While David Copperfield is most known for his decades-long career as an illusionist, he has — no pun intended — many more tricks up his sleeve than you could ever imagine.
As the first living magician to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Copperfield is hailed by many as one of history’s greatest magicians. He spends most of his time dazzling his audiences at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he holds residency. Although he performs as many as three shows a night, in his spare time he has a true passion for exploring the areas surrounding him, and finding the magic that’s often hidden in plain sight.
When he’s not wowing crowds with his illusions, he’s busy creating a fantasy of a completely different kind. At Musha Cay, his resort on his own private chain of islands in the Bahamas, his most memorable travels are incorporated into nearly each square foot. And, if you’ve got the means to be a guest, your biggest vacation desires can seemingly be pulled out of a hat, as your island experience is entirely bespoke and a snap of the fingers will make nearly anything you crave appear.
Travel & Leisure spoke with Copperfield about Musha Cay, the other locations a world-famous magician finds intriguing, the time someone performed a magic trick for him midair, and what exactly he stashes in his carry-on. (Hint: it’s got wings.)
Travel + Leisure: You’re currently performing in Las Vegas — what’s your favorite part about that city?
David Copperfield: “I do 15 shows a week — that’s no days off. I do two shows a night, every night, and on Saturday, I do three shows. But my days are free, so I can explore and do a lot of fun things with my family, and there’s a lot to explore around the Vegas area. You know, Las Vegas isn’t just about the strip — there’s amazing mountains that surround it, there’s Red Rock Canyon, which is otherworldly, there’s the Valley Of Fire, which is an incredible location, and there are museums that are wonderful. There’s a kid’s museum called Springs Preserve which is a beautiful recreation and exploration area, so there’s plenty to do for families, and I’ve got a family, so.
“There’s also a shoe designer, Chloe Gosselin, of note, and she’s a CFDA award winner, and she has horses which is another beautiful area of Las Vegas — pastures and trees, and things you wouldn’t expect when you think of Las Vegas — it’s a half hour away from all of the hustle and bustle.”
Are there any hidden spots you like to visit in your spare time when not performing?
“There’s a theater here in town, the Dolby Atmos theater. I’m a movie lover, and all of my friends are filmmakers, and the theater here in the town square shopping area is right in the middle of Vegas. It’s perhaps one of the best theaters to see movies, and if I plug it here I’ll get lots of free admission (laughs). The seats shake and recline, and the screen is gigantic; it’s a pretty great place to see amazing films the way they should be shown.”
Do you have any packing tricks or tips for when you’re traveling?
“I’m a uniform guy. If you’ve ever seen the movie “All That Jazz,” it’s about — and made — by Bob Fosse. And Roy Scheider, who is the main character who plays Bob Fosse, goes up to the closet and there’s a lineup of shirts that are all the same, pants that are all same, and shoes that are all the same. And maybe I was just inspired by that as a kid, because I got to hang out with Bob Fosse when he was doing “Pippin” and “Chicago” and all of these amazing shows, and a lot of my magic was influenced by Bob Fosse’s work.
“But I guess the way I carry on with my clothes — forgive the pun — was inspired by Bob Fosse, so my packing tip is lots of duplicate clothes of the same thing. And people say, ‘Don’t you dress in fashion designers and stuff?’ and I say, ‘Yes, I do, I have a black shirt by Prada, and a black shirt by Givenchy, and some white shirts, too!’ But if you look at my closet and at the way I pack, it’s just a lot of duplicates. So if something gets wrinkled, there’s one right next to it to wear.”
What’s the best hotel you’ve ever stayed at?
“I have a hotel of my own; it’s a hotel that people rent out and charter it for a week at a time. It’s 11 islands that they get all at once. You can’t just get a room there, you have to take all of the rooms and book it out. I’m trying to please the people who have seen it all and done it all — that was my goal, to create an environment that was a bespoke experience that caters to the whims and desires and dreams of the people who come there. Not unlike Fantasy Island, but in a way where whatever the guests want, it will magically appear on the island, anything from food to experiences. That’s Musha Cay in the islands of Copperfield Bay, so I’m very spoiled by that.
