Las Vegas Sun

May 12, 2021

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30 years after Mirage opening, architect reflects on building megaresorts

Volcano at the Mirage


The volcano at the Mirage.

Three decades is an eternity on the Las Vegas Strip, where the only thing that seems to remain constant is innovation and a focus on the next big thing.

With the planned 2021 opening of the Strip’s next megaresort — the $4.3 billion Resorts World — one of the men responsible for bringing the vision for the Mirage to life 30 years ago looked back on one of his landmark works.

The founder of Lifescapes International, a landscape design firm in Newport Beach, Calif., Don Brinkerhoff was behind the creation of the Mirage’s fire-spewing volcano, one of the more attention-grabbing features of what in 1989 was arguably the most elaborate hotel project in the world.

Built by Steve Wynn and now owned by MGM Resorts International, the Mirage opened the day before Thanksgiving in 1989.

“It was an iconic project,” said Brinkerhoff, now 89 and retired. “It opened up the flood gates for all of the subsequent casino development. It showed a way that you could do these megacasinos and make them profitable.”

Built for about $620 million, analysts at the time wondered whether the Polynesian-themed resort would do enough business to turn a profit.

“There was a lot of naysaying at the time,” said Brinkerhoff, a member of the American Gaming Association’s Hall of Fame. “People said, ‘My God, you’d have to make $1 million a day.’ Actually, it made $2 million per day. It was a revelation.”

In the Nov. 14, 1989, news release announcing the opening of the Mirage, Wynn, then the chairman of Golden Nugget Inc., touted the property as “something one certainly would not expect to find in Las Vegas.”

The release predicted the Mirage would attract “younger, affluent families” that had largely bypassed Las Vegas as a vacation destination.

Since the Mirage project, Lifescapes has undertaken more than 30 major ventures in Las Vegas, everything from casinos to a golf course and malls.

It worked on the conservatory and botanical gardens at the Bellagio, along with projects at Wynn Las Vegas, the Encore, Venetian and Palazzo. The company is now working on the Genting Group’s mammoth Resorts World casino, which will feature two towers and 3,500 hotel rooms.

But the Mirage project didn’t immediately lead to more big jobs for Lifescapes in Las Vegas.

“I thought it would get us a lot of business right away, but it took three years to get another project,” said Julie Brinkerhoff-Jacobs, Don Brinkerhoff’s daughter and the company’s president and chief financial officer.

“It was frustrating at the time, but, in fairness to some of the casino operators, they wanted to see if the Mirage was going to work,” she said. “They wanted to see if Steve could pay off those bonds, which, of course, he did.”

As the years have passed, the face of Las Vegas has continued to change — aging resorts imploded and new ones rising in their footprint. The Mirage and its volcano, however, are still going strong. The volcano erupts nightly at 8, 9 and 10 p.m.