In the fall of 1993, the wrapping came off three new resorts that promised to change the way people visited Las Vegas. The opening of The Mirage four years earlier is rightfully credited for kicking off the megaresort era on the Strip, and Excalibur, which opened in 1990, proved that the family-friendly, mass-market model worked just as well for new hotels as for older ones. But the 1993 openings of Luxor (October 15), Treasure Island (October 27) and MGM Grand (December 18) seemed to define a new direction for the Strip: families, and lots of them.
It was a big gamble, $1.9 billion invested on more than 10,000 hotel rooms and new attractions that were either going to open up Las Vegas to a new market or be the most expensive failures in the city’s history. And at first, it seemed to pay off. In 1994, Las Vegas visitation increased from 23.5 million to 28.2 million. That doesn’t seem so incredible now that we’re flirting with the 40 million mark, but at the time it was a nearly 20 percent jump—the biggest increase ever, both proportionally and in absolute numbers. Even the four horsemen of 1998-99—Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Paris and Venetian—only moved the needle by 10 percent.
That would make the opening of these three resorts the most successful debut in Las Vegas history. Bigger than 1999, bigger than The Mirage, even bigger than Caesars Palace.
Yet today, the great experiment of 1993 is deemed an evolutionary dead end. Like the Neanderthals, all the things that made the fall of 1993 so exciting—movie-themed casinos, Egyptological exhibitions, buccaneer’s booty—are dead and forgotten, with smarter, more adaptable successors happily living over their bones.
However, just like the Neanderthals didn’t completely die out (many scientists now believe they passed along some of their genes to modern humans), the spirit of 1993 still survives in Las Vegas, even if it’s not front-page news. We might think that we’re a long way from Kansas (or the Nile), but we are closer to the spirit of ’93 than we think.
The defining moment of 1993 came a few weeks late.
On January 10, 1994, Time ran a cover story on “Las Vegas: The New All-American City” that codified many of the tropes of mid-1990s Las Vegas. The city, author Kurt Andersen argued, was becoming more mainstream, but America itself was becoming more like Las Vegas.
The cover image spoke volumes: not Frank onstage in the Circus Maximus, not an oil-wealthy sheik at a baccarat table, not even average Americans testing their luck at the slots, but the Great Sphinx of the Boulevard sitting in front of Luxor’s black pyramid, the casino’s light beam shooting skyward. It opened the door to a Las Vegas where everything is supersized, where we take the illusions we create seriously. The Sahara, Dunes and Aladdin made half-jesting nods to their ostensible North African/Middle Eastern themes—a wooden camel here, a papier-mâché sultan there, a neon genie lamp—but Luxor was deadly earnest: Architect Veldon Simpson designed the building to look like the tomb of a pharaoh (if pharaohs had been building with glass-curtain walls instead of masonry). The Sahara had the Caravan Café to drive home its theme; Luxor boasted an “authentic reproduction” of King Tut’s Tomb, as it looked when first discovered by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, packed with more than 500 guardian statues, vases and other bits of 18th Dynasty décor.
This wasn’t just a casino—it was an educational and entertainment destination with virtual reality simulators, a prototype Sega USA “VirtuaLand” arcade, strolling entertainers in costume, and even animatronic camels.
Most of the theme-park elements were swept out in the 1998 renovation that added 2,000 hotel rooms in the adjoining stepped-glass towers, but reminders of Luxor’s original mission stuck around until well into the next decade; the animatronic camels continued to greet visitors until the 2007-08 MGM-led renovations reimagined the resort as a sleek, contemporary pyramid.
But there are still traces of the original Luxor. The most obvious is the property’s front lobby, where the seated pharaohs still gaze impassively at those admiring the posters for Criss Angel Believe. Most of the opening restaurants, from the Nile Deli to the Sacred Sea Room, are gone, but the Pyramid Café soldiers on (even if it’s no longer 24-hour), its hieroglyphic lintels still intact.
The merging of education and entertainment that was so much a part of the original concept, however, is even more present in Las Vegas. Luxor itself has three exhibitions (Bodies, Titanic, and Score!), and Downtown’s Mob Museum has emerged as a place where Las Vegas tourists really do spend hours immersed in history.
This wasn’t just another Steve Wynn hotel. Treasure Island at The Mirage, rather, was “The Adventure Resort,” according to a pre-opening pamphlet. “Richly elaborate and wildly imaginative,” the opening lines crowed. “A haven for every pirate.”
Treasure Island, at its opening, was more than a budget alternative to the upscale Mirage; it was the epitome of the themed resort. Pirate’s booty littered the lobby, with the casino intended to evoke an 18th-century pirate village, complete with skull and crossbones souvenirs.
“We want guests to feel as if they are standing alongside Long John Silver and young Jim Hawkins,” Steve Wynn said. The pirate battle on Buccaneer Bay was the lure, but a host of attractions for everyone—including the Mutiny Bay Entertainment Center, an 18,000-square-foot arcade, and the Candy Reef, a candy store—was intended to give middle-class visitors of all ages a home on the Strip.
But within the Wynn empire, Treasure Island was soon seen as a misstep. In a 2011 Vegas Gang Podcast interview, Wynn designer Roger Thomas spoke of the quick “de-bootyfication” of the resort, a process accelerated after MGM Resorts decided in 2003 to replace the iconic skull and crossbones marquee with a less piratical “TI” logo. Even the pirate battle got a “what happens here”-era upgrade, morphing into the supposedly sexy “Sirens of TI,” which itself was unceremoniously sent to Davy Jones’ Locker last week.