“I’ve traveled around the world for 40 years, I’ve done 10 or 12 world tours, and every place I would go to, I would be taking pictures of everything I wanted to duplicate. Every towel, every shower head, every plate, every food presentation that I experienced traveling all over was unbelievable, and I tried to emulate in my own way — not copy, but do it in my own way, so Musha Cay is a product of that. All the furniture and accoutrements are things that royalty have given me in my travels around the world. So there’s a Houdini Room with all of Houdini’s stuff, like his pool table for example. I’ve got a gym that’s a Jack Johnson gym, there’s a sculpture beneath the Eiffel Tower of the fighter Jack Johnson, and I have all of his fighting equipment are a part of that gym. Each of the rooms are based on a fantasy place — Bali, Thailand, Africa — so it’s a very, very special place.
“The best hotels I’ve been to — aside from the one I’m involved with — are the Aman Resorts. I really love everything that is in the Aman Resorts and I’ve been to many of them. When I travel, that’s where I like to stay when I can’t get to my place.”
How did you end up with your own islands in the Bahamas?
“It was a dream since I was a kid. I loved the idea of it and having a new palette, and the location of it was based on an X-pattern — if you take the Pyramids of Giza, I should check and get this right — but you make and X from Stonehenge to Easter Island — I’m going to be saying this wrong! There’s four magical places in the world — and if you make an X, it arrives right in the middle of my islands, which is kind of a magical way of discovering it, and when it became available it was perfect. It’s been a few years since I’ve discussed this so I have to look up the details (laughs).”
What one item do you always bring with you while traveling?
“I bring a toothbrush. I bring Listerine breath strips, chapstick — I guess I have a freshness fixation.”
Are there any strange things that you’ve packed? Any magic tricks in there?
“It really depends on what I’m working on. If I’m working on something cool or a new piece that I’m doing, I’ll travel with it. I was doing a piece in my show about freedom, and the metaphor for it was shown with a butterfly. And it dealt with a Holocaust survivor that was in the prison, and it was a butterfly piece, so for a while I was traveling with butterflies — well, they were about to be butterflies. They would be secretly packed, so hopefully that wasn’t illegal (laughs), but I’d travel with them so then when I arrived in the next city, I could put them in an environment that they could grow, and become butterflies, and I could actually try this sleight of hand trick that made them appear.”
What's the most “magical” place you've ever been?
“Bali is incredible, that’s the fact of it. It’s a whole location of artisans raised to be artistic whether it’s painting or sculpting or so forth. My islands in the Bahamas are very heavily based on things I brought there. Like Bali and the Balinese culture, I love that, and Africa — really, wherever there are people who do really creative things. Building, constructing beautiful art that shows hope for the future, the possibility of wonder. The possibility of a better life, I love that and I’m drawn to that, and that’s what I try to do with my work — to have people dare to dream about things. So locations I went to that have that, whether it’s amazing ceremonies, like the Kecak dance in Bali where all the men of the community sit in the circle and they chant and they gesture towards the center and you’re overwhelmed with the power of unified interaction. I have an illusion in my show based on that, where I have the whole audience participate to the center of the room. So I get great inspiration from ceremony that is magical. I’m supposed to go there to relax, and not to work, but then I’ll see something and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s great, how can I use it?’”
Do you prefer a relaxing getaway or a more adventurous getaway?
“I’ve been trying to do relaxing, but with limited success! I’ve been trying to kind of not think about creative endeavors, but if something’s great I end up working again in a sense, because I want to keep it alive. But I’ve been trying to force myself to just relax. I went to the Aman resort near me actually, in Utah, called Amangiri, and we explored Antelope Canyon — beautiful, natural, wonderous pink caves inside. You light a fire outside your room and just look at the mountains which were amazing. And I was able to forget — for at least a couple of days — other stuff with work.”
Do you have a most or least favorite plane food?
“Sometimes you’re pleasantly surprised by a plane meal and you go, ‘Wow, that was pretty good, and pretty unexpected!’ There was a burger that I had on one flight and it worked; it was good! I loved — as a kid, you know, America was landing on the moon, and everyone wanted to be an astronaut. It was an incredible time of inspiration. Everybody was glued to their TVs and it was just an inspirational time.
