Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

When MGM Resorts International announced the long-rumored sale of Circus Circus on Oct. 15, those who have visited the 50-year-old casino-resort had to wonder: How will the new owner change it? Will it continue to exist with bold new branding? Or will it be imploded like so many other buildings on the Las Vegas Strip?

Phil Ruffin, 84, the owner of the TI (formerly Treasure Island), purchased Circus Circus for $825 million. The 102-acre transaction is expected to be formally completed later this year. "It's been a real cash cow for MGM. Now, hopefully it'll will be a cash cow for us," Ruffin told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

While Ruffin said he'll take his time mulling renovations while keeping rooms "moderately priced," he told the Review-Journal that he will make immediate improvements to the neighboring Slots of Fun casino, which was also part of the deal. He is also looking to build on Circus Circus'10-acre RV lot and turning the associated 37-acre festival grounds into an entertainment venue.

Ruffin has been on a roll since 1998, when he purchased the New Frontier Hotel and Casino for $167 million; he sold it less than 10 years later for $1.2 billion. He then bought Treasure Island from MGM Mirage in 2009 for $600 million in cash and $175 million in secured notes. A friend and business partner of President Trump, he co-owns the Trump International Hotel, a Las Vegas hotel, condominium and timeshare that opened in 2008.

Circus Circus has an even longer history of success. The themed casino opened on Oct. 18, 1968, the $15 million vision of Stanley Mallin and Jay Sarno. Sarno was also responsible for Caesars Palace, which opened two years earlier. Amid a series of hotel tower additions (it now has 3,767 guestrooms), the property was sold to William Bennett and William Pennington, and it became the flagship for Circus Circus Enterprises (later becoming Mandalay Resort Group, which was purchased by MGM Mirage in 2005).

Under what was billed as the largest permanent big top in the world, Circus Circus quickly became about as family-friendly as a casino could be. Free, regularly scheduled overhead circus acts dazzled gamblers and their families.

The upstairs Carnival Midway got visitors even closer to the action and offered a stunning array of games. Some games were competitive: squirt water into a clown's mouth faster than your opponent and win a prize. Some were designed to beat long odds: toss a ping-pong ball into the narrow opening of a bottle and win a bigger prize.

The Steak House opened in 1982 and became one of the premier restaurants on the Strip. Dark woods and red leather booths evoke an English-style hunting lodge. Mesquite-broiled steaks, seafood and chicken top the menu.

The pink-glass-covered Adventuredome theme park opened in 1993, featuring the thrilling Canyon Blaster roller coaster and other rides.

Through the decades Circus Circus has resonated with many visiting families because parents were assured their kids would feel welcomed and that their dollar would go a long way. Well aware of its family-friendly appeal and value, Ruffin certainly didn't invest that much money without a vision to enhance the property. Meanwhile, the memories are continuing to be created and will endure.

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