Sahara Las Vegas

Sahara Las Vegas is a hotel and casino located on the Las Vegas Strip in Winchester, Nevada. It is owned and operated by the Meruelo Group. The hotel has 1,600 rooms, and the casino contains 85,000 square feet (7,900 m2). The Sahara anchors the northern end of the Las Vegas Strip. It is the site of the northernmost station of the Las Vegas Monorail.

Sahara Las Vegas
Sahara in 2006
Location Winchester, Nevada, U.S.
Address 2535 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Opening dateOctober 7, 1952 (1952-10-07)
No. of rooms1,600
Total gaming space85,000 sq ft (7,900 m2)
Signature attractionsClub 101
Amina Spa
Foxtail Nightclub
The Foundry
Fred Segal
Magic Mike Live
Notable restaurantsBazaar
Beers and Bets
Bella Bistro
Northside Cafè
The Perq
Casino typeLand-based
OwnerMeruelo Group
Previous namesSLS Las Vegas (2014–19)
Renovated in1959, 1963, 1978, 1996, 2013–14, 2019
Coordinates36.14222°N 115.15639°W / 36.14222; -115.15639

The resort initially operated under the Sahara name from 1952 until 2011. It closed that year as it was no longer considered economically viable. Following a $415 million renovation, the property reopened as SLS Las Vegas on August 23, 2014, as part of SBE's chain of SLS hotels.[1][2] It was sold to the Meruelo Group in 2018, and renamed Sahara Las Vegas on August 29, 2019.


The first casino built on the site was Club Bingo, which opened in 1947.[3] Owner Milton Prell had previously opened the 30 Club in Butte, Montana. Prell and his family then moved to Las Vegas in 1945, with the intention of opening a small hotel. Remembering how successful his earlier casino club had been, Prell built the similar Club Bingo in Las Vegas before building a full hotel-casino. Club Bingo quickly became a success. Prell briefly considered adding a small hotel and a village of adobe buildings to the Club Bingo property, but he decided against the idea because it did not fit in with his ultimate vision of a luxury hotel.[4]

Early years

In early 1951, Prell gathered several former business partners to begin work on the Sahara, which was built on the land then occupied by Club Bingo.[4] The $5 million Hotel Sahara opened on October 7, 1952, with an African Sahara theme.[5][6][7] Attendees to the grand opening included Ray Bolger and Gus Greenbaum.[6] Located just outside the City of Las Vegas, it was the sixth resort to open on the Las Vegas Strip.[6][8] It was constructed by Del E. Webb Construction Company. Max Maltzman was the architect, and Ragnar Qvale was the interior designer.[5][6]

The resort employed 500 people,[6] and contained 240 hotel rooms. Other amenities included a casino, an 85-foot bar, and two restaurants: The Congo Room, which was the primary dining choice; and The Caravan, a coffee shop featuring hand-painted murals. The Sahara was located on 20 acres (8.1 ha), and the resort utilized a modern and simple design.[5] The Sahara included the first Olympic-size swimming pool in Las Vegas, and would become the first hotel to host hydroplane races on Lake Mead.[9] The hotel constructed the first high-rise tower on the Strip in 1959, the Tunis Tower, designed by Martin Stern Jr.[3][10]

The Sahara-Nevada Corporation – the hotel division of Del E. Webb Corporation – bought the Sahara in 1961.[9] In 1962, Prell and other Sahara executives sought to rename the adjacent San Francisco Avenue as Sahara Avenue. Beldon Katleman, owner of the former El Rancho Vegas across the street, objected to the proposal, stating that the road should be renamed after his hotel-casino property.[11] Despite the opposition, the street was renamed after the Sahara.[12]

In 1962, a Don the Beachcomber restaurant opened in the hotel, becoming a top attraction to not only hotel guests but a variety of celebrities as well. The 24-story Alexandria Tower, also designed by Stern, was added in 1963.[13][3] In 1964, the Sahara paid $25,000 to have the Beatles perform in Las Vegas and stay at the resort, although their performance took place at the nearby Las Vegas Convention Center, as the Sahara's 600-seat showroom could not handle the crowd size of a Beatles concert.[13][14] The Sahara would later display photos of the Beatles' visit to the resort.[15]


