ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Past the onion-domed facade, past the cascading fountains, past the bejeweled, eight-foot-high elephants, past the turban-clad doormen, one finally emerges into the dizzying vastness of the world's largest casino.

Row after row of identical slot machines, topped by a silent cacophony of flashing red and blue lights, stretch along the length of two football fields. A blinking computerized sign announces the latest jackpot. To the right, under the hand-cut Austrian crystal chandeliers, is a game where players can win the BMW sitting right there on the floor. To the left, in a raised area beneath a mirrored ceiling, bolder customers can seat themselves at the $100 slots while attendants hover nearby with hot towels.

Like, gag me with a gold-plated spoon.

This is the Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort, a behemoth of a building about to be thrust upon the world by Donald Trump, who already owns a sizable chunk of this South Jersey resort town. With more than 3,000 slot machines and 167 blackjack, roulette and other gaming tables, the Taj will boost Atlantic City's gambling capacity by 20 percent when it opens April 2.

Yet for all its glitz, glitter and pseudo-Indian architecture, some analysts say the Taj represents an unprecedented roll of the dice for Trump, who floated $675 million in junk bonds to build the thing and must come up with $94 million a year to pay the debt service. Analysts say the Taj must earn $1 million a day from gambling just to break even, and that it may wind up stealing customers from Trump's other two slot machine palaces down the Boardwalk.

Trump, of course, is unconcerned. "It's truly going to be an incredible place," he says with typical understatement. "We're calling it the eighth wonder of the world. I think it's going to do huge numbers. The overall majesty of the building is what's going to attract people. People are just amazed at the opulence."

About the only ornament the Taj will be lacking is Marla Maples, the sultry Georgia actress and alleged Other Woman in Trump's soap-opera divorce. The billionaire developer had planned to showcase Maples at an April 5 gala here, but later disinvited her, saying her presence would be "inappropriate." Maples put out a statement calling Trump "truly an honorable man," but saying she had worried "how the public and his family might perceive the invitation." Last week, according to one source, Trump called the ex-beauty queen and ended the relationship.

Even sans Maples, the festivities will hardly be low-key, not with an agenda ranging from fireworks to a laser-powered ribbon cutting to an "Arabian Nights" skit featuring The Donald himself.

If anyone in the Trump empire is troubled by the contrast between the overwhelming opulence of this massive hotel and the crumbling, boarded-up homes a few blocks away, they're not letting on. In fact, high rollers can bypass the seedy part of town by taking a Trump Air helicopter directly to a new landing strip on the beach outside the main entrance.

The mighty Trump publicity machine has been cranking out suitable superlatives for the Taj: Four and a half times more steel than the Eiffel Tower! Enough air conditioning to cool 4,000 homes! So much marble it consumed the entire output of Italy's Carrara quarries for two years!

At 42 stories, the Taj is New Jersey's tallest building. At 120,000 square feet, its casino equals the combined size of those in Trump Castle and Trump Plaza. The kitchen alone is bigger than any other Atlantic City casino. There are 6,000 employees, 1,250 guest rooms (including 400 luxury suites) and a private-membership club. The 12 restaurants (Sinbad's, Marco Polo, Casbah, Bombay Cafe) are built around the Old India theme. And there is a 5,500-seat arena suitable for boxing, tennis, trade shows and concerts, with an Elton John kickoff set for May.


Some say the Taj could revitalize Atlantic City the way the 3,000-room Mirage Hotel -- with its lagoons, waterfalls, shark tank and pina colada-scented volcano -- has sparked a building boom in Las Vegas.

"It'll have a blockbuster opening," says Marvin Roffman, a veteran casino-watcher for Janney Montgomery Scott. "My guess is that during the summer months, you're probably going to see every record broken in Atlantic City. It will be a cover story on the magazines. It's going to look like Donald could do no wrong."

