Revel resort: Atlantic City’s gamble

Remember, this is not a casino,” said the man whose name tag read “Lyvonne,” as rows of slot machines flickered behind him. “It’s a resort with a casino.”

That’s easy enough to remember. Revel, the new $2.4 billion destination on Atlantic City’s boardwalk, is a resort-not-a-casino just as it’s a resort-not-a-nightclub or a resort-not-a parking-garage.

(Gene Thorp/The Washington Post)

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Honestly, though, it was also easy to forget this concept. With nearly 3,000 one-armed bandits and nearly 100 game tables, plus the requisite barrage of loud music and maximalist design, resort and casino slowly swapped places in my head. Resort with a casino . . . resortino . . . casino with a resort.

Revel, which opens officially Memorial Day weekend with a headlining appearance by Beyonce, broke ground in 2007. But the entertainment compound on the northernmost end of the boardwalk is attempting to shatter more than just hard surface. Its mission, chanted like a mantra by indoctrinated employees and converted guests alike, is to create an entirely new Atlantic City experience: a property that accentuates the resort slice of its decadent pie and relegates the casino to the status of, say, a side dish of ice cream. The intended message is that now visitors can blow their money in so many other ways.

“The idea of a casino isn’t new anymore,” said Bryant Simon, author of “Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America.” “The appeal has to be: You’re coming here for a destination. It’s a novelty isolated from the rest of Atlantic City.”

Personally, gambling drives me away, due to a clingy attachment to my money. Yet early this month, I heard a siren call from Atlantic City, and her name was Revel. The property was offering a May preview package that included a raft of perks, such as an ocean-view room, entry to the Bask spa, wine tasting at the O2 bar, a $30 dining credit and admission to Ivan Kane’s Royal Jelly Burlesque Nightclub. Unlike many casino-resort specials, however, the deal did not include complimentary slot play. A relief but also a letdown. (I have no qualms about playing with other people’s money.)

As I drove into the half-empty parking garage, I wondered whether Revel had real resort cred, or was it just a casino in drag? To find out, I had no choice but to be all in.

Over the past century and a half, Atlantic City, former playground of the rich and narcissistic, has experienced ups and downs and plateaus. Most recently, it has been lower than a sea slug.

In 2003, a flash of hope brightened the Jersey Shore sky and buoyed the mood. Borgata, a shimmery gold resort-casino comfortable with its hyphenated surname, opened on the marina side of the city. The luxe property, with name-brand chefs, high-end shopping and an indulgent spa, infused some Vegas juice into AC’s veins. More recently, Golden Nugget took over Trump Marina, spending $150 million to erase the Donald’s fingerprints and make its own mark on the dockside site. The property, which celebrated its grand return in late April, features modern designs that glow with the oranges and reds of the sinking sun. The Nugget avoids kitschy themes but ultimately embraces its casino DNA. You pass slot machines en route to the front desk, the restaurants, the bathrooms and the bar. Upon check-in, I received a slip of paper for the Real Gold giveaway, with a first prize of 10 ounces of gold.

At Revel, I received a key card along with a reminder that my package expired precisely at noon the following day.

Around Atlantic City, Revel is a popular topic of conversation. Everyone has an opinion, whether they’ve seen the resort or not.

“It’s big and you better like elevators,” a guest at Golden Nugget told her friend and my eavesdropping ear. “I personally don’t want to spend a half-hour looking for my husband.”

Big, apparently, is not beautiful when you can’t locate your spouse or cozy up to your favorite blackjack table. But size is an asset when you want to escape the casino crowds or resurrect that childhood memory of being lost in a foreign airport terminal.

From the outside, Revel resembles a modern industrial campus covered in deconstructed Ray-Ban sunglasses (the mirrored kind that police wear). Its skin reflects the drifting clouds and the shifting sky, creating a moving mural of the natural world.

The resort, which abuts Showboat on one side and nothingness on the other, stretches across 6.3 million square feet and 20 acres of beachfront property. The guest room count is 1,898, more than twice that of Golden Nugget. The casino’s numbers are 130,000 square feet, 2,439 slot machines and 97 tables. There are 14 restaurants (11 open now; three more to open soon), a four-story nightclub and a performance space that can accommodate 5,500 guests. Even the public bathrooms are massive mazes, with girls yelping for help to find the stalls. (Note: Many amenities, such as the shopping emporium, were under construction during the soft opening. But the resort should be fully functioning by opening weekend.)

