A Las Vegas landmark is about to go dormant

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The Mirage's volcano, which debuted more than three decades ago, is among the features expected to be removed when the property becomes a Hard Rock International hotel later this year.
The Mirage's volcano, which debuted more than three decades ago, is among the features expected to be removed when the property becomes a Hard Rock International hotel later this year. Photo Credit: MGM Resort International
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

After erupting regularly on the Las Vegas Strip for more than three decades, the Mirage's fiery volcano will soon no longer be active.

Hard Rock International announced last year it is buying the property from MGM Resorts International, and the iconic volcano will not have a role in the resort's eventual rebranding.

Neither Hard Rock nor MGM officials would confirm when the volcano will be dismantled, and the timing of its last eruption is uncertain. A guitar-shaped room tower is expected to rise from the site.

The volcano was an instant classic when it opened with the resort on Nov. 22, 1989. Many times each night, foreshadowing rumbles disrupt a tranquil three-acre South Seas landscape. Soon, water and other features mimic the flow of lava.

Guests and pedestrians feel the intense heat from flames that shoot 60 feet into the air. More than 150 Fireshooters, developed by WET Design (which also created the Fountains of Bellagio), propel fireballs choreographed to a music composition by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

The sweet smell of pina colada (instead of rotten-egg odor, indicating the presence of natural gas, which energizes the attraction) wafts and sets the inviting mood for the party inside the hotel-casino.

A groundbreaking 'free spectacle'

"The volcano was the first 'free spectacle,' paving the way for several others of that era, including the pirate battle at Treasure Island, the light show at the Fremont Street Experience and the Bellagio fountains," said longtime Las Vegas observer Anthony Curtis of LasVegasAdvisor.com.

"It was also a harbinger of the move toward nongambling amenities: entertainment, dining, shopping," Curtis said. "The volcano said, 'Come see the cool things we have for you.'"

The volcano is said to have been the idea of Elaine Wynn, according to Michael Green, a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. At the time, she was married to casino mogul and Mirage developer Steve Wynn, who believed the Strip needed attractions more than it needed another casino; the volcano was a powerful way to set the Mirage apart, Green says.

"It symbolizes both a bygone era and a current era," Green said. "It reflects the Wynn or Mirage era when megaresorts were mushrooming up and down the Strip. It reflects the theming of the Strip, from the Mirage's rain forest to New York-New York (which opened in 1997) and Paris (1999), among other places."

The idea of theming wasn't new, Green says, since the first two hotels on the Strip (El Rancho Vegas, 1941, and the Hotel Last Frontier, 1942), had Western motifs. Wynn himself has cited the influence of Jay Sarno and his partners, who developed Caesars Palace (1966) and Circus Circus (1968).

But Las Vegas continues to move away from a transparently thematic approach with its latest resorts -- the Cosmopolitan (2010), Circa (2020) and Resorts World (2021) -- and its reliance on free attractions and loss leaders such as buffets and poker rooms to draw crowds.

"What's changed is casino companies understand the value of those crowds differently now," said Scott Roeben, a longtime Vegas blogger. "People looking for free attractions, often families, don't stay and gamble or drink or eat … not exactly the ideal casino customer."

Free attractions have become a hard cost that contributes nothing to the bottom line, Roeben says. "It's no longer about trying to draw the masses. It's about luring quality customers with disposable income, customers to avail themselves of the revenue-generating aspects of a casino-resort."

The Mirage also features an 80-foot tall atrium with palms and flora, a 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium behind the registration desk and Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat. Hard Rock has not announced specific details of the rebrand, but those features are unlikely to be retained.

Save the volcano

Almost 5,000 people have signed an online petition to save the volcano.

"There's been some weeping and gnashing of teeth about the planned demolition of the volcano, but overall people who understand how Las Vegas works haven't been the ones doing the gnashing," said Roeben, who applauded Hard Rock's guitar-shaped plans to change the Strip's skyline. "Las Vegas has thrived by forward movement."

Although he calls the volcano "cheesy and outdated," Roeben admits he loves cheesy Vegas. "[I] often pine for 'Show in the Sky' at Rio or 'Sirens of TI,' but we can't dwell on the past -- especially money-losing attractions."

For now, the Mirage's volcano continues to erupt hourly from 8 until 11 p.m.

"Every time [I've seen it], the takeaway is the intensity, especially the heat it gives off when you're watching from the sidewalk. … After all these years, it's still impressive," Curtis said.

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