[The Incidental Tourist]

Two decades in, Mandalay Bay might be the most complete and quintessential Las Vegas resort

The exterior of Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas on December 8, 2015.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

Mandalay Bay opened 20 years ago, March 2, 1999, on the site of the former Hacienda Hotel & Casino. Circus Circus Enterprises, which originated when Vegas visionary Jay Sarno opened Circus Circus two years after he opened Caesars Palace, purchased the Hacienda and an adjacent plot in 1995 in order to build a tropical-themed megaresort nicknamed Project Paradise.

CCE owned Circus Circus and half of Monte Carlo, and had built nearby themed resorts Excalibur and Luxor, but Mandalay Bay was the company’s most ambitious project yet, complete with an $850 million budget: nearly 4,000 hotel rooms including 424 at the connected, casino-free Four Seasons Las Vegas; a 135,000-square-foot casino with 122 table games and 2,400 slots; an 11-acre pool area with a beach, a “lazy river” and a wave pool; the House of Blues concert hall and attraction; hip restaurants and nightclubs and a showroom opening with “Chicago,” one of the first full-length Broadway productions in Las Vegas.

Less than five months after Bellagio set a new standard for luxury and grandeur on the Strip—and just before the Venetian and Paris opened—Mandalay Bay was a different kind of game-changer, a resort that really seemed to have something for everyone. In the years that followed, Mandalay Bay would grow with the addition of a 12,000-seat events center, a massive convention space, the Shark Reef aquarium attraction and a 100,000-square-foot retail mall connecting to the neighboring Luxor.

Today, the gleaming gold towers remain the southern-most destination on the Las Vegas Strip, even though 20 years ago the executives at Mandalay Resort Group (an appropriate name change from Circus Circus Enterprises) were predicting the construction of two more resorts south of their latest creation. Soon, a domed 65,000-seat stadium just across Interstate 15 will serve as an accompanying landmark with Mandalay Bay, welcoming drivers from Southern California to the Strip. The rooms in those towers might be full of football fans for at least eight weekends in the fall and winter starting in 2020.

Mandalay Bay’s identity could change when that happens, but right now, it is the most complete Las Vegas resort. Its original promise of the most diverse entertainment lineup has been delivered many times over through its two decades, and it’s currently home to what may be the most accessible Cirque du Soleil show, Michael Jackson ONE; the 2,000 aquatic animal resident headliners at Shark Reef; concerts on the beach, in the events center and the House of Blues; and colorful nightlife experiences at Light Nightclub, the tower-topping Foundation Room and Skyfall Lounge venues offering incredible Strip views, and gimmicky fun at Minus 5 Ice Bar, Rí Rá Irish Pub and the popular casino lounge now known as Rhythm & Riffs.

Mandalay Bay has adapted cleverly through the years, staying on top of changing Vegas trends. Food? It helped set the standard with restaurants such as Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, Veranda at Four Seasons, Wolfgang Puck’s Lupo and the Susan Feniger-Mary Sue Milliken Mexican masterpiece Border Grill. All four are still there, complemented today by Hubert Keller’s genre-defining Burger Bar, Alain Ducasse’s French-Italian Rivea, Shawn McClain’s casual Libertine Social, Michael Mina’s edgy Stripsteak and many more.

Business? After a mega-expansion in 2015, the Mandalay Bay Convention Center is the second-largest facility in the city at more than 2 million square feet, flying by the Sands Expo at Venetian and trailing only the Las Vegas Convention Center. Combine that with its events center, four total showrooms and other expansive amenities, and you have one of the most desirable destinations in the country.

Sports? The Las Vegas Aces have only played one season of WNBA basketball at Mandalay Bay Events Center—just missing the playoffs while averaging about 5,200 fans per game—but this is the only casino resort to have its very own major league sports team. Season 2 tips off May 26 and the WNBA All-Star Game will be played here July 27.

Some assumed Mandalay Bay would not recover from the tragedy of October 1, that the resort might have to change its name or rebrand in some way even though it has always been one of the best-known properties on the Strip. MGM Resorts International has not indicated any such plans. The resort might have taken a financial hit in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy but, perhaps like Las Vegas itself, Mandalay Bay has become stronger. Like any Strip destination, it is made of its people, locals who are dedicated to great service and creating memorable experiences for their many guests.

Like Vegas itself, this property began with the biggest of dreams and has weathered the most difficult of circumstances. Maybe Mandalay Bay is the most Vegas resort we have.

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An award-winning writer who has been documenting life in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, Brock Radke covers entertainment ...

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