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How Circus Circus Pioneered the Family Friendly Casino Resort in Las Vegas by David Schwartz

By Su Kim Chung on September 25, 2017 2:42 PM | Permalink


Tanya the Elephant on a balance beam at the Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada. Bill Willard Photo Collection (PH: 0333 0123).

As Circus Circus Hotel-Casino approaches its 49th anniversary on October 18, Dave Schwartz, Director of the Center for Gaming Research, takes a look back at our first "family friendly" resort.

If you believe most people, family friendly Las Vegas arrived in the 1990s and departed soon after. But the history of casinos catering (or attempting to cater to) families goes back much farther. As I discussed in my book Suburban Xanadu (2003), casinos as far back as the Desert Inn (1950) had daycare services.

Yet family friendly Las Vegas hit its first critical mass with Circus Circus. Jay Sarno’s sequel to Caesars Palace opened in 1968 without a hotel, but with a midway that featured games, food, and circus acts. (I talk about this in great depth in 2013’s Grandissimo). Sarno didn’t want to appeal only to families with children, but as a father who was also a dedicated gambler, he figured that plenty of other gambling men would like to bring their children to the casino with them. Those children, he thought, should have something to do while their dads shot craps.

While casinos like the Desert Inn, as mentioned above, had long provided places for children to quietly play while their parents enjoyed the more adult pleasures of the casino, Las Vegas had not seen anything quite like Circus Circus before. It was, in some ways, far ahead of its time: Sarno initially charged $2 for admission to his casino, which he justified by providing “free” world-class circus acts. This charge was wildly unpopular and he eventually dropped it, but, in an era of paid parking, does not seem as jarring as it once did.

Tanya the Elephant was one of the big (pun intended) attractions of Sarno’s Circus Circus, and the pachyderm worked on many levels. For children, most obviously, there was the thrill of seeing a real live elephant up close. Acrobats and contortionists were entertaining, but a massive beast near enough to touch was something to remember forever. For adults, Tanya showed that Sarno was serious about making Circus Circus something different. Serious gamblers, while they were more interested in getting action down, nonetheless must have appreciated that a casino owner with the bankroll to buy and care for an elephant would be able to pay off any winnings. Animals would continue to be marks of prestige for Las Vegas casinos, with The Mirage’s white tigers and MGM Grand’s lions the best known, although the Tropicana’s bird show should not be discounted.

Tanya was, in her own large way, a step towards the construction of modern Las Vegas. In Devil’s Bargains, historian Hal Rothman cites the 1969 passage of the Corporate Gaming Act by the Nevada legislature as the most important event in modern Las Vegas history since it led Las Vegas to reinvent itself into a center for “entertainment tourism.” Key to this entertainment tourism was, Rothman argues, malleability, the ability to offer many things to many people and to shift with the times. A fully-functional circus—elephant included—that was also a working casino was nothing if not malleable.

Sarno himself was, by his own admission, a “degenerate gambler” who was obsessed with craps. He didn’t think any real gambler would have trouble focusing on the game when acrobats were twirling above because for him nothing could match the thrill of gambling. Yet he saw that to have a chance, his casino needed to appeal to a wider audience. As some casinos are just now acknowledging, entertainment—be it an elephant or a Cirque show—is a key way to do that.

And, it’s worth noting, the strand of American gambling that culminated in slot machines evolved from earlier carnival, fair, and circus games, so a circus-themed casino is quite appropriate.

For more information on Circus Circus in Special Collections and Archives, check out the Jay Sarno Papers (MS-00548), the Jay Sarno Photograph Collection (PH-00347), and the Circus Circus Promotional and Publicity Collection. Digital images and digitzed architectural drawings of Circus Circus can be found in the Dreaming the Skyline Digital Collection