The themed hotel boom all started in 1989 when hotel mogul Steve Wynn opened The Mirage. Equipped with themed gardens, a tropical topiary and exploding volcano, The Mirage felt more like a resort hotel you might find at Walt Disney World.
The Mirage's volcano show
Wynn furthered his theming excellence with Treasure Island (TI) that featured a Pirate theme and an action packed stunt show that had everything from pyrotechnics to a sinking ship. The show was often compared and sometimes preferred to Fantasmic! at Disneyland, and was even designed by former Disney Imagineer, Bub Gurr.
Wynn wasn’t done yet with themed hotels. His next hotel was his most extravagant yet. The Bellagio, opening in 1998, boasted an Italian theme and featured a huge artificial lake that is home to a fountain show, an interior garden area and luxury shopping area. The hotel was the most expensive ever built at the time and inspired the luxury theme craze found at Mandalay Bay, The Venetian and Paris.
An old ferris wheel adorns the Bellagio's indoor garden.
With all this theming and design going into his resorts, Wynn was referred to by Gurr as “the Walt Disney of the 90’s.” It’s no secret that Wynn and the rest Las Vegas have looked up to Disney in many ways. Across the strip from Wynn’s hotels, former Walt Disney World monorail trains were providing transportation to visitors between Ballys and the MGM Grand before the system was expanded and trains were replaced. Even the Excalibur went as far as theming itself to a castle, the common symbol in Disney parks.
Disney, who looked at Las Vegas’ entertainment success, reciprocated these feelings. It wasn’t long before Disney got their own Cirque Du Soleil show permanently placed in WDW’s Downtown Disney district. Also, Disney’s wildly successful musical, The Lion King, landed a permanent home at Mandalay Bay. It seems like a fairly successful relationship of flattery between the two destinations right? Wrong, It has actually become a very brutal and competitive relationship.
Something many people may have never known is that Disney has been trying very hard for quite some time to get themselves situated on the strip. When the theme craze hit Las Vegas and suddenly visitors were not just adults, but families, Disney saw an opportunity to be a successful non-gaming destination where families could stay and the minors could play while their parents spent time at the neighboring casinos. Close enough to Disneyland in California; it could easily be linked to the theme park resort as well. A Vegas hotel would also be a perfect stage for them to showcase their stage shows in theaters that they would have 100% control over ticket sales and revenue.
A 1:2 scale replica of the Eiffel Tower in front of the Paris hotel.
So why hasn’t Disney done it? Well the major hotel operators in Las Vegas hold a lot of weight is city hall, as you can imagine, and weren’t exactly ready to loose all that hotel revenue. After spending millions (if not billions) to deck out their resort with lavish themes to attract visitors, they weren’t ready to see that go to waste as people flock to the hotel with mouse ears. The biggest of these opponents is Mr. Disney of the 90’s himself, Steve Wynn. Enjoying a lot of success with his themed hotels in the 90’s, he would be in position to lose the most if Disney came into the desert. So wherever he could, Steve stomped down on the cheese and left the Mouse to starve.
Eventually the theme craze died out and hotels began to go generic (see “The Roller Coaster” at New York New York). Wynn sold off the Mirage group of hotels and suddenly wasn’t an opponent to the Mouse. At this point Disney was trying to keep a struggling new park in California afloat and had a CEO who would rather just do everything as cheap as possible. Cheap isn’t an option in Vegas where land on the strip alone goes for hundreds of millions.
Now we get to present times, as the recession is beginning to soften and people are traveling again. Disney has finally figured out their second California gate and is seeing dollar signs; they are also seeing great business in the cruise industry so much that they finally have a ship permanently out west. Pushing an all out blitz on any market they can with their NexGen project, Disney may be starting to think a resort hotel in Sin City might not be such a bad idea once more. Disney see’s the push hotels have been making towards generic and have begun to alienate family travelers once more, provided a perfect situation to slide in and take that business. Knowing this, Steve Wynn is calling on his rodent exterminator once again. Having exited the theme craze and making a push for luxury, Wynn is now enjoying a more sophisticated adult demographic that has much fatter wallets. The last thing Wynn wants now is a bunch of kids running along the edges of the casino floor with their parents who only stop to play a buck or two in a slot machine.
The luxurious Venetian at night.
The next few years promise to be very exciting if Disney CEO Bob Iger sets his mind to it. As one of Disney’s most intense CEO’s, there isn’t much that Iger feels can stop him when he really wants something. If he decides to push it, the question is how long until we see the DVC kiosks decked out with slot machine and stripper poles (ok, maybe they won’t sell it quite like that).
I hope this series has been as fun for you to read, as it was to research and write about. Thanks for sticking with it, and Viva Las Vegas!