A rooftop fire occurred at the Sahara in August 1964, causing nearly $1 million in damage. A work crew had been on the roof installing a sprinkler system, and the fire was believed to have been caused by a smoldering rag. Firefighters put it out with thousands of gallons of water, which soaked through the main casino area's ceiling and also flooded the main showroom.[16] Las Vegas sheriff Ralph Lamb believed the fire to be more financially destructive than the one which destroyed the El Rancho Vegas, stating that it was "probably the biggest hotel fire we've ever had in Las Vegas." Some gamblers had been hesitant to quit playing and evacuate the casino.[17]

Approximately 100 workmen began repairs immediately following the fire, and most of the affected facilities reopened the day after. For its reopening, the Sahara sign advertised, "Visit The Hottest Casino In Town." Casino operations were moved to a recently completed casino addition, adjacent to the main casino, that was unharmed by the fire. Full repair work was expected to take 30 days.[16]

In May 1967, three men were arrested after planting a homemade bomb in a Sahara hotel room on the 12th floor, part of a failed extortion attempt. A note was left demanding $75,000 for information to disarm the bomb. The note also warned that bombs had been placed in two other hotels owned by Del Webb. Seven hotels in three states were evacuated, but no other bombs were found.[18][19][20][21]

In July 1968, a fire started on the roof of the casino building, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of people. A crew had been working on a rooftop air conditioning unit, and the fire was believed to have started from a spark created by welding equipment. The fire caused an estimated $1 million in damage to the main casino area, the hotel's executive offices, the coffee shop, a lounge, and the showroom. The fire was stopped before it could damage a new casino addition, which had been in operation for several months and was located north of the main casino. The hotel portion was also unaffected by the fire, and its guests were not evacuated. Most of the affected facilities were expected to be quickly repaired and reopened the next day after the fire.[22]

In July 1981, a fire started in a third-floor hotel room and smoke poured through the upper floors, prompting the evacuation of more than 200 guests. The cause of the fire was considered suspicious.[23]

Later years

During the 1970s, the Sahara began declining in popularity, especially as newer, bigger resorts opened in Las Vegas in later years, such as The Mirage and MGM Grand.[24][25] In the late 1970s, the Sahara was among several casinos involved in a scam pulled off by gamblers. As a result, the Sahara faced a $37,500 fine by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, which alleged that the resort had violated casino procedures.[26][27]

In 1981, Del E. Webb Corporation announced that it would have to sell the Sahara to reduce its debt. Paul W. Lowden, who owned the Hacienda hotel-casino, purchased the 932-room Sahara for $50 million in 1982. With the purchase, Lowden owned the southernmost and the northernmost casino resorts on the Las Vegas Strip. At the time, the Sahara had 2,500 employees, five of whom had been working there since its opening in 1952.[9] Following a two-week investigation by the Nevada Gaming Control Board in 1982, a Sahara blackjack dealer and seven card players were indicted for taking part in a cheating scheme at the casino.[28] In 1988, the 27-story Tangiers Tower was added to the property. An expansion to the Tangiers Tower was added in 1991.

In June 1995, Lowden's Sahara Gaming Corporation announced that gaming executive Bill Bennett had agreed to buy the Sahara as part of a $150 million deal. The agreement included the Wet 'n Wild water park located south of the resort.[25] Bennett completed his purchase later that year, at a cost of $193 million. A $65 million renovation began in March 1996, and was aimed at attracting midlevel gamblers. A Moroccan theme would be applied throughout the resort, including the 1,750 hotel rooms. Casino space would be tripled to 75,000 sq ft (7,000 m2), and would include an additional 1,300 slot machines, as well as a new sportsbook. Two new restaurants would also be added, along with an 850-seat buffet. The renovation was funded entirely by Bennett and his company. The start of the renovation project was marked by the demolition of poolside bungalows that had housed various celebrities, including Ann-Margret, George Burns, Tony Bennett, and the Beatles. The renovation was scheduled for completion in January 1997, at which point a second phase of remodeling was scheduled to begin. The second phase was intended to add 1,300 rooms, for a total of more than 3,000.[29]

