[The Incidental Tourist]

A spin around Circus Circus, the strangest venue on the Strip

Zoltar, we wish this carousel still turned.
Photo: C. Moon Reed

I don’t think it’s moving. Is it moving? There’s a sign hanging on one side of this casino carousel at Circus Circus, a round, two-story structure with slot machines on the first level and a defunct snack bar up above. “Watch Your Step Moving Platform.” But I don’t think it’s moving.

I’m asking several casino workers, and no one seems to know when this merry-go-round actually goes ’round. A carnival-game booth attendant says she’s never seen it rotate. When I check in with them later, MGM Resorts spokespeople tell me the carousels are actually separate machines, and the one with slot machines is constantly rotating at such a slow speed it’s hard to notice it’s moving.

It’s difficult to focus on this thing to determine if it’s spinning; there’s kind of a lot going on at Circus Circus.

I also assumed one of these carousels was the infamous rotating bar depicted in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but MGM shot me down. Although the midway carousel appears to have operated as the Horse Around Bar at some point, I’m told there was a separate carousel bar on the midway level that is no longer there. I’m not sure I fully believe that, just like I can’t discern if this thing’s spinning or not.

You don’t have to be in a Thompson-esque blur to wonder if what’s happening around you at Circus Circus is real or just in your head. Every part of this property is its own colorful cacophony, a dose of sensory overload that has survived generations. Certainly, it must be the strangest venue on the Strip, and it was probably just as odd a fit when it opened in 1968 as it is today.

Other than the free circus acts on that midway level taking place throughout the day, there’s no show here. It’s the only casino where the casino is the entertainment, old-school Vegas thinking to the extreme. Unlike the Flamingo, the Tropicana and Caesars Palace—the other oldies on the Strip—there has been nothing resembling a full-scale renovation or update of Circus Circus, no rebranding of the clowns. This is a place where you can sit at a bar and suck down a frozen mango margarita while watching Bruno Mars videos and eating shrimp tacos from Vince Neil’s Tatuado Eat Drink Party restaurant to kill time before your free 12:30 p.m. craps lesson begins. And you haven’t even made it to the roller coaster yet.

That might not sound like everyone’s idea of a good time in Las Vegas, but it’s definitely working. Circus Circus is packed, from the blindingly pink Adventuredome to the stalwart Steak House to the RV park. Here I am, staring at this carousel, trying to figure out why it’s not spinning around in a more obvious manner, because wouldn’t that be great for Fear and Loathing fans to visit the actual spot where their heroes finally caught the Fear? What I didn’t realize—until I got through that first mango margarita—is that Circus Circus, campy and cheesy as it is, doesn’t need people visiting for ironic fun. There are already plenty of folks having totally unironic fun here, now including me.

Anyone waiting for MGM to revamp this property and add cool, millennial-friendly features is missing the point. Anyone looking for a real vestige of Vegas good ol’ days should look no further than this, a casino with the bits of architecture, neon, playfulness and value that are so hard to find on the Strip these days.

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Brock Radke has been writing about Las Vegas for more than 18 years. He currently serves as editor-at-large covering the ...

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