Bellagio, born in 1998, reset the bar for Las Vegas Strip

On a chilly fall evening 20 years ago, thousands of curious tourists and locals ringed an eight-acre lake to get their first look at what would become a signature attraction of the Bellagio: the dancing fountains.

After Bellagio opened, Las Vegas Boulevard was continually shut down during fountain shows because crowds overflowed onto the street.

“It was something that was completely new, and no one had ever seen anything like it before,” said Paul Berry, Bellagio’s first on-property executive.

The fountain project was undertaken by Los Angeles-based WET Design and its president and CEO, Mark Fuller, said Bellagio’s designer, Steve Wynn, wanted it to be unique.

“He gave us a big challenge, and we put our hearts and souls into it,” Fuller said. “He said, ‘I want the people when they experience this fountain to be removed emotionally from Las Vegas. I want them to be swept away. That’s why it’s important that this embrace music in ways that fountains have never done before.’”

The fountains are just one of several renowned features that have helped the Bellagio — named for an Italian village on Lake Como — set the standard for Strip resorts. There’s also its conservatory, its celebrity chef-designed restaurants, Cirque du Soleil’s aquatic show “O,” an art gallery that has housed Picassos, Monets and Warhols, and a poker room with a $20,000 buy-in.

Monday marks 20 years since opening night. New, glitzier resorts have opened on the Strip since the Bellagio debuted, but none can match its cachet as a Las Vegas icon.

“It’s a nice property right in the center of the Strip, and those fountains don’t just sell the property, they sell the whole Strip,” said Brent Pirosch, the Las Vegas-based director of gaming consulting for CBRE’s Global Gaming Group.

“Are there newer properties? Yeah, but they’re not in the dead center of the Strip with world-recognized fountains.”

The hotel was conceived and built by Steve Wynn and later bought by MGM Resorts International. Wynn’s vision resulted in some iconic landmarks and helped to create Las Vegas as a destination — most notably the famed fountains, which routinely rank high on lists of “Most Photographed Places in the U.S.”

“The Bellagio created that iconic part of Las Vegas, which is the fountain,” said David Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV.

Opening night

Most Las Vegans didn’t know what to expect from the $1.6 billion property, the most expensive hotel ever built at the time. Wynn was famously secretive about his projects, inviting only a few analysts and close associates inside during construction.

He offered a few tantalizing details about the interior after one of the most elaborate Las Vegas building implosions in history. Wynn staged a coordinated show in which a cannonball volley from Treasure Island resulted in the destruction of the Dunes. The implosion of the Dunes was filmed for a 1994 made-for-TV movie, “Treasure Island: The Adventure Begins,” executive produced by Wynn.

Berry remembered walking around the property the night before the opening.

“The lights and the whistles and bells were going off in tests, but there were no customers,” he said. “That was the last time it would ever be like that.”

Former Gov. Bob Miller, who became a member of the Wynn Resorts board of directors after leaving office, said at the time that

“nothing could have prepared” him for the grandeur of the resort’s opening night.

Even today, the resort continues to outpace expectations. Annual reports from MGM show the property has historically outperformed all of the company’s other properties. In 2017, Bellagio had almost 1½ times the operating income that the next-best performing property, MGM Grand, recorded. And, in the first six months of this year, Bellagio had the highest operating income among all MGM properties globally.

Randy Morton, president and chief operating officer of the Bellagio, said he believes much of the resort’s success can be attributed to it being built at a time when dependence on the casino as the main profit center was lessening and nongaming amenities were becoming the focus. That resulted in a greater emphasis on the room product, the retail, the “O” show, the restaurants and the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art.

Schwartz said the strategy has paid off, as nongaming revenues have increased over time, while revenue from gaming alone has decreased.

“This is a trend that started with the Mirage back in 1989, and really amplified with Bellagio,” he said.

Tourism

The Bellagio’s conservatory is another distinctive feature. About 20,000 people pass through it every day, except during the holiday season when the count rises to around 30,000. The show is changed out five times a year for the four seasons and Chinese New Year.

Every time the show is changed, a dedicated group of fans stays at the hotel so they can observe and experience the five-day change-out by the horticulture and conservatory teams.

Las Vegas resident Julie Posocco visited the conservatory Thursday and said she comes to the property for “every change.”

“It makes you feel like you’re somewhere else,” she said.