“When everything is in place, woo-hoo,” Lyvonne said. “Borgata better step up their game, and Showboat and Resorts should watch out.”

Losing your way inside a resort-casino is a rite of passage. In Vegas, I’ve completed many 5Ks while searching for my room. Most properties blend their parts so that you have to pass the penny slot en route to your room or the buffet. Revel, however, purposely separates the guest-only areas from the public casino. A long, high-ceilinged marble hallway and a pair of steep escalators create the distance, backed up by strategically placed security guards asking for key cards.

If you’re looking for a revelation, try unlocking the secret of the layout. I imagine that this was how Einstein felt after nailing the theory of relativity, but I, too, had to work hard for my aha moment.

For example, in my search for the spa, I ended up at the indoor/outdoor pool, which resembles an Icelandic swimming hole. In my attempt to escape the pool area, I waited for an existential elevator that never came. A Staten Island guest accessorized with a curvy girlfriend and a diamond-encrusted cross necklace swooped to the rescue.

“It’s kind of free range,” he said, steering me toward a working lift. “Just wander around. You’ll get it.”

Eventually I did, which freed me up to play. No, not that kind of play; the kind of activities that one finds at a resort, not a casino.

Confident in my navigation, I took a shortcut through the SkyGarden, an outdoor pathway salted with fire pits and seating overlooking the Atlantic, to the pool area. I spotted the bobbing heads of the Staten Island couple in the hot tub and stuck my feet into their bubbling party. I asked Nick, a seasoned gambler, how Revel ranked in the pantheon of casinos.

“The blackjack table is cold and I’m doing well at craps,” he said. “Even if I’m losing, though, it’s worth it for the atmosphere.”

Although the resort half appeals to stark minimalists and lone Arctic wolves, those seeking small herds and a pulsating scene with messy energy need to hop the border to the casino side.

The resort, to its credit, does elevate the casino to higher aesthetic standards. The entire property is smoke-free, clearing the air of the usual stale ashtray scent. The music is loud and rocking, with tunes thrumming from hidden speakers as well as from live bands performing at the Social, a 700-seat theater along the casino’s periphery.

At many casinos, the design either enforces the hokey theme (Wild West, say, or pirates) or blinds you with crazy swirls and clashing patterns. Revel’s decor, however, is touched by the wand of Salvador Dali, Pee-wee Herman and Mother Nature. A giant orchid sculpture blooms overhead, and wooden structures cover the ceiling like a Japanese kite festival. In one lounge area, hanging lights flip on, illuminating the heads of passersby and emitting bird chirps. In another, a lamp as big as a tree shines a brothel red light down upon guests.

Between activities — sauna and hammam, burlesque show, wine tasting — I sampled the various couches and chairs a la Goldilocks. I finally settled on a black-as-licorice leather couch near a piano and a wall of windows overlooking the ocean. The common refrain of diners leaving the American Cut restaurant was, “You look really comfortable.” Why, so glad you noticed; now please leave me to my view.

After a long spell, I forced myself to leave the cocoon, pulled away by the inevitable. I’d worked hard to follow Revel’s prescription, treating it as a resort, not a casino. I’d participated in all the resorty activities: drinking, swimming, dining, working out, sleeping. I’d watched saucy burlesque performers strut to Pink Floyd, and I’d sprawled like a lizard in the Arizona heat of the sauna. I’d even rifled through a collection of “Calvin and Hobbes” in the hipster library, curled up on a cherry-red couch. But at around the stroke of midnight Saturday night, I had no more activities on my list. Except one.

I’d passed by this craps table a half-dozen times, even idling for a quick look-see. Now I stopped and handed the dealer $12. She placed a chip on the six. A college-cute girl rolled a seven. She was no longer cute. Playing with a friend, I threw more money down. Our fortunes rose, fell, then sputtered. We cashed out before Lady Luck turned fickle again.

We took our winnings two elevators up and across the marble hallway, empty except for a security guard and a cactus in a glass bowl. We crossed over the threshold, returning to the resort with a little piece of the casino in our pockets.

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