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What Has Happened To Atlantic City?
It used to be "The Place"...
Ahhhhh, Atlantic City.... home to crowded casinos, bustling beaches, award-winning restaurants, rides and amusements on Steel Pier, the Miss America Pageant, the upscale Pier Shops, strolls down the boardwalk, and, more recently, The Walk, an ever- expanding Outlet Experience. Isn’t this the perfect place to escape the challenges of Reality for a few days as you luxuriate in the Twilight Zone of What if?
Many would say that used to be the case. In fact, some of those perks continue to attract visitors to this South Jersey destination. People still enjoy the rides, shop at the Pier Shops and The Walk, dine at the restaurants, and walk the boards. That’s where some of the current attractions end; many of the other perks that characterized AC have been relegated to the files of fond memories. Whatever the reason, be it the struggling economy or the rising tide of the casino trade in nearby Pennsylvania, things have changed in Atlantic City.
Where have all the gamblers gone.... not to mention the beaches?
Recently my husband and I took a trip to the city that for years had arguably been the #2 Gambling Destination (you know, the one that tried harder) in the United States. We’ve been there many times since our first trip, back in the late ‘80s, so we’ve been witness to the changes, some subtle and some not so much. This time, though, it was obvious that things indeed have changed. Time will tell where the changing scenarios of Atlantic City ultimately will lead. From our perspective, at least, the new direction seemed shaky at best.
Since we stayed at a casino resort hotel, the first change we noticed was the ratio of hotel guests to active casino gamblers. While the number of guests seemed to have swelled since last summer, those who were playing casino games (at least when we were there) had dwindled noticeably. The increase in guests can in part be attributed to the casino/hotels’ active marketing to families, offering attractive Sunday through Thursday hotel rates and packages. Accordingly, there were quite a few teens and young children in evidence, something of an oxymoron in a resort area where the gaming industry has been the #1 attraction for years. (From a personal perspective: although I enjoy “the total casino experience,” the sight of children anywhere near a gambling establishment, let alone inside, makes me cringe.)
Another major change we couldn’t help but notice was the absence of beach areas, at least in the vicinity of the famed Steel Pier, which now serves as the amusement sector. In fact, the beaches in front of Taj Mahal and Showboat had virtually disappeared. We attributed this to the erosion caused by so many storms during the past year. The active presence of many pieces of machinery indicated that steps were being taken to remedy the situation. We certainly had not been apprised of this radical change (a beach destination minus a beach seems a bit drastic and worthy of note) by the hotel. I would imagine that family groups, in particular, would find it rather distressing to arrive at the beach only to find barriers and “keep off” signs rather than the expanse of sun, sand and surf they had anticipated. It certainly accounted for the crowds at the indoor pool area on a beatutiful day.
Major Marketing Moves
This brings us to the restaurants. Most of them still exist; that doesn’t mean they’re open for business, as we found out, to our dismay. It seems that many of the Atlantic City restaurants have resorted to abbreviated hours of operation. Take, for example, the buffet at the expansive Taj Mahal. This was closed the entire three days (Wednesday-Friday) we were there, as was the gourmet Safari Steak House. Even the small but convenient shop that sells coffee, sandwiches, pastries, etc. inside the hotel did not open until Friday morning. (We assumed that the reason for this was the fact that declining revenue makes it feasible to keep some of the food venues open only on weekends, when the loyal bastion of “high rollers” can be counted on to show up.) On Wednesay evening, we ended up dining at the Hard Rock Cafe inside the Taj, not exactly our idea of culinary euphoria. Due to the lack of viable eateries (i.e., places that were open for business), the place was crowded, mostly with family groups. The food was adequate, but the crowd and the trademark Hard Rock “music” made conversation difficut, to say the least. On Thursday evening, we were pleased to find that our favorite restaurant, Cappriccio’s (at Resorts casino hotel) was open, though there weren’t too many other diners when we were there. It appears that the mid-week Atlantic City tourists prefer moderate dining over gourmet fare, which certainly makes sense when one has a family in tow.
Both of Resorts’ gourmet restaurants were open, but food venues were one of the few things that hadn’t changed at that casino since the new owner took over. For one thing, the Prohibition Bar, advertised as the first bar of its kind- i.e., a gay bar- in Atlantic City, was open. For another, a large circus tent occupied most of the space of what used to be Resorts’ outdoor parking area. (We were not happy to witness the demise of the outdoor parking lot, particularly since it was the only outdoor lot at any of the casinos and made entrance into Resorts much more user-friendly.) Resorts currently is offerrng three different types of circuses, one of which is billed as an “adults only” naked (!) circus. We also caught a glimpse of some of the 1920’s-garbed cocktail waitresses and were not thrilled by their unnecessarily risque attire. (Some of Resorts’ former cocktail waitresses filed a lawsuit over the fact that they were dismissed from their waitress positions because of their age. Resorts claims that those employees were offered “other jobs.”) At any rate, the face of Resorts Casino Hotel certainly has changed; only time will tell whether the faces of its patrons will change, as well. It currently does not seem to be a comfy haven for the Senior Set, as it used to be.
The downtown retail outlet area known as The Walk seems to be there to stay, if its constant expansion is any indication. The high-end Pier Shops were fairly busy when we were there, certainly a far cry from the dearth of shoppers during the winter months that accounted for at least one store closing (Ann Taylor). Although the boadwalk itself was jam-packed with tourists, many of them families, business at the shops along the boardwalk did not seem to be booming. This may in part, at least, be attributed to the fact that the legendary “deals” on Designer knock-off handbags that could be found in many of the shops have disappeared along with the handbags themselves. (Their disappearance un-mysteriously coincided with the appearance of the Coach Outlet at The Walk.)
And then there's.... Pennsylvania (?)
Visitors to Atlantic City casinos have been dwindling since the advent of Pennsylvania gaming a few years ago. Since my husband and I live only minutes away from one of Pennsylvania’s thirteen casinos, we’ve witnessed the Fickle Gambler phenomenon up close (and, perhaps, much too “personal”). As evidenced by the licnse plates in the casino parking garage, gamblers from New York, New Jersey and parts beyond are flocking to PA casinos. Visitors who arrive by bus fill the Food Court. (For years, Atlantic City counted on its Bus Trade to fill the casinos during the week ; for the past few years, we’ve seen fewer and fewer buses puliing in at AC casinos.) The tables at our local PA casino usually are so crowded that some patrons are forced to take a number and wait their turn to play. That used to be the case in Atlantic City. It might still be that way on the weekends, but there are countless empty seats at slot machines and table games during the week. One of the most telling changes is in the area of “Free Gifts,” i.e., trinkets like coffee makers and beach gear that a gambler receives after pouring x-number of dollars into a machine or onto a table. Some of the AC casinos still offer these perks, but the incredibly long lines of gamblers waiting to claim them have diminshed considerably. Conversely, when our local casino recently offered an item worth about $20 to The Faithful, lines continued for two days, until all Free Gifts were gone, at which time the casino offered a token $15 cash replacement gift.
Despite our proximity (about 3 miles) to a PA casino, though, my husband and I still enjoy frequent, short getaways to Atlantic City. For us, gambling is just one function of the equation. It appears that for many others, however, that’s not the case. In the final analysis, the question What has happened to Atlantic City? seems to be rhetorical. Just ask the people who used to frequent Las Vegas.