Creating thrills and stirring memories, a quarter at a time, at the Pinball Hall of Fame
Travel Weekly By Paul Szydelko | May 16, 2021
The massive room on the Las Vegas Strip is filled with guests playing hundreds of coin-operated machines. But instead of gambling on slot machines, they’re playing pinball machines. Instead of hitting jackpots, they’re collecting thrills a quarter at a time.
The Pinball Hall of Fame, a presence in Las Vegas for decades, moved into its most prominent location yet last month: a new 27,000-square-foot building not far from the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.
The machines, many restored gems from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, light up after players insert a quarter and pull the spring-loaded plunger to propel the ball into action. There are more than 400 of them to choose from.
“It’s mainly a nostalgia ride. a way [for older visitors] to relive their youth,” owner Tim Arnold said. “If you grew up like I did, you listened to records, you went to the movies and you played pinball. Now that you’re old and gray, you can listen to any record you listened to as a kid on your cellphone, and the same thing with movies. But to do pinball, you have to be in a physical location. It can’t be digitized.”
This is actually the fourth iteration of the Pinball Hall of Fame for Arnold, a retired arcade operator who moved machines he collected through the years from Michigan to Las Vegas in the early 1990s. He started inviting people to play them in his backyard and has moved the collection to increasingly larger facilities.
Arnold and his volunteers draw satisfaction seeing guests walk down a row of pinball machines that prompt “nostalgia lockup,” when they revisit fond memories of their youth.
“They walk past a machine that they’ve completely forgotten about,” Arnold said. “They see it again, and all these memories come flooding back. And they just lock up. They’ll sit there and point at the machine [and say], ‘So. This. Is. The machine I was playing the first time I. I kissed a girl,'” Arnold said, mimicking the halting speech of guests overcome with happy sentimentality.
“We see that every day,” he said “We laugh about it. But this shows our product is something that people want. And that’s something that people honestly enjoy.”
About 65% of those who came to the Pinball Hall at its most recent off-Strip site were tourists, Arnold says. With the more convenient location on the south Strip, he expects that number to rise to 75%. He draws a sharp contrast between playing slot machines and pinball machines.
“You don’t really see people jumping up and down and having fun and screaming and having a flashback [in casinos], “Arnold said. “What you see are miserable mooks sitting on chairs pushing buttons. In here, it’s completely the opposite. You see people just enthralled by what they’re doing.”
Only about 250 machines filled the previous 8,600-square-foot site on Tropicana Avenue that the Pinball Hall of Fame occupied since 2009. The new space can accommodate as many as 1,000 machines and other arcade favorites.
The Pinball Hall of Fame contains machines from every decade since the 1930s. Half of the games cost a quarter; the other half cost 50 cents, 75 cents or a dollar to play. The older games are generally cheaper; newer games are generally more expensive.
The quarters build up. Arnold’s nonprofit organization, the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, has donated $1 million to local charities. He likes to buy one of every new pinball machine that comes out today to not only stay current with what people want but also to support pinball factories.
Arnold said he was outgrowing the previous location when he learned about a unique opportunity to acquire land on the Strip in 2018. He was quick with the flipper.
“About 75% of the Strip is owned by two casino companies, and it’s very rare that a bite-size piece like what we need comes up for sale, and especially in an area like right next to the famous Las Vegas sign,” he said.
He turned out to be the only bidder in an auction for the 1.76-acre lot, paying about $4.5 million plus fees. The pandemic, however, was filled with bumpers, ramps and potential tilts, and the Pinball Hall of Fame lost about $500,000.
Arnold turned to online fundraising efforts to survive and get into the new $5 million building, which has giant red letters spelling “PINBALL” above its Strip-facing entrance.
“The new place is absolutely stunning,” Arnold said. “It’s got nice, high ceilings. It’s got a perfect floor — It’s the first time ever I’ve had a room with a level floor. It’s got four times the bathroom space [of the previous facility]. It’s got workshops. It’s got room for private parties and corporate events.”
The Pinball Hall of Fame, at 4925 Las Vegas Blvd. S., is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Parking and admission are free. Guests must wear masks.