A crowd of people gathers at the Bellagio lake’s edge, watching as a spherical puff of white fog rises above the surface, dissipating quickly in the afternoon sun.

It’s only a routine test, a small demonstration of the way fog is created during the Fountains of Bellagio show. Though it’s over within a few seconds, the people watch and wait, hoping the lake will offer up a majestic treat in the form of dancing water and swelling music.

The slightest hint of activity — a boat, bubbling water, daily equipment tests — is enough to draw a curious audience, all willing to direct their focus on the eight-acre lake. It has been that way since the attraction debuted with Bellagio’s opening in 1998, fountain operators say.

“You come out here any night and people are lined up to see it,” says Gene Bowling, Bellagio’s front feature manager. “It touches people emotionally in different ways. In my opinion, it has probably eclipsed the ‘Welcome to (Fabulous) Las Vegas’ sign in popularity and recognition.”

Indeed, in a town where a decade can be a lifetime and newer and younger is almost always better, the fountains at Bellagio endure. Thirteen years after its introduction, the feature has become an icon recognized around the world, so popular that some tourists plan vacations to see it, says Jim Doyle, director of new technologies for WET Design, the company that designed and built it.

Even Bellagio’s neighbors, the Jockey Club and the Strip’s newest addition, The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, advertise some hotel rooms and restaurants based on the view of Bellagio’s fountains.

It’s an unusual marketing approach for a competitor but not surprising considering the universal appeal of the fountains, says David Schwartz, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Center for Gaming Research. “I think that whole image of water in the middle of the desert is something that really touches people in an emotional way.”

Doyle says he knew early on that the feature would be a crowd favorite when he saw it in action. Its versatility — the fountains can be programmed to move to any music — and its sheer size allow it to make a lasting impression.

“The first time we fired (the fountains), when that wall of water went up, I knew that it was going to be a hit,” he recalls. “I had never seen anything like that before, and I had seen a lot. That was so impressive, the image is still burned in my mind.”

By today’s standards, it seems simple. But at the time the project started, 1995, the technology was cutting-edge, Doyle says. Dancing fountains had been done before, but nowhere near the scale of the proposed attraction at Bellagio. Up to that point, WET Design’s largest project was one-fifth the size of the Bellagio fountains, and the company was considered a leader in the industry. The company hadn’t designed a feature of at least the same size until last year, when it built a fountain attraction 50 percent larger in Dubai.

“Yeah, it was so cutting edge we weren’t sure if the damned thing was going to work,” Doyle says, laughing.

Bellagio’s attraction consists of white lights, a fog system and four types of devices that shoot water into the air at varying heights. One of those devices — basically robots called oarsmen — is the only one that can make the water change directions. That was brand new technology built specifically for Bellagio, Doyle says.

“The biggest problem we faced was really a question of scale and the new technology of the robots,” Doyle says. “It was basically, let’s build something for the first time and then build 200 of them to operate on opening day.”

WET Design doesn’t talk about the cost of the project, Doyle says, but they do like to repeat an anecdote he attributes to Steve Wynn. Supposedly, Wynn joked that “he started out with a hotel with a water feature in front and he ended up with a water feature with a hotel behind it.”

News reports have claimed the price tag was as little as $40 million and as much as $75 million. Even though it went over budget, Doyle says, the attraction has most likely paid for itself many times over, even when maintenance is included.

And operating the feature is no small or cheap undertaking. A staff of 30 engineers with various backgrounds maintains and operates the fountains daily. All are dive certified, Doyle says, because much of their work requires them to be in or under water.

A giant workshop at the north end of Bellagio houses every tool and piece of equipment the staff needs for the attraction’s upkeep. There’s a machine shop for building or repairing — the staff built a barge several years ago to use for their maintenance sweeps of the lake — a dive shop, a docking area and several rooms full of pumps, holding tanks, a water softening system and spare parts.

Diving Concepts, a scuba equipment company, made a dive suit of Kevlar for the fountain crew so that they could move their arms freely underwater. And there’s a lot of water, more than 22 million gallons of it, which is recycled and reused in the lake. That’s one reason shows are canceled on windy days, Bowling says.

“If you lose water, being in the middle of the desert, you’re not going to get that back,” he says.

There are 5,000 lights with bulbs that need to be changed on an ongoing basis.

The system consists of four kinds of devices that shoot water.

The oarsmen, all 208 of them, make the water “dance” up to 77 feet high. Each is individually programmable so the direction of the water can be changed anytime. There are 798 minishooters that shoot water 100 feet high; 192 supershooters that shoot water 240 feet into the air and 16 extreme-shooters, capable of projecting a wall of water as high as 460 feet. The “fog” is made with softened water that is fed at a high pressure through pipes that lead out to the lake.

The fountains can be choreographed to move and “dance” to any music. Currently, there are 29 different shows, each set to its own music, including eight holiday songs. Classical composers, Johnny Mathis, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra are among the artists represented. The music, which is rarely changed, is piped through 183 speakers around the lake.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at or 702-380-4564.