A century or so ago, Atlantic City reigned proudly as the queen of the Jersey Shore and as America’s premier convention destination. In more recent years, it has had a less glamorous image: as a day-tripper’s delight, catering to gamblers who try their luck for a few hours and leave, and a draw for busloads of senior citizens lured by all-you-can-eat buffets and coupons that offer cheap food and entertainment.
Change came in 2003, when joint-venture owners Boyd Gaming Corp. and MGM Mirage made a $1.1 billion bet: If they built an Atlantic City property using the Las Vegas hotel/casino/spa model, the big spenders hungry for luxury and fine dining would come. And so the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa was born: 43 floors and more than 2,000 rooms sheathed in curving planes of golden glass shimmering on the city’s far horizon. It was the first new hotel casino in 13 years and it brought to Atlantic City a new level of luxury and style, from the fine Egyptian linens to the gorgeous 54,000-square-foot Spa Toccare to the multimillion-dollar art collection that includes 15 handblown chandeliers by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.
The gamble paid off. The Borgata was so successful that six months after it opened, plans were under way for $525 million in further development. In 2006, new restaurants by celebrity chefs Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck and Michael Mina were added to the Borgata’s already superior dining options.
The Borgata’s success was a wake-up call — and a challenge — to the other casinos, kicking off a trend toward rebranding Atlantic City as Vegas-on-the-Jersey Shore. The big challenge: duplicating Las Vegas’ success in getting gamblers to spend money on nongaming activities like luxury accommodations, fine dining, spa treatments and shopping. In 2006, for example, the two cities had similar gambling revenues — Atlantic City took in $5.2 billion to Las Vegas’ $6.5 billion. But at $5 billion, Vegas does 10 times the nongaming business.
Harrah’s Atlantic City respon-ded to the challenge with a $550 million expansion that includes an array of new restaurants and a 961-room, 44-story hotel tower featuring eight super-suites and 104 suites appointed with limestone floors, free-standing showers, fireplaces, in-room theaters and plasma televisions. The new tower is scheduled to open this summer and will make Harrah’s the tallest casino hotel in Atlantic City. Already open is the spectacular pool complex, a fantasy tropical oasis featuring $1 million in lush greenery, an Olympic-size pool and six Jacuzzis, all covered by a striking, 90-foot-high glass dome. Guests luxuriate on poolside lounges, ordering cocktails and snacks from svelte waitresses in turquoise bikinis. In keeping with the trend at top luxury resorts, there are seven for-rent cabanas: private, curtained enclosures fitted with two comfy sofas and a plasma-screen TV. After 8 p.m., the pool becomes a themed nightclub, with luaus, retro dance parties and dive-in movie nights.
Separated from the pool by a wall of windows and a screen of palm trees, orchids and bromeliads is the state-of-the-art fitness center, and across the marbled circular corridor is the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. At 23,000 square feet, the sleek and stylish spa has 23 treatment rooms, including a deluxe couples suite with an in-room Jacuzzi, fireplace and shower.
The city’s other 11 casinos are following the leaders, upgrading existing facilities in a frenzy of expansion. Trump Taj Mahal is building a new tower that will add 800 luxury rooms and suites. At Tropicana’s The Quarter, an evocation of Old Havana, there are 20 restaurants, including The Palm, Carmine’s and Jeffrey Chodorow’s Red Square. Brulee, Tropicana’s dessert-only restaurant, is available for private parties only. In 2006, Caesars Hotel Casino brought in Philadelphia’s best-known chef Georges Perrier, and his business partner Chris Scarduzio, who opened Mia, stocking such high-roller items as a $9,000 1982 Chateau Petrus to accompany the fresh oysters and a $1,000 1997 Chateau d’Yquem to match with the cheese course.
Shopping, too, has been upgraded — a lot. Where visitors were limited to saltwater taffy, souvenir T-shirts and luckless gold jewelry in dusty pawnshop windows, now uber-labels like Armani, Gucci and Hugo Boss have been popping up like so many seashells at high tide. Harrah’s Entertainment took over the old downmarket Ocean One/Million Dollar Pier and reopened it in 2006 as The Pier Shops at Caesars — a $175 million high-tech complex that houses such award-winning restaurants as Buddakan, des-cribed as “a temple of modern Asian cuisine” and such retailers as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Tiffany & Co. To entertain shoppers and diners, the Pier Shops offers “The Show,” a six-minute, $7 million water, light and sound extravaganza every hour on the hour.
Meanwhile, the Borgata has been busy building the Water Club, a $400 million, 43-story tower that will add 800 guest rooms, three residences, a two-story, 36,000- square-foot spa, four swimming pools and six retail shops when it opens this summer.
Several companies are betting $9 billion that their projects will go far in transforming Atlantic City into a destination where people will come for more than gambling and stay a while. Revel Entertainment Group will build a casino/resort known as Revel that, when it opens in 2010 or 2011, will be, at 710 feet, the tallest building in the city, with 3,800 rooms built on 20 acres at the north end of the beachfront. In late 2011 or early 2012, the city will have, in the marina district, its first $5 billion casino hotel, courtesy of MGM Mirage. And in an effort to coax more big spenders from New York City, a joint venture involving the Borgata, Caesars and Harrah’s has purchased eight double-level railroad cars for $15 million in order to provide comfortable nonstop transportation from Penn Station to Atlantic City; the service is scheduled to start later this year.
Pundits are predicting that by 2012, the “new” Atlantic City will bear little resemblance to the dowdy resort that first welcomed casino gambling in 1978. The big money is betting on it.