|By Howard Stutz, Las Vegas
Review-JournalMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
November 22, 2009 --Twenty years ago, The Mirage was the CityCenter of its time.
Built by Steve Wynn's Golden Nugget Corp. for a then unheard of cost of $620 million, The Mirage was the first new resort added to the Strip's skyline in more than 15 years.
But with the city still recovering from the economic doldrums of the early 1980s, many financial experts didn't think The Mirage would succeed. About $565 million of the construction costs were financed with junk bonds. Analysts said The Mirage would need to make more than $1 million a day in revenues just to cover its costs.
Some wondered if The Mirage would really grow the market. Most expected it would just steal customers from neighboring hotel-casinos.
When you think back in time, the same questions being raised about the massive $8.5 billion CityCenter development, which opens next month, were being asked about The Mirage.
David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there were two opinions about The Mirage: It was either going to fail miserably or, if it was successful, it would put every other Strip casino out of business.
"The '80s were not an easy decade for Las Vegas," Schwartz said. "Casinos started going after a family friendly market; and Circus Circus (Enterprises) was the most profitable casino company on the Strip, because more people were betting $100 a trip rather than $100,000."
In 1986, Wynn announced plans to build a high-end luxury resort on a 110-acre land parcel he had put together next to Caesars Palace.
"At the time, there were serious doubts about Las Vegas' future, let alone seeing a casino make $1 million a day," Schwartz said.
Today, The Mirage turns 20. It may not seem like a major milestone, but consider The Mirage symbolizes the start of a 20-year building boom that changed the scope and face of the Strip.
When The Mirage opened on a sunny Wednesday at noon in 1989, the 30-story white hotel tower with gold accents and its tropical island theme was considered the town's most luxurious and glitziest resort.
In the next two decades, hotel-casinos such as Excalibur, MGM Grand, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor, The Venetian, Paris, Mandalay Bay, Bellagio, Wynn Las Vegas, Palazzo and Encore came along, many eclipsing The Mirage's hold on the luxury market.
Analysts and gaming experts believe the 20-year building frenzy will come to a close next month with the opening of CityCenter, the largest privately financed construction project ever built in the United States.
So where does that leave The Mirage?
Scott Sibella, who has spent more than four years as the hotel-casino's president, said The Mirage is in the middle of the pack on the Strip.
"It's hard for us to compete with the Bellagios and the Wynns," Sibella said. "But when it comes to the second-tier properties, we think we're at the top of that level."
MGM Mirage, the casino's owner, spent more than $100 million in the past few years to remodel The Mirage's casino floor, install new restaurants, add new lounges, and refurbish 2,700 of the property's 3,000 hotel rooms.
Last year, MGM Mirage spent $25 million to tear out and rebuild the hotel's 54-foot-tall volcano and add new music and additional pyrotechnics to the feature. When The Mirage first opened, the volcano eruptions stopped automobile traffic on the Strip as drivers watched the display.
"The volcano was the final piece of the puzzle," Sibella said. "We still have a lot of high-end customers, and we have a lot of middle-end customers. We changed the property to cater to all demographics. We have things for the younger crowd, but we make sure they don't interfere with those loyal customers who have always been fans of The Mirage."
The Mirage is opening a tattoo parlor next year adjacent to the Jet nightclub near the hotel's north entrance.
"To stay competitive, you need to make these type of changes," Sibella said. "The property still makes a lot of money compared to the properties that didn't reinvest in themselves and are now sitting off to the side."
When it opened in 1989, The Mirage was the first Strip resort that was thought of as more than just a hotel-casino.
Preopening media attention focused on The Mirage's non-Las Vegas traditional amenities, including a 100-foot-tall glass domed atrium housing tropical trees and plants and the man-made, fire-spewing volcano.
Wynn lured illusionists Siegfried and Roy to The Mirage with a multiyear, $50 million contract and a promise to build a 1,500-seat, $30 million showroom.
The resort had a glass-walled habitat near its south entrance for guests to view Siegfried and Roy's white tigers. A 20,000-gallon aquarium, containing sharks and 80 different species of tropical fish was located behind the front desk. Plans were also announced for a live dolphin habitat to house bottlenose dolphins. In 1996, Siegfried and Roy's Secret Garden was added to house the entertainers' animals.
The Mirage seemed more like a strange dream than a hotel-casino. For Steve Wynn, that was the idea.
Wynn, who turned the smallish Golden Nugget into downtown's most luxurious resort, sold his Atlantic City holdings in 1986 and returned to Las Vegas to contemplate his Strip acreage, which housed a souvenir gift shop, two gasoline stations and the Castaways Casino.
Several days a week, Wynn would drive his powder blue Mercedes sedan into the Sands parking lot, sit on the hood, stare at the site and contemplate a development. What came to him was to build something that didn't exist.
"Suppose what you see with your eyes, doesn't match up with your brain," Wynn said. "Think of the harsh Southern Nevada desert, and then you see a waterfall, something out of the South Pacific or the island of Kauai. It's not supposed to be there, and that was the intention."
It took Wynn more than a year to come up with the name, The Mirage. He was helped by a class of fourth-graders from Vegas Verde Elementary School. He also had to buy the name Mirage from two motels.
More than two years of construction built up the anticipation leading to opening day.
Thousands who had waited all morning rushed up the driveway and in the front doors. During its first weekend, an estimated 750,000 came through the property. The crowds were so large that restrictions had to be implemented.
As for the often-mentioned $1 million a day in revenues, The Mirage beat the odds.
"For all the people who thought we'd fall on our ass, I forgive them," said Wynn, who changed the name of Golden Nugget Corp. to Mirage Resorts soon after the casino opened. "We not only made $1.1 million a day in gaming revenue, but people forgot about the noncasino revenues, which was about $800,000 a day."
In 1991, Wynn announced he was building Treasure Island on the Mirage's north parking lot.
He sold Mirage Resorts in 2000 to the then MGM Grand Corp. for $6.4 billion.
Wynn said it has been two years since he has been inside The Mirage.
Sibella was working at The Mirage on opening day. Three years out of UNLV, he was an assistant hotel manager at the Golden Nugget who came over to The Mirage to help train staff. Today, he occupies what was Steve Wynn's spacious office with glass walls that look out onto a tropical garden.
Sibella said The Mirage still holds a special meaning for many Las Vegas residents, which is why he wanted to restore the volcano, not eliminate it. Before the new volcano made its official debut, Sibella gave Wynn a tour.
"I know how much it meant to him and the city. I'm glad we didn't tear it down," Sibella said.
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz @reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3871.
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