If you were born after, say, the early 1980’s, it’s unlikely you have any clear memories of the Dunes Las Vegas. Unless, of course, you were local to Bright Light City or accompanied your family on a vacation. 

Demolished in the early 90’s, the Dunes Las Vegas was once a glittering oasis in the desert, known for its luxurious amenities and top-notch entertainment. It sat where you’ll now find the famed Bellagio fountains. Opulent in their own right, those world-famous jet streams owe a lot of credit to one of the properties that helped propel Las Vegas into what it is today.

The early years of the Dunes Las Vegas

The Dunes was built in the 1950s by a group of investors (of course there were various ties to the mafia) who — like too many others — saw the potential for a high-end resort in the emerging city of Las Vegas. If you look up opening dates of other resorts along the strip, you’ll notice so many of them launched in the 1940s to early 1950s. The Flamingo was one of the most famous — opening in 1946. 

The resort, originally built with less than 200 rooms, featured a casino (duh), several restaurants, a swimming pool, and a golf course. It opened with fanfare — including a performance by Frank Sinatra. In 1956, Billie Holiday made her only Las Vegas appearance at the Dunes. 

Oh, and that glorious 30 foot sultan. Seriously — look at him

But because of a ton of competition (small stuff by today’s standards as Vegas now has 150,000 hotel rooms), it didn’t immediately prosper. It was one of a handful of properties opening within months of each other. But it would survive decades and become a popular destination for tourists and celebrities alike — cementing its own place in Las Vegas history.

The 1950s and 1960s at the Dunes Las Vegas

In the 1950s and 60s, the Dunes was known for its star-studded entertainment lineup and became a hot spot for celebrity sightings, with stars like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe known to visit. Mary Tyler Moore and Jane Fonda both had weddings there. 

It also had Vegas’ first topless show — something that would become somewhat prolific in later years. Though, today, they’re much harder to find as Vegas has since gone through various periods of attempting to be kid-friendly (no, the card slappers don’t count as a show). 

As we start to develop more vintage-style Las Vegas t-shirts, you can bet the early days of the Dunes will be on our minds. 

credit: https://vintagelasvegas.com/search/Dunes

You can also thank the 60’s for the huge famed Dune’s sign that was 180’ tall and featured miles of neon (and a cost of half a million dollars or almost five million in 2023 money). Fun fact — it was designed by Federal Sign in LA. 

So was the Dunes’ eventual failure the result of not hiring Yesco? Yes, most likely. 

The Dunes in the 1970s and 1980s

The Dunes entered a new era in the 1970s and 80s, with changes in ownership and management leading to renovations and expansions of the property. Despite these efforts, the Dunes struggled to keep up with the rapidly evolving Vegas strip. 

But we got a bit ahead of ourselves. The 70s opened with a bang for the resort — it was featured in the James Bond classic, “Diamonds are Forever.” And the famous Dunes sign even made an appearance. 

However, yes, mob ties and various investigations and natural (and perhaps some unnatural) deaths of leadership lead to upheaval. It was even rumored to be a makeshift office for Tony Spilotro in the mid seventies (who was supposedly included in the black book which should have kept him far away from such properties). 

Despite all of this, the Oasis Casino (at the right corner abutting the strip where you can now cross via pedestrian bridge to Caesars or dare to venture over to the Grand Bazaar shops) was added in 1982 as an extension of the property. 

Oasis.” Does the title of this post make more sense now? We’re very clever here. It’s part of our charm. 

credit: https://vintagelasvegas.com/search/Dunes

But the Dunes was in trouble. It spent the better part of the next decade trying to avoid bankruptcy through various sales and restructuring. Tycoons Wynn and Trump both made offers throughout this time. If you’re familiar with Wynn, you likely know where this story ends up. Even Kirk Kerkorian was involved in bids to purchase the property. You know him as one of the major pioneers of modern Las Vegas (along with Steven Wynn, often a bitter rival). Kerkorian’s responsible for the MGM Grand – errr Bally’s… errr… Horseshoe (different owners, of course). You know, the ugly white building across from the Bellagio and Caesars? 

The final years of the Dunes Las Vegas 

Ultimately, a wealthy Japanese investor, Masao Nangaku, would win ownership of the property with plans to put hundreds of millions of dollars into renovations and expansions. But, as these things go, the gaming control board took forever to do their investigation. Apparently, there were lots of things they didn’t like. 

He was issued a temporary, two year license, and eventually would get a permanent license. But, by then, the damage was done and the promises of renovations and expansions never came to fruition (it’s hard to get funding when the casino’s long-term licensure is in question). 

If you know Las Vegas history, you’ll know that the turn of the decade from the 80s to the 90s is really when modern Las Vegas was born. The strip was seeing huge mega resorts open with kitschy (now we’re super nostalgic for themed resorts), but fun and attention-grabbing themes. The excalibur, the Luxor, and… the Mirage among others. 

The Dunes was just no longer in a place to compete and was losing significant money each month. 

In 1992, Steve Wynn’s company purchased the Dunes for $75 — about half of what Nangaku had paid. By mid september of ‘93, demolition had begun. The original north tower was demolished in late October of the same year in a really amazing ceremony. Wynn had just opened Treasure Island (it had the awesome pirate ships and shows back then… now it’s owned by Phil Ruffin, I believe) and the Dunes tower was imploded in sync with a production show at Treasure Island — with “cannon balls” being fired to take down the tower. 

Please come back to finish reading this post (and buy a Vegas souvenir!), but first, you absolutely must watch the implosion if you’ve never seen it: 

https://youtu.be/5Szcsaz-ToA 

It is, perhaps, the coolest Vegas demolition to date. It may also be quite sad to many of those reading this. But, there was, it appears, no love lost from Steve Wynn who is quoted as saying

“It’s becoming in death a much better place than it was in life. This thing about melancholy in its passing is sorta strange. No one felt that while it [the Dunes] was laying there, terminally ill. It’s been laying there on life support systems for many years”

The Future of the Dunes Las Vegas 

Besides potentially being featured in future Las Vegas souvenirs we produce, there’s no set future for the Dunes Las Vegas. Names sometimes come back in Vegas. Just take a look at The Horseshoe’s comeback in prominence on the Las Vegas strip (it was downtown before, to be clear) and in other locations around the country. Who would’ve bet on a Horseshoe comeback a few years ago? 

So, really, this section is a prelude to what became of the Dunes’ property after its death. Wynn had amazing plans that we can all be thankful for today — the Bellagio. 

While the Dunes may no longer be standing, its legacy lives on as a pioneering resort that helped to shape the glamorous, over-the-top destination that Las Vegas is today. Its closure marked the end of an era, but the Bellagio and other resorts on the strip continue to carry on the legacy of opulence and excess that the Dunes helped to establish.

All pictures credit: https://vintagelasvegas.com/search/Dunes