a long day. He had started at 10 a.m. and was officiating his 16th wedding that day. He had one of his Elvis costumes on, which included a glittering gold jacket.

Cristina Chitel, who renewed her vows with David Chitel in front of their two sons, walked out of the chapel after the ceremony. Before stepping into her limo, she turned to Mr. Mills and said, “Thank you so much, Elvis. What’s your real name, Elvis?”

“Brian,” he said, and they shook hands.

“We don’t always have the time for the best customer service, but when we do, it’s great,” he later said in an interview with The New York Times.

The following morning, he packed a duffel bag with his speaker and officiated a vows renewal in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. Onlookers, who were standing in a long line to take their pictures in front of the sign, recorded the scene: an Elvis impersonator singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in front of a slow-dancing couple.

Among those waiting was another couple who renewed their vows earlier that day at Graceland Wedding Chapel for their 23rd anniversary, with an Elvis officiant. Lynn Haygood, a 60-year-old interior designer, and David Haygood, a 58-year-old computer networker, met 25 years ago in Raleigh, N.C., when he bought a couch from her furniture store. “When you come to Vegas, it’s the thing to do — to have a wedding done by Elvis,” he said. “We’re big fans,” she added.

They saw U2 perform at the Sphere that night. Mr. Haygood had also gone the night before for U2’s opening-night performance. “I get to go places because Bono goes places,” Ms. Haygood said with a laugh, as her veil blew in the wind.

While the quick, cheap and intimate chapel wedding is still flourishing in Las Vegas, there are many more options available to couples, including nontraditional venues, elegant venues and sports-themed weddings.

The Neon Museum, which tells the history of Las Vegas through old building signage, hosts 200 weddings a year.

Pamela Jarrin, a 37-year-old blogger, and Stan Cichy, a 43-year-old construction company owner, married at the museum in front of a sign that reads, “Lady Luck.” The sign had advertised a hotel that closed down in 2006, and at the center there is a big red heart. Forty guests traveled from Ecuador, where Ms. Jarrin’s family is from, and Milford, Conn., where the couple live.

Ms. Jarrin said that while searching for venues in Las Vegas, they mostly saw chapels and casinos. “We knew that was not us,” she said.

“I feel like I’m the edgy one. I wanted to make it different,” she said, pointing at the pink streaks in her hair and her platforms and socks.

Part of the reason they came to Vegas to get married is because of Mr. Cichy’s love of gambling. But they also wanted their family to make a kid-free vacation out of the wedding.

Not all Las Vegas weddings are quirky and kitschy. Kathryn Scrivener, a 27-year-old firefighter, and KaLeigh Horelica, a 30-year-old photographer, wanted a “classy wedding,” Ms. Horelica said. They wanted “Vegas glam.”

The couple wed at the Bellagio in front of 100 guests on a Saturday evening in September. The ceremony was held at a courtyard, tucked away from the hotel’s grand casino, adorned with pink, red and white floral arrangements. A string quartet played “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran.

The couple, who are from Abilene, Texas, said they had a difficult time finding a wedding venue in Texas that was welcoming to L.G.B.T. couples. But when talking to vendors in Las Vegas, that wasn’t an issue. They also wanted to have a destination wedding, and Las Vegas was the most accessible and affordable option for their guests.

They went to various different shows throughout the wedding weekend with their guests, including “O” by Cirque du Soleil. “The energy of Vegas has really set the tone for our events,” Ms. Horelica said. “The lights, the energy of the Strip and the colors,” Ms. Scrivener added.

Since Las Vegas snatched the Raiders football team from Oakland, Calif., four years ago, the city has been positioning itself to become a sports hub. It’s an update that involves sports stadiums, Super Bowl LVIII and Formula 1. Weddings are part of the plan, too.

Tori Lindsay, a 28-year-old customer experience manager, and Nick Brendel, a 27-year-old shipment manager, got married at a pit stop during a NASCAR race; they chose the pit stop of one of their favorite drivers, Kevin Harvick. The couple, from St. Louis, found out about the opportunity, hosted by Busch Light, on Facebook. They wore fire suits — hers had a skirt attachment — and got married in nine seconds. Their parents and his brother cheered them on in the stands.

“We’re just very low maintenance,” Ms. Lindsay said. “I hate to say ‘low maintenance,’ but we just like being together and being with our family. It just checked all the boxes for us.” They played some blackjack, saw a hockey game, walked up and down the Strip and soaked in the action, as newlyweds.

“I love that city,” Mr. Brendel said. “It’s like an adult theme park dropped in the middle of the desert.”

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