Sunday, March 13, 2005
Dusk has fallen in Atlantic City, and love is in the air. No, wait. That's just a lot of smoke, and mumbled profanity accompanying roulette spins gone afoul, and joyous shrieks when five Vannas finally queue up on a "Wheel of Fortune" nickel slot. There's the muffled din of piped-in Air Supply, the sound of cheap china clattering in buffets and, along the boardwalk, the soothing symphony created by waves slapping onto an empty beach.
But there's something new in the mix, and it ain't love. It's live music pounding out of nightclubs and leopard-spotted hipsters sucking down martinis in elegant lounges. Dancing -- dancing -- is breaking out on casino floors, and people are slinking to bed closer to dawn than sunset. Fine dining extends beyond two slices with the works.
Hope, dressed in Mizrahi and ready to partayyyy, has descended on the city, and it's as welcome as four aces in a poker hand.
For proof, look no further than the Quarter, a $280 million adjunct to the Tropicana Casino and Resort that was unveiled in late November and whose most recent tenants (the upscale bar 32 Degrees and a dessert place called Brulee) just opened. Modeled on Old Havana and emulating New Las Vegas, the complex comprises 505 guest rooms, clubs, restaurants, shopping, an Imax theater, a spa and enough fake palms to fill a fake desert. It's all quite impressive, but mostly because of what it doesn't include: slot machines, blackjack tables or a baccarat parlor.
"We were constrained by our property . . . so we had to build the Quarter across the street and connect it [to the casino]," says Tropicana executive Dennis C. Gomes. "But that enables locals to come in and not have to go into the casino, and it's become a major local attraction."
Not go into the casino? How refreshing.
Across town at the marina, the purple tower of cool known as Borgata took another approach. When it opened in July 2003, jumpstarting the city's transformation from a gambling hellhole, the resort plunked youth magnets like its Mixx nightclub and curtain-garbed B Bar amid gaming tables. You want to dance, drink and mingle? Great, but you'll have to wend through a sea of slots to do it.
Both approaches seem to be working just fine. In mid-February, the two hot spots were teeming with twentysomethings and the young at heart (if not body), out to have a good time. At 4:30 a.m.
Don't get all weepy-eyed yet for the old AC, that overcrowded, grimy mess where the drinks are free but you don't want to drink them. The roads leading into town are still pocked by $29-a-night hotels that look as if one good gust of wind would blow them over, and enough urban decay and empty lots remain to make spirits sag.
And while the younger set is discovering AC, by many accounts that's a weekend phenomenon. In other words, a sad number of people continue to push oxygen tanks around on casino floors.
Still, since 1998, according to the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, the median age of visitors to the city has dropped from 55 to 52, and signs are that it's continuing to creep downward. More are coming by car as well, resulting in fewer Bus People, those grumpy oldsters who file off the shuttles and head home eight hours later.
All told, more than 33 million people stopped by last year, with three out of four hailing from New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Oddly enough, two-thirds of all visitors were female. "We're attracting all sorts these days," says the ACCVA's Susan Ricciardi. "It's amazing how diverse the crowd has become."