Beyond those mostly cosmetic changes, some felt that the entire premise of Treasure Island was flawed. Wynn had sought to build a profitable property for people who would pay $40 a night for a room. At the time, it seemed like a good idea, but Wynn’s next Strip resort—Bellagio—showed the direction that Las Vegas was headed: upscale. As Strip land prices climbed in the next decade, it seemed certain that no one would ever try to make money on the value-seeking tourist again.
The recession, of course, changed all that. The latest round of remodels, epitomized by the Tropicana, is trying to target exactly those customers that Wynn wanted in 1993. Even SLS Las Vegas, on the site of the former Sahara, is touting itself as an “affordable” luxury brand. What’s more, the project many are looking to as a savior for Las Vegas, Genting’s Resorts World, will accommodate both Asian high-rollers and the growing Chinese middle-class trade: Its water park and other amenities will provide plenty for the entire family.
Another Treasure Island legacy? That obscure Montreal-based performance troupe that Wynn took a gamble on. Cirque du Soleil’s Mystére was anything but a sure bet when it launched, but 20 years later it is still going strong. And the more-than-half-dozen Cirque and Cirque-like shows currently running prove that not everything about the original Treasure Island walked the plank.
The New Las Vegas was supposed to be a giant theme park with attractions for everyone. MGM Grand was the prime example of that approach—particularly the giant part. Steve Wynn might be looking to deliver a unique resort experience at a higher price point, but Kirk Kerkorian’s new casino would dominate through sheer economies of scale. This was the biggest—and that made it the best, right?
“It combines more facilities and recreational opportunities than any other single resort in the world,” the Grand’s brochure boasted. “The largest hotel and the largest casino ever constructed.”
This was the third time Kerkorian could claim this. With the International (1969), he broke the 1,500-room barrier. The original MGM Grand (opened in 1973, now Bally’s) opened with more than 2,000 rooms. Both resorts had since been expanded to about 3,000 rooms, raising the bar. So with 5,005 rooms, 158,000 square feet of convention space, two showrooms, a 16,000-seat arena and three themed casinos spread out over 170,000 square feet, the MGM Grand would have something for everyone.
Unlike The Mirage or Excalibur, which evoked far-off places and times, MGM Grand would be taking its theme from something very close to Las Vegas: Hollywood.
Kerkorian had an on-again/off-again relationship with MGM Studios; he bought and sold the film company three times. The Grand drew on one of MGM’s most popular films, The Wizard of Oz, in a way that seems incredible now. The entire building was (and still is) Emerald City green, and the interior contained a seven-story replica of the magical city of Oz, complete with robotic movie-inspired characters and a special-effects magic show called The Wizard’s Secret. A newly laid Yellow Brick Road led to MGM Grand Adventures, a 33-acre theme park decked out in Hollywood back-lot style with rides, shops, shows and restaurants that MGM brass believed would draw 20,000 visitors a day.
Here was a theme intended to remind guests of the glamour days of Hollywood and a resort that could accommodate everyone from families traveling with young children to corporate executives throwing exclusive private parties, all at the same time.
Yet the theme park and the old Hollywood glamour never provided the spark that the casino’s executives hoped for, and in mid-1995, both MGM Grand Inc. president Bob Maxey and property president Larry Woolf left, replaced by Alex Yemenidjian and Dan Wade, respectively. The new team began a thorough re-think of the property as “The City of Entertainment.” Oz was out, with the Emerald City being replaced by casino space; today it houses the Centrifuge bar. The convention center was bulked up to a massive 380,000 square feet, with the Studio 54 nightclub swapping Hollywood glamour for Me-Decade Manhattan decadence. Plans for a 1,500-room Marriott Marquis and 500-room Ritz-Carlton didn’t come to fruition, but much of the renovation was finished by 1998. The portraits of movie stars that once lined casino walls lasted longer, but they are gone now. Outside of the Dorothy impersonator from Swingers, few visitors today would realize the sway that Oz once held over the corner of Tropicana and the Boulevard.
There were more changes to come: MGM Grand Adventures closed in 2000. In a fitting symbol of the Strip’s evolution, much of its land was used to build Signature, the three condo towers that were supposed to augur the next phase of development—high-rise residences a stone’s throw from the action—but have instead become mostly adjuncts to the resort’s room inventory.
But the idea behind Grand Adventures—that Las Vegas needs attractions outside of the traditional slots/steakhouse/theater mold—is guiding much of the city’s development today. It’s easy to point to the continuing success of Adventuredome at Circus Circus (which opened as Grand Slam Canyon in the summer of 1993) as proof. Places like the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay and Madame Tussauds at the Venetian—part of the next wave of casino openings and still thriving—show that family-style attractions can still work—even for visitors who leave the family back home. And while Caesars Entertainment has dubbed its Linq observation wheel the High Roller—a very grown-up name—it’s really another bet on the kid in all of us.
And it’s not just in the traditional tourist corridor. The Smith Center, the Springs Preserve and the Discovery Children’s Museum would have been unthinkable as tourist attractions in 1993; yet now, though they primarily serve locals, it’s not uncommon to see visitors at all three locations.
What’s more, Hollywood glamour isn’t really gone. In fact, as Last Vegas proves, the Strip has gone beyond celebrating films of the past to starring in the movies of the present. So the MGM Grand’s trip to Oz was ahead of its time, not a step in the wrong direction.
So in many ways, while we laugh at having been so naïve as to think that King Tut, Long John Silver and the Scarecrow were going to replace Frank, Dean and Sammy, we shouldn’t laugh quite so hard, since in many ways we are living in the future that 1993 predicted for us.