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Elaine Wynn: Mirage was ‘a wonderful experiment’

Updated December 28, 2022 - 3:54 pm

Today, developing a volcano on the Strip seems a relatively commonplace concept.

But in 1989 it was “crazy.”

That’s how Elaine Wynn remembers The Mirage’s original, signature attraction.

“The volcano was the beginning of a streak of crazy ideas that always came true,” Wynn said during a phone chat last week as she remembered opening the hotel alongside her then-husband, Steve Wynn, in November 1989. “These ideas were compelling, and part of a pattern we established with all of our properties.”

The volcano was needed to fill a more widespread design need at the groundbreaking hotel. The Mirage era effectively ended Dec. 19 when MGM Resorts International announced it closed the sale of the resort’s operations to Hard Rock International, which is owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Plans for the rebranding of Hard Rock Las Vegas are to be announced in the third quarter of next year. That includes the future of the volcano, which Hard Rock Las Vegas President Joe Lupo has said he expects will run through 2023.

A volcanic history

The hotel changeover reminds of The Mirage’s trailblazing history, beginning with the volcano.

“I remember, initially, when Steve was designing it, he wanted to have The Mirage kind of front-up, right onto the Strip,” Wynn said. “And I said, ‘If you bring it close to the Strip, people aren’t going to appreciate the towers. Consider setting it back so that as people walk by and drive by, they’ll have a point of view that gives them an appreciation of the whole building.’ We agreed that would be a good idea.”

But that design created a vast expanse between the hotel’s main entrance and the Strip.

“We wondered, what is going to be the thing that separates the sidewalk from the porte cochere?” Wynn said. “It was purely Steve’s vision, the volcano. He said, ‘Let’s do a volcano that sets off fire in the sky!’”

Setting the tone

Elaine Wynn would remain involved in major decisions throughout Steve Wynn’s evolution of Strip resorts, including Wynn/Encore. Steve Wynn created that twin resort after buying and demolishing the classic Desert Inn (Steve Wynn had originally purchased the D.I. in 2000, as a birthday present to Elaine).

Today, Elaine Wynn is Wynn Resorts’ largest shareholder with an 8.9 percent stake. She notes that momentum of the Wynn brand on the Strip started at The Mirage.

“The Mirage was a wonderful experiment that set the tone for how we did projects, and how we moved on from there,” Wynn said, recalling an early and animated discussion about where to build the guest-room elevators in relation to the casino.

“I remember in the beginning, saying, ‘My gosh, what a bloody long walk from the registration desk in the front, to go through the the whole casino to get to the elevator,’” Wynn said. “That was also kind of a new thing in Las Vegas, that long walk through the casino. But Steve was very insistent that people see the casino before they disappeared into their rooms.”

This led to a lengthy back-and-forth of whether it was a good idea to send guests on the long trudge across the casino to their rooms.

“I remember that was a lively conversation, and he won that conversation, because he wanted an open casino, that when you looked across it, you could see it without any columns,” Wynn said. “And so, if you’ll notice a lot of our properties did not have columns in the middle of the casino, which was another design element that I thought was very clever. It deserved to be copied, and it was.”

Rolling with the tank

Another unique Mirage feature was the 20,000-gallon, 50-foot-long aquarium of exotic fish looming behind the front desk (yours truly once joked to a friend visiting that you could order one of those fish to be prepared and delivered by room service). Even the check-in process was an entertainment experience at The Mirage.

“We always thought when people checked into these places, and they had to wait in line, how tough it would be for them to be patient to have to just stand there,” Wynn said. “But when we put in the fish tank, it was like they were mesmerized. They did not mind standing there and waiting because they were so busy observing all the beautiful tropical fish.”

Similar to the volcano, the aquarium was a classic loss-leader at the hotel. The strategy can still work because that aquarium became a famous customer amenity that did not require a ticket or cover charge.

“It was expensive, you know,” Wynn said. “We had real-life people that had to service that thing every day. So that was a pretty bold experiment, too.”

Wynn evokes the glass-topped, tree-lined interior atrium as yet another innovation specific to The Mirage.

“We did major, scientific light studies, to make sure that once we had the trees in there they would grow and prosper,” Wynn said. “Once you put them in there, it was hard to get them out.”

The baccarat phenomenon erupted inside The Mirage, where an elevated high-limit section was created for the hotel’s VIP players. Both Wynns were stunned at the business baccarat players brought to the hotel.

“You walked up to an area that was specifically a high-limit area, and on New Year’s Eve we had so much high-limit baccarat play that we had to convert the blackjack tables that were on the lower level to baccarat tables,” Wynn recalled. “We had that kind of business. We were looking at the limits, and they were just off the charts. He and I never imagined that it would be so extraordinarily successful with our high-end clientele.”

Much of The Mirage’s impact is felt in the Strip’s entertainment culture. Siegfried & Roy set sales records at the hotel. Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat remained open for more than 20 years after the duo’s stage show was canceled. The Beatles-Cirque show “Love” is still the only authorized, ticketed Beatles show in the world.

But the habitat has been closed since the death in September of the bottlenose dolphin K2. “Love” is committed to performing through 2023, but its future thereafter is uncertain.

What is certain is the hotel represents a tri-tower of ingenuity in Las Vegas history. As the woman who was there at the start says, “It was like we were, for the first time, creating the coloring book for a megaresort. … A tremendous amount of brainy activity went into the conceptualization of The Mirage.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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