For many years, the attitude of Las Vegas towards its casino resorts was “Out with the old, in with the new!” But everything old is new again at the rejuvenated Sahara on the Strip, which celebrates its 70th birthday October 7. The renovated hotel is offering many 70th anniversary promotions, with the tagline, “Seventy never looked so good!”
Much of the Sahara is new, but the past has power too.
Entertainers like Elvis, Don Rickles, Tony Bennett, and a TV host named Johnny Carson all played the Sahara, as seen in framed photos on the walls of today’s hotel. Celebrities like Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Marlena Dietrich and Frank Sinatra came to stay, play or perform.
Back in the day, there was a high diving board and epic card games like pan poker. The Beatles stayed there on their lone visit to Las Vegas, but due to demand, their Sahara show was moved to the Convention Center.
But unlike imploded contemporaries like the Sands, Stardust, Dunes and the Desert Inn, the Sahara is very much alive today. The resort is an oasis on the north end of the strip, with its soothing earth tones, cool marble and inviting pool and lounges. It boasts one of the newest poker rooms on the Strip, opened in 2020. And unlike today’s megaresorts, walking across the Sahara from check-in to lounges to coffee shop to rooms to casino to pool is a simple stroll.
The Sahara is across the street from the Festival Grounds used for major outdoor concerts, attracting a younger audience. The pool area boasts one of the largest outdoor television screens, loud pop music, an outdoor bar, and seating from lounge chairs to lux cabanas.
It’s easy to get in or out of the hotel by car, taxi, rideshare or Monorail. For example, the Sahara puts up about 100 airline pilots and crew per night. No doubt they get a good rate. But coming from the airport, crews pass at least 50 hotels, including all the resorts on the South Strip. Easy access and a hard day’s night of sleep have a value all their own.
The Sahara hardly looks its age, with lots of light, marble finishes, an updated pool and cabana area, and nicely renovated rooms. Much of that has to do with a $150 million upgrade by its current ownership, which purchased Sahara and reclaimed its name from the SLS (the less said about that disco incarnation, the better) four years ago.
Small(er) is beautiful at the Sahara. The hotel has 1600 rooms. This is substantial by most measures, but not in Las Vegas, where it doesn’t even make the top 10. The largest is the MGM Grand, with over 5000 rooms. Mandalay Bay, number #11 on the list, has 3209 rooms, twice as many as Sahara.
But from a business point of view, fewer rooms mean less rooms to fill. And while the Sahara has lacks a showroom like Caesar’s 4000-seat Colosseum, or an enormous 1.8 million square foot conference/tradeshow facility at Mandalay Bay, the hotel is a good fit for both leisure and business travelers.
“It’s hard to call a 1600-room resort a boutique hotel,” said Paul Hobson, President of the Sahara Las Vegas. Yet that’s the feeling the Sahara is going for. On the meetings side, Hobson said, groups of one hundred to five hundred get the hotel’s full attention. “Groups like this might feel lost in one of the megaresorts,” he noted.
The Sahara also has an efficient texting app for guests. It offered quick responses to mundane questions like where the gym is, can I have a late checkout, etc.
The Sahara’s smaller size and somewhat less desirable North Strip location probably helped contribute to its survival. There was no need to demolish the property, which could be run efficiently without a multi-billion-dollar demolition and rebuild. When billionaire Phil Ruffin bought the nearby 3800-room Circus Circus, (admittedly in scratch-and-dent condition) he paid just $825 million. By contrast, 3500-room Resorts World Las Vegas, not far from Sahara, opened in 2021 at a cost of $4.3 billion dollars.
Why did Sahara survive seventy years, while others barely made it to middle age? The Sands, for instance, one of the top Vegas hotels, lasted barely 44 years.
“The Sahara’s [North Strip] location had a lot to do with it. The South Strip is where most of the action is,” says Dr. Michael Green, Associate Professor of History at UNLV.
“Still, the Sahara is an important historical location for the Strip. It begins with entertainment. The Beatles stayed at the Sahara, Elvis Presley played there,” says Green. “Bill Miller, the entertainment director, brought in a down at heels guy, Louis Prima and Keeley Smith, who ended up packing the place for years.”
Green notes the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon was held for 20 years at the Sahara, “with celebrities plugging the hotel.”
When I visited in September, I heard a live lounge act play 1970’s tunes. Today’s big Sahara show is Magic Mike Live, based on the successful film and partly backed by actor Channing Tatum. The largely female crowd seemed to love the cast of handsome underdressed men and the Cinderella story of a would-be dancer. In a different venue, comedian Eddin Griffin (Undercover Brother) delivered a raunchy set.
Dr. Green notes that in the 1950’s, showrooms were similarly intimate. “The Sands at 600 seats was the biggest. When Sinatra first performed at the Desert Inn, he’d say, ‘You got filet mignon and me.’”
The Sahara was known for its cuisine when Las Vegas was “a food desert,” according to Dr. Green. Restaurants like the House of Lords and Don the Beachcomber have given way to the acclaimed Bazaar Meat By José Andrés, one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas for unabashed meat eaters. Then there’s the Noodle Den, a sophisticated Chinese restaurant, and what ESPN calls the #1 Sports Bar in North America, Chickie’s & Pete.
The Sahara was one of the first themed hotels, with buildings like the Casbah and the camels who guarded the entrance for years, says Green. “The Strip properties of old has been imploded. They can’t compete with the modern megaresort. I’m grateful that the Sahara is interested in its history. Mostly, in Las Vegas, we blew up our history.” (Late at night, you can still see electric Vegas signs at the Neon Museum.)
Dr. Green reminisced that “My parents got married and stayed at the Sahara.” Some things haven’t changed much. In September, I saw a bachelorette with a sash,. A wedding party escorted a bride in an off-white dress with a cummerbund. A dad nodded at a security guard and told his young son to “Say hi to Big Mike!”
“In today’s Sahara, you don’t get the feeling that it was built in 1952. Nobody comes to the Las Vegas to stay at a place that reminds them of the Fifties.,” says Dr. Green. “They’re offering what they’re offering—relaxation, entertainment, gaming, name chefs—without overwhelming you.”