“As part of that time, they would show how they had orange juice in little packages on the spacecraft, and little compartmentalized portions of food. And on airplanes they had little compartments and trays, and we had TV dinners — and it kind of was fun to eat in this little kind of space age thing. It kind of appeals to me. I kind of like it. Even though I’m friends with Joël Robuchon, who is best chef in the world, and Daniel Boulud, and all of these genius chefs — so I’d say I’ve had both sides of the spectrum with food."
So maybe the plane food isn’t always the best, but the nostalgic way of eating on a plane brings back some memories for you?
“I think that’s well-put. There’s something fun about it, you know? It’s just little compartments of stuff, and it really was an inspirational time when I was a kid. I like those memories.”
Have you ever performed a magic trick in-flight?
“It’s funny you mention that. I’m working on something for my islands. I have a plane, a [Bombardier] Global 5000. And what would you do if you had a plane? You do nice things for charity, you try to get needed supplies that can’t get supplies, and you do it quietly, you don’t make a big deal. But for your guests, what would you do? What would David Copperfield do?
“On the island, we have experiences you can only get because they’re mine. We have treasure hunts, and the Olympics, and magical stuff happens to you. I’ve rigged the island to have really cool stuff take place. But on the airplane right now, I’m working on experiences where every hour on the hour, I’d come on the screen, and if the guest wants to do it or choose to do it, I’d do an interactive piece of magic with the guests on the plane, where the magic happens to them in their hands with me on their screen talking back and forth to them. Right now, we’re in the process of developing that for our guests that fly. Literally, I’m staring at props and things that the guests would have on the plane, but again, it’s a choice. If people want to get on the plane and sleep the whole time or have some great food, then obviously that’s something we can do, just like on the island. Some people just want to play bongo drums and have lobster, and that’s no problem. You don’t need to have a ‘magical’ experience — that’s magic enough. But if you want interactive experiences that are unlike anything else, we provide that, too.
“There was a magic effect that was done on a plane, that I didn’t do, but if was done for me. A guy named Clay Lacy, he’s a big private airplane aficionado. Years ago, on one of my episodes, I made an airplane disappear. It was Clay Lacy’s airplane, and it was at Van Nuys airport. And as part of the show, it starts with my flying in his Learjet, and the Learjet had my face on the tail temporarily — he was a good friend of John Lear, he was a real expert pilot. Well, he took me up in the plane to get some air-to-air footage, meaning from one plane shooting the other plane, so you can see me in the cockpit. He says, ‘You’re a magician, so I’ll show you some magic.’ And he’s flying the plane, I’m sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. He pours a glass of champagne as he’s flying the plane, and he puts the full glass of champagne on the dashboard of the Learjet, and says, ‘Watch this.’
“He takes the plane and he turns it upside down, and the champagne glass doesn’t spill, because as he’s turning the plane upside down, he’s descending at the same time, so the plane is dropping upside down, so the glass stays where it is and the champagne stays in the glass. Then he makes the plane right-side, and he takes the champagne and he has me drink it. It was an amazing thing that apparently he does for his friends, but I got to see a piece of magic midair, and that was pretty cool.”
Window seat or aisle?
“Window seat, always.”
What’s the one place you’d still love to visit?
“Iceland. I haven’t been, I’ve seen amazing videos, I have friends that have been there. Horses are important in my family, so riding horses ... We love Bjork, and what she’s contributed creatively, and, you know, she’s the queen of Iceland. We’ve never met, but I’ve gained a lot of inspiration from her videos.”
Is there anything that you’re currently working on that you can tell us about?
“My show is brand new. I’ve tried to take magic in new directions my whole life, whether it’s walking through the Great Wall of China or the Statue of Liberty vanishing — even telling stories about my life using magic as a way of inspiring people, it’s always been very important to me. The new show now deals with the new language of magic. It deals with spaceships, and aliens and time travel and dinosaurs — things you can’t find in any magic book. My show really consists of a very immersive experience at the MGM Grand. And I love the fact that we’ve been experimenting and taking it to directions, it’s a real sensory experience. There’s magic happening above you, behind you, all around. I’m continuing to work on new material on that show, so there’s always something new in the show to see.”
Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.