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A Brief History of Circus Circus in Las Vegas

Circus Circus Las Vegas
Circus Circus Las Vegas | © MGM Resorts
From James Bond’s adult playground to the original prototype for “family-friendly” Las Vegas, Circus Circus has brought five decades of clown-based surrealism to the Strip.
Porte Cochere of Circus Circus © MGM Resorts

Don’t let the big top fool you. When it opened in 1968, Circus Circus was intended for grown-ups. At the time, Las Vegas was in the throes of theme-ing everything, from the “Egypt” of the Dunes to the “Rome” of Caesars Palace, and the casino was designed by Rissman and Rissman Associates to look like a big top. As the Las Vegas Review-Journal wrote of its opening on October 18, 1968: “[T]he huge casino will have numerous circus acts performing around the cavernous room, trapeze and high-wire acts performing over the heads of gamblers and bevies of showgirls dancing and singing throughout.”

Statue at Circus Circus, Las Vegas © JM / Flickr

Circus Circus had cocktail waitresses in sexy majorette outfits, blackjack dealers in polka-dot shirts and even a slide for tipsy gamblers to ride from the midway to the gaming floor. In 1972, the property opened its first hotel tower—with a loan that led to mob entanglements. In fact, notorious mob enforcer Tony Spilotro—a.k.a. “Nicky Santoro” in the movie Casino—eventually owned a gift shop at Circus Circus.

Two years later, Jay Sarno sold Circus Circus to William Bennett, who got rid of some of the bawdier shows and continued the hotel expansion. It became a public company in 1980 as Circus Circus Enterprises, opening the Excalibur and the Luxor. In 1999, it became the Mandalay Bay Resort Group after opening Mandalay Bay Resort Casino, and in 2005, MGM Resorts bought the whole shebang.

Jill St. John at Circus Circus in Diamonds Are Forever © MGM

The bizarre combination of circus acts and gaming tables has made Circus Circus a popular setting in both books and films. Its most famous appearance is likely in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where it sends Thompson and his attorney into a tailspin: “Nobody can handle… the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs.”

Circus Circus also made a memorable cameo in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, as well as in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid several decades later.

"Lucky the Clown" at Circus Circus © MGM Resorts

Circus Circus was one of the first casino properties to court families, and it remains their modus operandi. Chief among the draws for those with little ones is the Adventuredome, an indoor amusement park that opened in 1993. The ‘dome has expanded since then with dozens of rides and roller coasters; during the Halloween season, its Fright Dome is one of Vegas’ more popular haunted houses.

On the more grown-up side of things, The Steak House at Circus Circus is a top-notch restaurant, and the entire property is still worth gawking at for the pink polka-dot weirdness. Few may have thought Circus Circus would last 50 years, but it seems unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon.

Staff clowns at Circus Circus © MGM Resorts