The resort's main entrance was relocated from the north side of the property to a new southwest entrance on the Las Vegas Strip. The casino was increased to 95,000 sq ft (8,800 m2), with expansion into the southeast area of the property, bringing the gaming closer to the hotel and the newly relocated pool area. The buffet was relocated to the second floor of the north side of the casino. Chandeliers were placed throughout the resort. A $4.6 million porte-cochère was added, consisting of an expansive overhead Moroccan-style dome, measuring 140 feet high and 200 feet in diameter. Fountains and palm trees surrounded the hotel's circular entryway. A seven-story parking garage with 2,000 spaces was added as well.[24] A new sign, featuring two neon camels, was added along the Las Vegas Strip in the 1990s.[30]

In 2000, a roller coaster and a NASCAR restaurant were added,[31] along with a video game arcade.[27] The roller coaster, named "Speed – The Ride" and located in front of the Sahara, shot riders along the Las Vegas Strip, where it looped through the grandiose Sahara sign, went straight up a tower, stopped and then took a return trip backwards. Bergman Walls Associates were the 1999 architects.

The Sahara began appealing to middle-class customers under Bennett's ownership,[27] offering dollar specials to stay competitive against newer resorts.[14] Eugene Moehring, a history professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, stated that the Sahara's decline began as early as 1966, when Caesars Palace opened on the Las Vegas Strip, taking many of the Sahara's high rollers. According to Moehring, the Sahara "helped establish Las Vegas as a major resort city after World War II. But its contributions to Las Vegas shifted as the years went by. By the early 1970s it was getting to be old. One problem is that it just didn't have the money to keep up with the times." Moehring stated that Bennett's idea of combining "Arabs with NASCAR" was a desperate move that ultimately did not work, and that the Sahara had mainly attracted low rollers since the 1990s.[13]

A modest celebration was held in October 2002, marking the resort's 50th anniversary.[27][32] By that time, the capacity for the Congo Room theater had been reduced from 1,000 people to 850, and dinner was no longer served with the show.[32] Bennett died in December 2002. Rumors of the Sahara's closure surfaced in the media in February 2006.[33] By June, the Sahara site was reportedly up for sale.[34]

In March 2007, Sam Nazarian's SBE Entertainment Group, along with Stockbridge Real Estate Group, agreed to purchase the Sahara from the Bennett family for an estimated $300 to $400 million.[35][36][37] The casino was operated by Navegante Management Group, while SBE managed the hotel and restaurants.[38] In December 2009, the Sahara closed its buffet and two of its hotel towers due to weak demand during the holiday season.[39] In 2010, Nazarian was in negotiations with lenders to restructure the Sahara's debt, ultimately reaching a forbearance agreement with Royal Bank of Scotland Group, the primary lender.[38][40]

Closure: 2011-14

On March 11, 2011, it was announced that the Sahara would close in two months.[41][42][43][44] At the time, the Sahara had 1,720 hotel rooms and 85,000 sq ft (7,900 m2) of casino space. The resort featured two primary restaurants at the time: House of Lords steakhouse, and the NASCAR Café. The Sahara had 1,050 employees who would be affected by the closure. SBE intended to help find new jobs for Sahara employees at MGM Resorts' properties. Hotel customers with reservations following the planned closing date would also be transferred to MGM Resorts' properties.[38]

At the time of the closing announcement, Nazarian, the CEO of SBE, said, "We are working with our partners to assess a variety of options for the property, including a complete renovation and repositioning. While no final decisions have been made at this point, the continued operation of the aging Sahara was no longer economically viable."[38] Jerry Lewis, once a performer at the Sahara, said, "We are losing what was considered by most of us Las Vegans as one of the trademarks of the city."[15]

