Steve Wynn's Vegas Vision Turned Into Reality

The casino mogul discusses politics and his feud with Trump.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 10:54 AM

Sept. 26, 2007 — -- In Steve Wynn's wildest dreams, a 50-foot volcano explodes in a hotel lobby, giant fountains dance to classical music and sharks and white tigers prowl a western American metropolis. While most people's dreams remain that way, anyone can see Wynn's imaginings live, on the Las Vegas strip.

"I came when it was a small town," Wynn told "Nightline." "And when I was a kid in 1952, when I came with my dad, guys wore cowboy boots and cowboy clothes. There was a wonderful romantic freedom to this place.".

To many, Wynn is the man who reinvented Las Vegas. He moved there with his wife in 1967, just as Vegas was becoming a well-known gambling hotbed.

Gone was the glamour of the "Rat Pack" days when movie stars rubbed shoulders with high rollers and people thought the mob ran the town.

"The actual bad guys that you read about — they never came to Las Vegas," said Wynn. "They were back in New Jersey, and Chicago, and New York. … It wasn't much money here. It was all exaggerated."

The times have changed. Wynn has an estimated net worth in excess of $3.9 billion.

For better or for worse, Wynn spent the last several decades transforming Vegas from a seedy strip in the desert to a place where you can eat in the finest restaurants, and shop in the most exclusive stores.

Wynn said the experience is not about the gambling.

"It's about the noncasino parts. People don't move for a slot machine. Hell, they're everywhere. … They're a commodity. They are all the same. Every slot machine or blackjack table in the world is like every other."

"What moves people is when they have time for recreation and leisure," Wynn said. "That they can go somewhere and have an experience that's richer, more exciting, maybe more beautiful, and more fun than they can get any other day, every other day of their life."

Wynn said he never resorted to unorthodox methods, like organized crime.

"I have been here since I was 25 years old. I heard the stories," Wynn said. "I even met some of the old-time guys but … this is one of the most benign square places on Earth."

"Benign" may not be the word most people use to describe Las Vegas, but it's hard to argue that Wynn doesn't know the town and its history.

In his first deal, Wynn bought a piece of property from billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. He sold the lot 11 months later, making about $1 million in the process. He bought the Golden Nugget a few years later at the age of 32 — making him the youngest casino owner in the country.

A series of hotels followed. In 1989, he created the Mirage — that's the one with the exploding volcano. Treasure Island followed with full-size pirate ships that periodically battle, and, of course, explode.

The Bellagio with the dancing fountains opened in 1998. Picassos replaced pirates. And, as Van Goghs appeared, the fun became upscale.

"Mirage, Bellagio and Treasure Island all came from the same mentality," said Wynn. "That the front of the hotel and its accoutrement are the theater of it all."

In a sense, Las Vegas was to become a playground for adults.

"It was Walt Disney, I think, that really sort of summarized and produced, as an example, his own little world, and in it, things were in the literary, romantic sense, better than they were in the real world."

And so began the transformation of the Vegas Strip. While Wynn was not the only mogul in town, the theme hotels with their extraordinary delights arrived in a hurry.

"Where else could you get away with such, such outrageous things," asked Wynn. "In this wacky city, they've got the pyramid of Egypt there at Luxor, next to King Arthur and the Excalibur. And next to that is New York, New York. … Now, in any other city, you'd get arrested for that!"

Vegas, with its over-the-top glitz and glamour, has been called tacky and even trashy. But, it also had appeal, not just to adults, but to their kids. Wynn, however, said it was never his intention to draw children.

"This is for the parents," he said. "I never meant to attract children. What we did do, and we should do, is realize that families often travel together, and, therefore, the hotel should be user-friendly to everybody. But, in terms of my pitch, my goal is for you — I'm looking for parents — not children."

If Wynn was a bit defensive about having helped create a family-friendly Las Vegas, it is partly because the city can benefit from having an edge.

"There has been a mystique about this city, and the mafia, that has been good for Vegas in many respects," Wynn admitted. "And I said to the Resort Association one day … 'Now, look you guys, we've got to stop complaining about people thinking that we've hooked up with the mafia, because if we convince everybody that we really are like Des Moines, no one is going to come here anymore.' Be careful what you wish for."

Now, Donald Trump is coming to town.

"He's going to be our neighbor across the street," said Wynn. "Listen, wherever this guy goes … the Trumpster — he brings excitement, a lot of fanfare and ballyhoo. If you can't do that in Las Vegas, where in the hell can you do it? So, welcome to town, Donald. It's nice to have you here. Stir up as much of a hornet's nest as you can."

