A farewell to the resort that created the Vegas we know

The Mirage opened in 1989 with attractions including a nightly volcano show. It ends next week, when the hotel closes.
The Mirage opened in 1989 with attractions including a nightly volcano show. It ends next week, when the hotel closes.

Summary

The 3,000-room Mirage hotel changed the face of the city when it opened in 1989, spurring copycats up and down the Strip.

LAS VEGAS—John, Paul, George and Ringo stare down from the gold-plated hotel towers. Guests enter on Siegfried and Roy Drive. And Chevy Chase starred in the movie most associated with the place.

You don’t have to know the opening date of the Mirage hotel and casino to know that it is ancient in Vegas years.

Closure looms for the 3,000-room casino hotel that changed Las Vegas when it opened in 1989. Though just shy of 35 years old, it’s being mourned like a beloved Boomer. Travelers are making last-minute pilgrimages, online remembrances are pouring in and souvenir Mirage volcanoes and beach towels are selling out as the hotel makes way for a splashy new Hard Rock resort. One Canadian fan returned home from a visit last week and painted the Mirage pool scene on canvas with the title “A Final Farewell."

Annie McKiernan wasn’t planning to visit Las Vegas this summer. But she booked a Mirage trip with her husband and friends when they heard about the July 17 closing date. McKiernan, who lives in San Jose, Calif., and works in accounting, celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary at the resort in 2007, treated her dad to “The Beatles Love by Cirque du Soleil" show for his 75th birthday and celebrated a friend’s 50th at the hotel in 2022.

On the last day of their last hurrah, drinking her last sip of coffee out of a Mirage mug at breakfast, McKiernan grew sad. She dashed to the hotel gift shop for a $30 pink Mirage tank top and $50 gray hoodie. (Souvenirs were the only things that weren’t half off. Even wine was half-price.)

“It just kind of hit me," she says.

The first of a new era

Success was far from certain when Steve Wynn opened the $630 million Polynesian-themed resort on the 50-yard-line of the Las Vegas Strip in November 1989. In a town then focused on casino gaming and all-you-can-eat buffets, the Mirage stood out with pricier rooms, a 40-foot man-made volcano that erupted nightly, a dolphin habitat, 20,000-gallon aquarium behind the front desk and Siegfried & Roy and their white tigers. (The magicians pulled Chase’s Clark Griswold on stage in the 1997 movie “Vegas Vacation.")

“It really changed everything," says Las Vegas gaming historian David Schwartz. “It worked so well, within about 20 years, most of the Strip had been made in its image."

MGM Grand, Excalibur, Luxor, Treasure Island, Bellagio and other massive resorts followed. They are still coming. Visitation in Las Vegas went from 18 million in 1989 to nearly 41 million last year.

The Mirage hasn’t kept up with glitzier Strip neighbors in recent years. Guest-room bathrooms still have the old tub-shower combo, the carpeting is circa early 2000s and the restaurant lineup can’t compete for foodies. Rather than sink hundreds of millions into an overhaul, its parent, MGM Resorts International, sold it to Hard Rock International for nearly $1.1 billion in 2022.

Hard Rock plans to renovate the entire place and add a guitar-shaped tower where the volcano and lagoon now sit, with 600 suites and another pool. The casino will be on the Strip, rather than set back like it is today. Construction begins this fall, with opening set for 2027.

More than 3,000 Mirage employees, including 137 who have been there since it opened, are losing their jobs. Resort officials say 600 have already found new jobs thanks in part to job fairs held on site. I met a steakhouse bartender with 20 years’ service who is going to become a barber, a front-desk agent who is retiring and a concierge who, at age 60, isn’t sure what’s next. (One front-desk agent lamented that people checking in were more curious about what would happen to the fish in the aquarium than the employees. The fish are relocating to Mandalay Bay.)

A Facebook group is calling for Hard Rock to keep the Mirage name and features Change.org petitions to save the volcano.

Saying goodbye

In Vegas, change is as inevitable as casino ATM withdrawals and hangovers. Mirage President Joe Lupo, a Las Vegas veteran who joined when Hard Rock took over, says the farewell guests are bringing nostalgia and special requests. One Olympic coach requested the same room he had when he got engaged at the Mirage. The hotel obliged, Lupo says.

“I can’t tell you how many people have said to me this was the first place I stayed when I came to Vegas," he says.

At California Pizza Kitchen, an original Mirage tenant, both guys next to me at the counter are there to say goodbye to their favorite server, Brandy. One, a sports bettor from Ohio, visited the hotel for the first time for his 21st birthday years ago and fell in love with the place.

“What are you having, honey?" Brandy asks him.

The other, ordering takeout, says he will see her again when the Hard Rock opens in three years. CPK isn’t in Hard Rock’s future, though. Early on, it was among the highest-grossing outlets in the chain.

Andrew Wong, an executive from Vancouver, British Columbia, and his wife brought his mother to the resort in late June to celebrate her 79th birthday and toast all of their Mirage memories. They have been visiting for more than 20 years, his stays usually comped given his casino play. Wong had to pay for some nights on this trip given the change over to Hard Rock’s loyalty program, but says he wouldn’t have missed it. (I paid $200 for two nights including taxes for my midweek stay in June.)

“We just wanted to be here," he says.

Donna Colbourn checked into the Mirage when she visited Las Vegas for the first time in the 2000s and kept coming back. The London, Ontario, resident, who works in strategic consulting for corporate real estate, visited the hotel frequently when she lived in Texas and California because flights were cheap.

“It’s so funny how you get attached," she says.

Her three-night stay was bittersweet. She relaxed at her favorite pool—and turned it into a painting—and enjoyed the trip down memory lane. She was disappointed that some slot machines were already shut down (for regulatory reasons) and says the buzz from previous visits was missing.

“It’s time," she says. “It needs a refresh."

—Sign up for the WSJ Travel newsletter for more tips and insights from Dawn Gilbertson and the rest of the Journal’s travel team.

Write to Dawn Gilbertson at dawn.gilbertson@wsj.com

A Farewell to the Resort That Created the Vegas We Know
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A Farewell to the Resort That Created the Vegas We Know
A Farewell to the Resort That Created the Vegas We Know
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A Farewell to the Resort That Created the Vegas We Know
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