The MGM Grand's corporate symbol won't be stalking the premises in the flesh after Jan. 31, when the hotel plans to close the lion habitat it opened in 1999 for $9 million.
A free attraction can't compete with a revenue-producing replacement still to be announced for the space. The daily display of lions behind soundproof glass is "a free show and that's what killed it," lion keeper Keith Evans said. "I don't blame them. It's a lot of money for a casino to cover."
A large crowd watched two lions sleep on Wednesday, with kids pressing their hands and faces to the glass enclosure and adults snapping photos.
The attraction is obviously popular, but it's good that it's closing, said Georgia native Kelly Hull. She and her friend Shanna Brundage took a cab from The Venetian specifically to see the lions, but they weren't thrilled with the habitat.
"It's a cool attraction, but it's kind of sad," Hull said. "It did bring us over here, but they're exploiting these poor lions. And it doesn't look like there's a lot of space in there for them to run around, like they would in the wild."
The lion is associated with MGM, but live cats aren't needed when the hotel has the bronze lion statues, Brundage said.
"I actually stayed here once before and didn't even know they had real lions," Brundage said. "I don't think it makes a difference whether they have lions or not. People are still going to come."
The closing of the lion exhibit is part of a comprehensive MGM renovation, which includes the closing of the nearby Studio 54 nightclub on Feb. 4. The club space is said to be expanding into a much larger nightclub/dayclub operation, creating the possibility of incorporating the lion habitat's 6,000 square feet, plus about 3,000 square feet of connected retail space also set to close.
Evans has helmed the attraction from the outset, transporting lions back and forth from his 7.5-acre ranch southeast of the M Resort. He plans to make his land a public attraction called The Cat House.
"It will no longer be a free show, but you'll get to see more of them, and all at once," Evans said of his 40 exotic animals. "Everybody loves to see the lions. I just hope they'll still love to see the lions out here."
Evans said he has completed the zoning and permitting that will enable him to host private parties and tour groups. "I'm all ready to go. I've just been waiting for the hotel to make the announcement. I didn't want to go ahead of them."
The exhibit also might be open to the walk-up public, but Evans said he is still trying to work out logistics such as staffing. "I've never done this concept outside of a casino."
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