Speed – The Ride closed on May 1, 2011.[45] The ride was sold and removed. It was planned to be relocated across from the Mandalay Bay in the plaza that was to be called Akita Plaza.[46][47] As of 2019, the ride continues to sit in storage and has not been rebuilt.[48]

The sports book and Sahara Theater closed later in May 2011.[49] The resort's hotel and casino closed at 2:00 p.m. on May 16, 2011, marking the end of the Sahara's 58-year operation.[50][51][52][14][53] National Content Liquidators began a two-month liquidation sale at the Sahara in June 2011, with more than 600,000 items available for sale on the first day. Among the items for sale were the Sahara camel statues, priced at $12,000 each.[54][55] The contents of the NASCAR Café were excluded from the sale.[56] The sale concluded in September 2011, and attracted thousands of people over the course of its run. It was the largest liquidation sale in Las Vegas history. Items that did not sell were donated.[57] In September 2011, plans to redevelop the property were accelerated.[40]

SLS Las Vegas: 2014-19

On February 14, 2013, Nazarian announced the groundbreaking for the $415 million conversion of the hotel into the SLS Las Vegas.[1] The following month, the Sahara's camel sign on the Las Vegas Strip was dismantled.[30]

SLS Las Vegas opened on August 23, 2014.[1] It contained 1,600 rooms, a casino, four nightclubs, the clothing store Fred Segal and various restaurants.[58] Originally, the name "SLS", a chain of hotels, was chosen because the letters sounded good together. [59] Later, it was stated it could stand for whatever you want it to.[60] It has also been stated the name "SLS" was chosen by Nazarian to denote "style, luxury and service". [61] Nazarian has also said the letters came to him when he pulled up behind a Mercedes SL500, and thought the '5' looked like an 'S'.[62]

The guest rooms and restaurants were designed by Philippe Starck in collaboration with Gensler. Additionally, a handful of suites are designed by musician and actor Lenny Kravitz.[63] Nazarian, a developer of nightclubs, had the casino floor redesigned for a darker appearance resembling a nightclub, with a high ceiling and exposed ductwork. In one hotel tower, the rooms were updated to feature a basic design with gray walls and exposed concrete ceilings.[64]

A 32-foot-tall abstract statue, known as Sam by Starck, was designed by Starck and placed in front of the SLS, as a homage to Nazarian. The statue, resembling a silver starfish, was compared by some observers to the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and the Pillsbury Doughboy.[65][66] The statue, which used an internal steel frame,[67] was constructed on-site and in pieces. A 12-foot metal duck statue, also by Starck, was added to the hotel's pool area.[68] The duck statue is filled with Styrofoam and was glued in place.[67]

On September 6, 2014, Hilton Worldwide added the SLS to its specialty Curio brand.[69] The facility offers 80,000 sq ft of event space, 9 dining establishments, an open air rooftop pool/nightclub, and the Ciel Spa.

On October 6, 2015, Sam Nazarian sold his interest in the SLS Las Vegas and made an agreement to franchise the hotel to Stockbridge Real Estate Group.

On November 9, 2015, Starwood Hotels & Resorts announced that it would add SLS Las Vegas to its Tribute Portfolio, a chain of independent four-star hotels that would allow it to take advantage of Starwood's reservation platform and member benefits. It also announced that the 289-room LUX Tower, one of the three towers onsite, would undergo a renovation and rebranding as W Las Vegas in September 2016. The W would have its own dedicated entrance, lobby, meeting space, pool and facilities and will be managed by Starwood while the remainder of the SLS would remain under its existing management.[70] The conversion to the W was officially completed on December 1, 2016.[71]

