International/Las Vegas Hilton/Westgate (1969-Present)
International/Las Vegas Hilton/Westgate (1969-Present)
Location: Just Off The Strip
3000 Paradise Rd.
Las Vegas, NV 89109
What’s There Now: Westgate Resort & Casino
Closed: Still In Operation
Hotel opens as The International
Hotel sold to Hilton Corporation; renamed the Las Vegas Hilton
Hotel is expanded
Hotel is expanded again
Arson fire in the hotel kills 8 people
World’s largest sports book opens
Star Trek attraction and Spacequest Casino open
Hotel sold to Colony Capital
Star Trek exhibit closes
Deal with Hilton to license name expires; hotel is renamed LVH: Las Vegas Hotel
Columbia Sussex goes bankrupt
Hotel sinks into foreclosure
Purchased by Goldman Sachs and Grammercy Capital
Hotel is purchased by Westgate Resorts and renamed the Westgate Resort & Casino Las Vegas
By the early 1950s, Las Vegas was booming. Major resorts like The Sahara, The Desert Inn, and The Dunes were opening on The Strip and people were flocking to the city in numbers that were surprising everyone. Lured by the bright neon lights, the Sin City naughtiness (topless dancers!), and the ability to wager on just about everything, Las Vegas was in its prime.
But the one thing the city famous for betting didn’t have was its own horse racing track. These days, of course, you can wager on horse races pretty much anywhere in the world, but in the early 1950s if it wasn’t happening in front of you, it was lot harder to place a bet on it.
Hence the idea for the Las Vegas Park Race Track. The 480 acre project had its groundbreaking in 1949 on a plot of land just east of The Strip and just across the official city limit at what is now Sahara Avenue. Money trouble delayed construction several times over the years but when it finally opened in 1953 it had a track for horse racing, a multi-tiered grandstand, stables, a club house, a bar and restaurant, and parking for 6,000 cars. It also had one a revolutionary idea – slot machines. While so-called “racinos” are common today, the Las Vegas Park facility was the first and only one in the country to offer a combination of gambling like this.
Trouble started almost immediately when the wagering system they had installed caused long waits to place bets. Despite numerous attempts to fix the problems, the track declined quickly and closed in bankruptcy just a few years after it opened. The facilities rotted in the Nevada sun for the better part of a decade until two big chunks of the land were sold off, one to create the Las Vegas Country Club and the other to build the Las Vegas Convention Center.
The rest of the land was purchased in 1967 by Kirk Kerkorian.
Kerkorian had amassed a fortune in aviation, starting with a charter service that flew gamblers from Los Angeles to Las Vegas that he eventually built into a full-service airline known as Trans International.
He invested some of his airplane money in Las Vegas, first buying land across the street from The Flamingo in the early 1960s that he rented to the folks who built Caesars Palace there. His roughly $1 million investment was sold to Caesars in 1968 for a reported $9 million.
But Kerkorian was not satisfied with being just a landlord – he wanted his own Vegas hotel and so the former Las Vegas Park Race Track land became the site for his first major play.
When it opened on July 2, 1969, The International was the largest hotel in the world with a 30-story, three-wing tower housing more than 1,500 rooms; the world’s largest casino at 30,000 square-feet; the largest pool in the state; a 1,600-seat showroom; restaurants and lounges; and more, all built at a then staggering cost of $60 million.
True to its name, the hotel had an International theme. Rooms were designed with Paris, London, and other far-flung cities in mind and they even had a Buckingham Palace style guard out front. The rest of the property had a similar jet-setting flair to it.
Kerkorian was also a Hollywood player, buying MGM studios in the same year. This allowed him to leverage his Tinseltown connections to make a big splash with The International. Barbara Streisand and Peggy Lee provided the opening night entertainment and luminaries such as Cary Grant and Lucille Ball were in attendance.
But the biggest boon to the hotel was the headlining stint that started in a few weeks after it opened by none other than the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley. His record-breaking series of more than 700 shows played at the hotel until 1976 and helped cement The International as a destination resort even though it wasn’t directly on The Strip.
Kerkorian, who also owned The Flamingo on The Strip at that time, sold both of the hotels to the Hilton Corporation, which rebranded them the Flamingo Hilton and the Hilton International (later the Las Vegas Hilton). The property only carried The International name for about two years.
Kerkorian went on to build the original MGM Grand on The Strip, now Bally’s.
In the 1970s, as the name changes started taking place, so too did an expansion. Two of the three wings of the property were extended in 1975 and 1978, adding more than 1,000 rooms and expanding the recreation deck to include tennis courts and more. More shopping, restaurants, and entertainment were also added.
On November 21, 1980, tragedy struck on the Las Vegas Strip when a devastating fire broke out at the MGM Grand killing more than 80 people and injuring more than 700. Some of the blame for the high casualties was placed on the lack of a comprehensive fire alarm and sprinkler system and in the way the hotel was designed, which effectively funneled smoke from the ground floor fire up into the hotel towers.
