A love letter to The Mirage, the hotel that changed the world — and my life

Dec 25, 2021

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I didn’t know it the first time I stepped foot (or rolled, really) into The Mirage, but the stroller I was sitting in was entering hallowed ground in the hotel world. I was four years old, it was 1996, and my parents had just driven myself, my brother and my grandma, (Magaw, as we called her), from the Texas panhandle to the Las Vegas Strip to celebrate Christmas in style.

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We weren’t staying at The Mirage.

In fact, we were on the far end of the Strip at the MGM Grand, but I can still remember, if just for a fleeting second, how magical it felt to enter that larger-than-life space. Above me, the glass atrium felt like a spaceship, people from all walks of life floated by in every direction, slot machines were dinging and rattling, coins were jingling in large plastic buckets and, as far as the pictures show — I was enthralled.

But the thing I remember the most were the fish, a giant wall of them, full of more shapes, colors and designs than any little boy from rural, cotton-growing, “Friday Night Lights” West Texas had ever seen. That was the moment when I fell in love with The Mirage — and hotels as a whole.

teenage boy and little boy standing in front of palm tree
Me and my older brother celebrating Christmas at The Mirage in 1996. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

Now, flash forward a quarter of a century, and my love for The Mirage hasn’t changed. Though I may have ditched my stroller and OshKosh B’gosh overalls, every time I visit Las Vegas it’s essential for me to walk under that big glass dome and say hi to those fish, though now it’s usually while I’m in line to check in to the hotel instead of gawking from a distance.

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When The Mirage opened its doors for the first time back in 1989, three years before I came into existence, it changed the world — at least the hotel world.

Set on 77 acres, Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn set out to build a megaresort. And he did. At the time, it was the largest hotel on the planet, and it redefined what a resort could with its sprawling size, seemingly endless dining options, toned down but visible theme (technically Polynesian, in case you were wondering) and overall sense of luxury.

It also opened up Las Vegas as a family-friendly destination thanks to its over-the-top erupting volcano, Siegfried & Roy’s magic show featuring white tigers and the chance to temporarily escape the mundaneness of everyday life to feel like you and your family entered a tropical paradise hidden in the middle of the Nevada desert. A mirage, if you will.

Volcano exploding in front of the Mirage casino in Las Vegas
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Since that first trip to Las Vegas, back when my wallet (also OshKosh) only held a library card, I’ve returned countless times. And, in a way, over the years, it feels like I’ve grown up with The Mirage, which became an MGM property in 2000 and was just acquired by Hard Rock International.

On those earlier trips (mostly work trips my parents let me tag along on), we’d slip into The Mirage for a buffet free-for-all or step out on the Strip to watch the volcano. My parents would usually let me pick out a slot machine that “felt right” and one would play $5 while the other stood back with me on the kid-designated carpet.

The summer before my senior year of high school, my relationship with The Mirage ascended to a whole new level. My mom booked a massive suite to stay in for a work trip and let me invite a friend. Over the course of a long weekend, we lounged in the dry summer heat by the pool, drank Dr Pepper from champagne glasses, saw “The Beatles LOVE” by Cirque du Soleil and generally acted like we owned the place. It was a great story to tell our friends back in the sleepy town of Levelland, Texas.

teenage boy and girl standing in window overlooking Las Vegas strip
Me and my friend Rebecca in our Mirage suite before heading to see The Beatles Love. (Photo courtesy of Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

Before I knew it, I was 21, and my wallet — now Coach, maybe American Eagle — had my driver’s license, my college ID and an MGM player’s card. Then, I was drinking Champagne from a champagne glass and feeling too scared to sit down at a blackjack table. I’d spend hours playing penny slots with my dad, my mom anchored down at a craps table.

It was at The Mirage the first time I won big — $800 on an Ellen-themed slot machine. And it was Howie Mandle’s voice at the Deal or No Deal machine, tucked away between the bathroom and the ticket office, that frequently convinced me to say “no deal,” sometimes for better and sometimes for worse.

left: young man standing in front of penguin in resort: right; large glass dome with "Mirage" sign on rock
Christmas at The Mirage in 2019. (Photos courtesy of Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

For Christmas of 2019, my family shared a suite at The Mirage, the last time we’d see each other for more than 15 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the silly memories of 2 a.m. steak and eggs, me still trying to learn to play craps from my mom and everyone recounting their antics the next morning that held me through that long separation.

And then, just this month, we evolved again. Celebrating my best friend’s 30th birthday, 15 friends gathered, yet again, in a two-bedroom suite on top of The Mirage. This time I saw my favorite casino through the blurry lens of old college friends celebrating the privilege of getting older.

three friend posing with birthday banner in large hotel suite
Three of my closest friends decorating our suite for a 30th birthday party at The Mirage. (Photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy)

We danced with cowboys in the sportsbook to a live country band; we scouted out the machines that “felt right,” just like my parents taught me; and we had a moment when we looked around and realized how weird it was that we’d all “grown up.”

Mostly, we talked about how annoying it was that I knew every nook and cranny across the resort’s 77 acres.

Soon, we’ll say goodbye to The Mirage and hello to the Hard Rock Las Vegas. The volcano will have one more triumphant explosion and then be paved over to build a larger-than-life building in the shape of a guitar.

After that, who knows what next? I don’t even know what’s next for me. We’ve aged and we’ve changed — and we’ll change again. But what won’t change, and I’m certain of it, are the memories I made over the years in the hotel that will always feel like my hotel.

Featured image by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

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