The Past Is Still With Us

Monte Carlo’s transition to Park MGM speaks to new Las Vegas identity

We all have things in our past that we’re not proud of. It might be a playlist that captures immature musical tastes, or a bad haircut. This isn’t confined to individuals: Groups of people feel it as well. The Las Vegas resort industry has always been at least a little ashamed of its recent past and more proud of its more distant past—often, an imagined one.

That thought occurred to me while I’ve been watching the transformation of Monte Carlo into Park MGM.

A rendering of the Park Theater | Courtesy of MGM Resorts International.

There’s always been the perception in Las Vegas that the old days weren’t good, but the older days were great. Of course, here, the past is all relative. When I arrived in town to stay in 2001, an old-timer was someone who had moved here before the Great Mirage Boom of the 1990s. Now, it might be someone who put down roots before the recession.

The 1990s were a true watershed for Las Vegas. Its population soared, old casinos were imploded and new, bigger ones popped up to replace them. The basic contours of the metropolitan area we now inhabit were filled out by the end of that decade. To the extent that we can be proud of our history, the 1990s should be a high point, as leaders met the challenges of growth head-on and the rest of us enjoyed unparalleled opportunities. If you’re feeling nostalgic or weren’t here for the magic, you owe it to yourself to read Hal Rothman’s Neon Metropolis. Published in 2002, it is the most complete statement of 1990s Las Vegas that has been written yet.

Monte Carlo was one of the products of those heady years. Originally a joint venture between Mirage Resorts (who had the land) and Circus Circus Enterprises (who had the time to manage it), it was never one of the flashier Las Vegas resorts; it never found its way to the magazine covers that The Mirage, Luxor, Venetian, Paris and Bellagio captured. It was a themed casino without talking camels or swashbuckling pirates, which, at its opening in 1996, made it something of an oddity. Keep in mind, this was when New York–New York, still under construction, marked the outer limit of a themed property.

Monte Carlo’s theme, like the second MGM Grand’s, was hard to put into words, although it was definitely there. Perhaps it is best described as understated European elegance for the budget vacationer. And, in its own way, Monte Carlo delivered, giving visitors Vegas value.

It’s worth noting that the 1990s resorts like Monte Carlo replaced a previous generation whose aesthetic might be described as goodfella-chic. And those places were built over the bones of cowboy craps emporiums. The cowboy, however, always kept a soft spot in Vegas’ heart, even though Las Vegas was never a cowtown (railroaders and prospectors, that’s another story). And now that its prevalence is far enough in the past, the Mob is looked upon affectionately. With no more threat of the Feds swooping down to close casinos with Mob ties, the city feels free to acknowledge its debt to connected guys and made men.

Bavette’s in Park MGM | Photo by Cierra Pedro

But now it’s the 1990s that are being donated to the thrift store. This is hardly a new trend: You might say the 1990s in Vegas ended when Treasure Island became TI (2003), with themed elements gradually replaced. The pirates last battled in front of that casino nearly five years ago (I know, it doesn’t seem that long, does it?).

It could be argued that Monte Carlo’s transformation into Park MGM is a necessary step to keep the property relevant to a new generation of visitors. Possibly. But other casinos, most famously Caesars Palace, have found a way to change with the times without changing their core identities. That’s not saying they’ve remained locked in the past—Caesars Palace in 2018 is almost unrecognizable from the same casino in 1998, let alone when Jay Sarno opened it in 1966—but they’ve found a way to make themselves and, if necessary, their themes approachable for today’s crowds.

Could that be done with Monte Carlo? Perhaps, by making it the Monte Carlo not of old money and older pretensions but a hot spot on the Mediterranean. Less dress code, more Grand Prix and oligarchs.

At a deeper level, it may not be deficiencies of the property itself that drove the decision to rename it, but instead a desire to move away from everything the property represented: the wonder and naïveté of the 1990s. Naturally, no one who booked a room at the Monte Carlo thought they’d be getting real European glamour, but the rooms were cheaper than next door, and the resort was fun. That was part of the Las Vegas appeal of the 1990s: not that the city genuinely imitated other places, but that it let people have fun while pretending to be whoever they wanted to be, wherever they wanted to be it.

Park MGM remodeled guest room | Photo by Cierra Pedro

That Las Vegas is gone. I won’t bore you with the usual hobby horses—6:5 blackjack and paid parking feel almost compulsory to denounce, so I’ll resist. But in growing, Las Vegas has gained much but also lost at least a bit. The adolescent, aspirational city of the 1990s that was trying so hard to make an impression that it more than once went over the top, has been replaced by a mature city, one with an NHL franchise in first place and an NFL one on the way, with a law school, medical school and growing economic diversification.

The retheming of Monte Carlo doesn’t have the same visceral impact as the implosion of the Sands when it comes to ending an era, but it is nonetheless a significant marker of Las Vegas’ evolution. The 1990s were in many ways a transitional period that saw the city move into the American mainstream. Now comfortably there for a generation, it is remaking itself.

In other words, our now “grown-up” city doesn’t want to be reminded of the years before it “made it,” any more than the atomic city of the 1950s cared about railroads—or you want to be reminded of your high school fashion taste.