Because the MGM Grand and Las Vegas Hilton were both built by the same companies, it was feared that they might have the same design flaws so a retrofitting started in early 1981. Sadly, it didn’t happen in time.
A fire broke out at the Las Vegas Hilton shortly after 8pm on Saturday, February 10, 1981. Eight people died including one that jumped from the 16th floor to escape the flames. While certainly a horrific tragedy in its own right, the lessons learned from the MGM Grand fire helped saved countless lives as the local news media broadcast warnings to guests to stay in their rooms and not venture into the smoke-filled hallways.
The exact cause of the blaze is still debated to this day but unlike the MGM Grand fire, which was later ruled to be an accident caused by an improperly installed electrical conduit, the Las Vegas Hilton fire is known to have been arson.
23-year-old Phillip Bruce Cline, a busboy at the hotel, was originally hailed as a hero. He was the person credited for discovering the blaze in an eighth floor elevator lobby and reportedly ran from door to door alerting guests. Later, Cline admitted to having started the fire himself but his story on how, exactly, that happened has changed over the years. At first he said he and a friend were smoking a marijuana cigarette in that elevator lobby when it accidentally caught the curtains on fire. The story took a turn later, when Cline said he was having sex with the man on a couch in the lobby when the cigarette ignited the upholstery.
Fire investigators doubted both versions of the events. They were never able to find the mysterious man that Cline reported to have been having a liaison with and eventually discovered that the fire had four separate points of origin on four different floors. Cline was convicted of eight counts of murder and was sentenced to eight consecutive life terms.
In a 2011 jailhouse interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal, Cline changed his story yet again. He now claims there was no other man but that his roommate had given him a marijuana cigarette laced with cocaine and PCP, which he smoked in the eighth floor elevator lobby. He says that potent combination of drugs is what caused him to intentionally light the curtains on fire, although he says he did it for no particular reason and never intended to hurt anyone. This still does not explain the four different ignition points of the fire, though, and most people associated with the still pin the blaze as an intentional act of mayhem.
Interestingly, some also blame Cline for the MGM Grand fire. He was working at that hotel when the November 1980 blaze broke out and conspiracy theories abound that he set that fire as well, even though investigators definitively ruled out arson.
The hotel was closed in the fire’s aftermath but reopened quickly even as workers continued repairing the damage.
The massive race and sports book, still billed as the world’s largest, was added in 1986.
In the early 1990s, the hotel added a massive new sign at the front of the property, touted as the highest freestanding sign in the world at more than 365 feet tall. A fierce windstorm destroyed part of the sign in 1994 but it was rebuilt and remains standing today.
In 1998, the hotel underwent its most dramatic change yet when it partnered with Paramount to open a $70 million Star Trek themed attraction. It included a memorabilia museum, a space-themed bar, and an immersive tour with costume-clad actors and a motion simulator ride. The Spacequest Casino opened at roughly the same time, turning an area near the lobby into a intergalactic themed gambling destination that tried to make it seem as if you were playing the slots inside a space ship. Fun touches included “windows” that showed planets and stars passing by and bathrooms with interactive screens that supposedly analyzed whatever you were leaving behind, so to speak.
Park Place turned around and made a deal to sell the Hilton to Edward Roski, Jr., who was mostly known in Vegas for building the Boomtown hotel and casino along Interstate 15 (which today is The Silverton). That deal collapsed into a flurry of lawsuits and Park Place held onto the property until they bought Caesars Palace and renamed themselves Caesars Entertainment. That new entity sold the Las Vegas Hilton to the investment firm Colony Capital in 2004 for $280 million, who entered into a deal with Hilton to keep the name of the hotel in place.
Colony transferred the hotel to one of its subsidiaries, Resorts International, which consolidated it with other gaming properties in Atlantic City and Tunica, Mississippi.
Also in 2004, the hotel became one of the stops on the Las Vegas Monorail route.
The Star Trek attraction and the bar area closed in September 2008. There had been word that it would get moved Downtown to Neonopolis but that never happened. The Spacequest casino remained open for a time but was eventually de-spaced, so to speak, and turned the big screens that showed the planets into giant TVs showing sports.
The deal for the Hilton name ended on January 3, 2012 and the Las Vegas Hilton became known as LVH-Las Vegas Hotel. Nothing other than the signs really changed.
The hotel sunk into a foreclosure sale in 2012 and was sold off to the Goldman Sachs, who owned the loans on the property, and another investment firm, Grammercy Capital. They ran the place for about a year until it was sold in June of 2014 to Westgate Resorts, a major timeshare operator. They immediately rebranded the property as The Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino and announced plans to convert it to a timeshare property.
In 2015, the new owners started rehabbing the hotel. Rooms were revamped, new restaurants and entertainment was added, the pool area was expanded and redone, and the casino was remodeled. An Elvis themed attraction, done in partnership with the Graceland estate, took over the space where the Star Trek attraction had been, bringing the hotel full circle in terms of its relationship with The King. The former Spacequest casino was turned into the sales center for the timeshares.