In April 2018, the Meruelo Group purchased the SLS from Stockbridge.[72] Alex Meruelo announced plans for $100 million of renovations to the property, and was also expected to rebrand the SLS in 2019.[73] Observers speculated that the resort would revive the Sahara name, and renovation plans used a "working name" of "Grand Sahara Resort", mirroring the name of Meruelo's Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada.[73] Meruelo planned to redesign the casino floor, which he considered too dark. The previously renovated hotel tower would be updated again to remove its basic design in favor of a more conventional appearance. Paul Hobson was hired as general manager and would oversee the renovations. Meruelo considered the Hispanic clientele in Las Vegas underserved, and stated that it would be among the target demographics for the resort under his ownership.[64]

In August 2018, the SLS ended its relationship with Starwood, and the W Las Vegas was renamed as the Grand Tower and brought back under in-house management.[74]

Return to Sahara: 2019

An enormous ceremony involving fireworks and a light show was held on June 27, 2019 to announce an upcoming name change to Sahara Las Vegas, as part of the ongoing renovation.[75] The resort would continue to operate under the SLS name for several months until the Sahara name was fully implemented throughout the resort. The process to replace the SLS branding, including exterior signage, was expected to conclude in September or October 2019, at which point the resort would be marketed under the Sahara name.[76]

On the night of August 27, 2019, the Sam by Starck statue was removed during a ceremony and subsequently disposed, as part of the Sahara rebranding. The ceremony began with flames that were set off at the base of the statue, followed by a fireworks show. A crane subsequently tore the statue down. Palm trees are expected to take the place of the former statue.[65][66][68] Because of the way that the statue was constructed, a company spokesman stated that it would be nearly impossible to disassemble the statue and restore it elsewhere for display.[68] The pool area's duck statue is expected to be relocated to the pool at the Grand Sierra Resort.[67]

The resort became Sahara Las Vegas on August 29, 2019,[77] and renovations are expected to continue into 2020.[65][78][79][80] A renovation of the pool area is scheduled to begin in September 2019.[67] The Sahara's new lounge was named Casbar Lounge, after the resort's original live-music venue.[65] The new Sahara is modern in its design and does not feature a Moroccan theme as before, although it features references to the original Sahara. Hobson said, "You might see some camels in artwork around the property, but nothing in terms of a theme. There will be reference to the original Sahara era that reflects what we want for the modern era. There's some nostalgia, but we are defining it for today."[67]


Performers at the resort over the years have included Tony Bennett, Sonny & Cher,[13] Johnny Carson, Buddy Hackett, Don Rickles, Liberace, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, George Burns, and Sammy Davis Jr.[12][32] Other performers included Bobby Darin, Marlene Dietrich, Red Skelton,[24] Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Jack Benny, Paul Anka, George Carlin, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Wayne Newton, Bill Cosby, Ann-Margret, Louis Prima, Joey Bishop, Shelley Berman, The Drifters, The Coasters, and drag queen Kenny Kerr.[81][82][83]

In late 1954, entertainment director Bill Miller hired jazz musician Louis Prima to be their late night lounge act, one of the earliest ones on the Las Vegas Strip.[84][85] Along with his then-wife Keely Smith and sax player Sam Butera, they created one of the hottest late-night attractions on the Strip. In 1956, Abbott and Costello appeared together for the last time on the Sahara stage before their permanent breakup. On May 29, 1975, Kiss played two shows there on the same day; their first gigs in Las Vegas and first time for two shows on the same day as each other. The resort was the site of the annual Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon for many years,[13] first from 1973 to 1981 and again from 1991 to 1994.[86]

In 2000, a magic show by Steve Wyrick launched at the Sahara. Charo, who made her headliner debut at the Sahara two decades earlier, started a concert show at the resort in 2002.[27] While the resort was known as SLS Las Vegas, it featured two entertainment venues: Life Nightclub and Sayers Club; the latter included comedy shows. Life Nightclub was later renamed The Foundry. Blanc de Blanc, a cabaret-style variety show, debuted at The Foundry in August 2019.[67][87]

Film history

See also


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