Wynn and Trump have had a notoriously tempestuous relationship. Wynn reportedly called Trump "twinkle toes," and Trump called Wynn "psychotic," among other things.

"He's a colorful, one-off personality," said Wynn. "I think everyone in America would agree that there's no one like Donald Trump, that we've ever seen before. It's doubtful that we'll ever see it again. He's bigger than life. He loves the role, and the position he's made for himself … he enjoys creating this caricature, and he's benefited from it, and the more power to him for that."

While Wynn rekindled his relationship with Trump, he and his wife shifted decisively in the world of politics.

In 2004, the Wynns publicly supported George Bush in the presidential election. Now, Elaine Wynn is outspoken in her support for Democratic front-runner Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

"I think he has the capacity for dynamic leadership," she said. "I think that he is intellectually gifted — his background testifies to that. … I want to get behind a candidate who can espouse certain things that I believe in."

Her husband remains undecided.

"Elaine and I are privileged to be friends with George and Barbara, the father and mother," said Wynn. "I supported the son because he's the father's son, and I thought and believed that he had the same good qualities of his dad. … So, yes, I did support the president. But, his time is now coming to an end, and we face a world much more complex than he faced. Things have spiraled during the period."

Celebrity feuds and politics aside, gambling generates billions of dollars every year. The irony? Wynn's father was addicted to gambling. And so was Elaine's.

Wynn was about to head to law school when his father died, leaving the family in deep debt. Instead of going to school, Wynn gave up his spot at Yale, and set out to make money. He knew gambling, which is how he and Elaine ended up living in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn. They never left.

Elaine and Wynn's fathers were friends and gambling buddies. "That's how Elaine and I met," said Wynn. "Our fathers were playing gin or pinochle together at the Fontainebleau, and we went on our first date with our parents."

Forty-four years, seven hotels, two children and seven grandchildren later, Elaine is still by his side. Neither she nor her husband are much interested in gambling, themselves. In fact, Wynn's attitude is famously cynical. He admits the only way to make money in a casino is "to own one."

Having said that, the Wynns do not apologize for the fact that gambling is at the heart of their empire. Nor do they worry that they may be helping to turn recreational gamblers into problem gamblers.

"It was a compulsion that grips 2 [percent] or 3 percent of the people," said Wynn. "Like the proclivity for drugs or alcohol, and compulsive gambling is a compulsion. It is a thing that a person has a genetic disposition, and there's not much you can do about it. They're going to do it one way or another, whether or not there's a casino."

Wynn's casinos are deeply influenced by his wife. Her glamorous office is right next to his.

"She has a role here," said Wynn. "If people think I'm stupid at a particular moment, they'll be tactful and go to Elaine for a course correction."

"I wish that they'd have enough gumption to tell me that I'm stupid to my face," Wynn continued. "I wouldn't mind. I like a good argument. But, Elaine [has a] steady personality. Same thing she had when she was in high school. … She was the way she is now when she was 18."

Wynn is also known to have a notoriously bad temper. "I'm a passionate person, and passionate people believe in things, and they're excitable. Fortunately, most people of passion get over it, and if they do behave poorly, apologize."

Besides business, Wynn is also passionate about fine paintings. He amassed an extraordinary art collection at the Bellagio, and he still has a private collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A Vermeer, hanging in his office, is one of only 39 Vermeers in the world.

Wynn also recently purchased the largest pear-shaped diamond in the world — 231 carats.

"People come to expect, with our name and our extended brand, that we represent quality and refinement," said Elaine. "So, everything that we do, we hope extends that feeling and that thought. So, we couldn't have some little teeny thing. … We aren't into starter hotels or starter diamonds."

The Wynns are into making money, and the diamond is sure to be used to draw in customers at their latest venture in Macau, gambling's latest hot spot.

"My definition of a visionary," said Wynn, "is someone who knows where the market wants to go about five minutes ahead of everyone else. Somebody's got to show the way, I guess."

How good Wynn's vision on Macau is remains to be seen. What is clear, is that Wynn's actual vision is failing. He has a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which narrows his vision.

"I don't see well in the dark at all. Like, when you walk into a movie theater, before your eyes adjust, that's what it's like for me."

The man with the world-class art collection, the diamonds and the fabulous hotels may one day not be able to see them at all.

"You have a choice in life," said Wynn. "I mean, we all tend to define our own misery, but I think we get to decide whether or not we get defeated on the spot, or wait till we actually are defeated. And so, I'm concentrating on what I can see, so to speak, and what I can do — not what I can't do."

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