washingtonpost.com
Upside, Downs
With a fancy hotel, Dover Downs seeks a richer slot

By Sean Daly
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 10, 2002

Wayne Newton still has a high and mighty head of jet-black hair -- a towering testament to good conditioner and a great colorist. But his voice is no longer as lofty. When Mr. Las Vegas, packed snugly in his trusty tux, tries to climb for those especially croony notes during "Danke Schoen," his grin never wavers, but he sounds like he's being strangled by his microphone cord.

This gargled setback, however, fails to bother the clap-happy throngs at the Rollins Center, the 1,500-seat performance space in the shiny-new Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center in Dover, Del. In fact, Deanna Hensley, one of Newton's most demonstrative fans this Saturday night, spends most of the show hopping on her high heels. The finely dressed Baltimore woman will soon return to the slot machines in the hotel's casino (she boasts she's been winning big on the nickel slots), but now she's simply gaga for the sublimely coiffed, if shoddily piped, showman onstage.

Hensley, it should be noted, is 36 years old. Just about everyone else at the hotel on this grand-opening weekend hasn't been 36 since LBJ was president. Although she's decidedly outnumbered by people who remember when bread cost a quarter -- "Gosh, I'm the youngest person here," she says -- Hensley is one of the guests most coveted by the hotel. She's young. She wears fancy clothes. And she's not afraid to spend her money -- including $100 for a concert ticket and who knows how much for a room, expensive dinner and prolonged gambling.

Known primarily for harness racing, simulcast betting, NASCAR events at the Dover International Speedway and, starting in 1995, a slots-only casino, Dover Downs has never been much concerned with courting the polo-and-Chardonnay set. Instead, the mood here has been order a Budweiser, smoke 'em if you got 'em and stay the heck away from that 7 horse. Unlike the up-all-night vibe of Vegas, it's a mood as down-to-earth as the no-frills diners lining Route 13 that boast early-bird specials and AARP discounts. In the past, punters would just pull up to the park-and-rest motel down the street.

But the sprawling $60 million hotel, which officially opened in mid-March, is looking to jazz up Dover Downs's blue-collar rep. Designed by Philadelphia-based Cope Linder Associates, the neoclassical style borrows from such yowza-glam Vegas properties as the Mirage and Caesars Palace. The 10-story hotel welcomes guests with a cavernous lobby, set aglow by a majestic chandelier, of course. The columns soar to the ceiling, the marble floor is intricately detailed and a wide, sweeping staircase leads up to Michele's, the high-end candlelit restaurant where the specialties are filet mignon and lobster tail.

EconoLodge it ain't.

Hensley, a frequent visitor to casino hotels, was impressed as soon as she handed her car keys to the valet and strolled through the revolving doors. "Oh yeah, this place could definitely survive on the Vegas Strip," she says. "I didn't expect it to be so grand, especially the lobby." Her mother, a Baltimore travel agent who has been to Sin City six times in the past year, agrees.

The hotel has 232 rooms and suites, some of which overlook the harness racing track and the speedway. They encircle a concrete-and-steel stadium that contrasts starkly with the roomy elegance of where you'll be resting your head.

But if you really want to talk spacious, beeline for the bathroom, stocked with designer soaps and those giant fluffy towels that make everyone feel like they've somehow shed a few pounds, no matter what the well-lighted mirrors say.

The hotel also features a dark and cozy lobby bar, an indoor pool and exercise club and, for those unwilling to shell out the big bucks at Michele's, the Festival Buffet, an over-the-top culinary spectacle whose greatest asset may be that it allows you to quickly wolf down as many starches as needed for another few hours of mechanized gaming.

Close to the buffet are the betting parlors and casino, which are still the seat of the most perverse thrills to be had at the re-imagined Dover Downs. For all the glistening touches such as Michele's and the Rollins Center -- and, wow, those bathrooms -- the hotel will never entirely exorcise the slightly sordid spirit of its surroundings, which is what makes the place so much fun. (In fact, even Michele's provides an old-school twist and plays elevator music during dinner. There's nothing like sampling tender Chilean sea bass in a tomato basil vinaigrette while listening to an extended pan-flute salute to Phil Collins.)

From the lush, lavish lobby, you can hear the faint soundtrack of bells, beeps and whistles coming from the casino. And as you approach the noise, walking through a long solemn hall that will soon house the inevitable shops, the cacophonous jangle of quarters lost and dreams shattered gets louder and louder, sounding strangely like a particularly upbeat Enya song.

Dover Slots, where the suits and ties of the Rollins Center turn into sweat suits and backward baseball caps, has 2,000 machines, ranging from the nickel takers to the big, bad dollar snatchers. There are no blackjack tables, no roulette, no high-rolling baccarat honchos.

But there are thousands of unwatched cigarettes that grow perilously long ashes while gamblers wait anxiously for that big payout. And when the slot jockeys aren't playing, they're taking a breather at the numerous long bars (each with plenty of video poker) flanking the ching-ching Technicolor madness or at the Garden Cafe, which serves sandwiches for lunch and a moderate buffet for dinner.

A majority of the players in the casino have no intention of renting a room at the hotel or taking a seat at Michele's or coughing up the dough to see a show. If they wanted the ritzy trappings of Las Vegas, they'd head out west, or at least to Atlantic City. They are here for one purpose and one purpose only. But there are exceptions.

"The slots here seem to pay out pretty good," Hensley says. "I saw a lot of people winning last night."

Dover Slots isn't the only place here to risk your paycheck, of course. The horse racing simulcast parlor, awash in the thick fog of cigar stink, features myriad rows of mini-TV-equipped consoles, plenty of betting windows and the cheapest beer in the whole place. The harness racing can be watched from the enormous glass-enclosed grandstand, outside along the rails or from the Winners Circle Buffet.

This is the old Dover Downs. No room service here; not even rooms. Just marked-up racing forms and ripped-to-shreds losing tickets. It's a 10-minute walk to the Rollins Center, but it feels miles and years away.

Who knows whether the hotel will be able to attract more than just the day-trippers with their rolls of quarters or the railbirds betting on the long shots? But the rare youngster at Dover Downs this weekend, whose only complaint is that the hotel needs "more money machines," will definitely be back.

"I'm really looking forward to the David Cassidy show in June," Hensley says.

ESCAPE KEYS

GETTING THERE: Dover Downs is 100 miles northeast of Washington. Take Route 50 east across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and follow Route 301 north to Route 302 (right turn at mile marker 102). Turn right on Route 454 at Templeville. Route 454 becomes Route 8 at the Delaware line. In Dover, turn left on Route 13 north. Dover Downs is two miles on the right.

STAYING: Rooms at the Dover Downs Hotel and Conference Center (800-711-5882, www.doverdowns.com) start at $125 Sunday through Thursday, $145 Friday and Saturday. Request a room that overlooks the racetrack. (Very cool.) There are often special rates tied to concerts (David Cassidy on June 1, perhaps).

EATING: Michele's (302-857-2133), on the hotel's mezzanine level, is about the best food to be found in the area, but it's not cheap. Dinner for two will probably run $100-plus, but the surf-and-turf, at $37, is well worth it. Reservations needed, and business casual dress is requested. The Garden Cafe and the Festival Buffet are your typical quick-eats, affordable casino fare and might be just the place if the Lucky Lady slots are being unkind.

INFO: Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-233- 5368, www.visitdover.com

© 2002 The Washington Post Company