Her friend, Christine Weisner, of Kitchener, Ontario, is a crew member for WestJet who visits Las Vegas regularly. “Just walking in — the smell,” Weisner said. “You always see something different. Everybody knows about the fountains; not everybody knows about the gardens.”

“O,” Cirque du Soleil’s second Las Vegas show, was a fresh innovation when it arrived and it continues to win five-minute standing ovations at most performances, which are frequently sold out.

In 2004, Bellagio grew to 4,000 rooms with the addition of the Spa Tower. Unlike other hotel expansions, Bellagio didn’t add a new check-in desk with the expansion, preferring to keep a single location for arrivals and departures under the Dale Chihully canopy of glass flower petals in the lobby. Berry said that sculpture was modified three weeks into the initial opening because Wynn wanted more flower petals.

Another modification brought on by the arrival of the Spa Tower was the elimination of an elegant staircase that actress Julia Roberts descended in the remake of “Oceans 11,” released in 2001. It was removed to provide access to new rooms and suites.

Las Vegan Al Hernandez stood outside at the Bellagio fountains Thursday, waiting for an afternoon show. He’s a repeat visitor who returns when he has company. “I’ve got a lot of airline friends that come 17 times a year,” he said.

One of them, Mario Portales of New York, was on his first visit to Las Vegas and said he was curious about the fountains. “I wanted to see it. I wanted to experience Vegas.”

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recorded more than a 10 percent uptick in visitation in the first year the Bellagio was open, but it is unclear how much of that bump can be attributed to the opening of the Bellagio alone.

“Time and again, Las Vegas has recreated itself and in 1998 the Bellagio kicked off another era of reimagination,” said Jeremy Handel, an LVCVA spokesman. “While we don’t gather resort specific information, we do know that the hard work resorts and attractions do every day continues to pique the interests of our guests and is part of the widespread appeal Las Vegas has for first-time visitors and frequent visitors alike.”

Features replicated

The Bellagio delivered the luxury experience so well that competitors soon followed suit.

“Just as had happened with The Mirage nine years earlier, it really prompted a lot of other properties to become more luxurious,” Schwartz said.

Some of Bellagio’s key features also were replicated elsewhere.

The art gallery was a point of pride for Wynn, who placed artwork in his other resorts, and inspired MGM to place public art in some of its other properties.

MGM now is taking the Bellagio overseas, opening the nongaming Bellagio Shanghai in China earlier this year and planning to open a Bellagio-branded property in Dubai in 2021.

Wynn Macau and Wynn Palace resorts in Macau have lakes with fountain shows. The Wynn Macau added color to the light system and fireballs similar to those featured in the volcano at The Mirage.

Wynn also developed a production show, “Le Reve,” at Wynn Las Vegas, with characteristics similar to those of “O.”

“Wynn (Las Vegas), and Encore (Las Vegas), and even the Venetian and Palazzo and Aria — they’ve all used the strength of the Bellagio model when they’ve developed their own properties,” Pirosch said.

Employee loyalty

When MGM Resorts International celebrates the 20th anniversary of the opening of Bellagio Monday, it will have a special salute to the employees who have been there since the first day — all 2,000 of them.

“To have that many members stay for 20 years is a remarkable feat for our industry and speaks volumes not only about the experience we’ve created for our guests , but also the family we’ve become,” said Morton.

For 24 hours, incorporating every shift, the 8,000 workers at Bellagio will enjoy special menu items (and cake) in Mangia, the company dining hall.

During the celebration, photos from the construction of the resort and original photos of the Day One employees will be displayed. A chocolate- and vanilla-flavored cake created by Bellagio’s pastry team will feature five ivory-colored tiers with the words “Celebrate Bellagio” artfully inscribed on the second and third tier with a “20” on the top tier. A golden frame with a picture of Bellagio will sit at the base of the cake.

The menu will feature employee favorites, including “Jim’s Plate,” a dining alternative MGM offers that includes chicken, fish and a variety of healthy food options.

To Morton, the Bellagio as a building is fine, but he believes it’s the staff that differentiates Bellagio from the other properties in Southern Nevada.

Morton said Mangia is his favorite place in the building, and he never tires of watching the fountain show, especially the part choreographed to the Frank Sinatra standard “Fly Me to the Moon.”

“While our building is most certainly beautiful,” he said, “what really makes Bellagio so special is the incredible dedication, commitment to guest service and attention to detail from each one of our employees.”

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian and Palazzo.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Heidi Knapp Rinella contributed to this story.

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