"For the immediate future, the locus of excitement is going to shift to that end of the Boardwalk," says David Leibowitz, an analyst with American Security Corp. "The amount of money a casino can make is mind-boggling. Given who the operator is, I would wager on the side of success."

But some caution that the crowds could dwindle after the summer. "When the newness wears off, business could drop 30 to 40 percent," Roffman says. "I think Donald is making a very serious mistake in owning three properties. All three are going to be going after the same customers."

Amid the sound of clinking quarters at Trump Plaza, where the signs hawk Trump credit cards "for the serious slot player," it is hard to find anyone unaware of the impending debut.

"I go to Trump Plaza and the Castle and I'm going to go the Taj Mahal," says Dave Blomgren, a retired naval engineer from Vineland, N.J. "We come down once or twice a month by bus and two or three times a month by car."

Louise Noble, an elderly woman from North Bergen, N.J., says her friends have already made bus reservations for the Taj next month. "The seniors all want to go," she says.

"Tell Donald we'll be there April 5," said a man standing next to her.

Shades of Royalty Touring the Taj is not unlike wandering through the surreal fog of a Fellini film. Here, a dining alcove with purple silk couches and hand-painted murals. There, a hand-woven Oriental carpet covered with dragons. Over this way, a hallway with ersatz tree trunks leads to a safari restaurant with antler chandeliers, zebra-backed chairs and a striped tiger print rug. Splashes of pink, white and black marble are everywhere.

"We're trying to re-create a palace," says architect Francis X. Dumont. "The maharajahs were known for lavish entertaining and fabulous banquets. Trump upgraded all the materials after he bought it. There's just acres of marble."

From the $20 million thicket of Kremlin-like domes and minarets along the six-block beachfront, to the marble bathroom in each guest room, the place is bursting with expensive Trump-like touches -- what he calls "quality" and what detractors deem super-schlock.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the 42nd-floor penthouse suites. The Alexander the Great Suite features two bedrooms, living room, kitchen, pantry, wet bar and grand piano beneath a gold-leaf ceiling, plus a steam room and sauna (where one can ring for the services of Trump's staff of masseuses) and two balconies overlooking the ocean. The cost is a mere $10,000 a night, although Taj officials admit that such charges are frequently waived for the highest of the high rollers.

Down the hall in the Michelangelo Suite, part of the ceiling is painted with cherubs and fleshy women covered only by purple sashes, allegedly based on a scene from the Sistine Chapel. The Cleopatra Suite is done up like an Egyptian temple, with columns painted like papyrus plants. On the 38th floor, the Sultan Suite offers a four-poster bed framed by elephant tusks, which is a few steps from the Jacuzzi and the pink marble bathroom, including, of course, a telephone and bidet.

During the same period, Trump launched a $90 million renovation of Trump Castle, which he bought in 1985 for $320 million. He spent another $63 million last year for the Atlantis Casino Hotel, which lost its gaming license amid financial difficulties, and is turning it into a 500-room non-casino hotel called the Trump Regency. He is also dredging the harbor near Trump Castle, where the 282-foot Trump Princess yacht is often docked.

The history of the Taj Mahal is a bit more involved. Its counterpart in India took 20,000 workers more than two decades to build in the 17th century; the Atlantic City version has been planned since 1976 and nearly bankrupted its original owner, Resorts International.

Trump bought a controlling interest in Resorts in 1987, an empire that included the Resorts's casino and the half-completed Taj next door. The following year, after a complicated takeover battle with entertainer-turned-investor Merv Griffin, Trump sold Griffin the company for $64 million while buying the Taj for $261 million. Resorts has been in trouble ever since and defaulted on its debt payments last summer.

Meanwhile, the price of Trump's $675 million in Taj junk bonds has dipped along with the rest of the junk market, prompting a report in Fortune magazine that Trump seems "overextended." Trump scoffs at such accounts, noting that he has not personally guaranteed the Taj bonds and that his only real risk was in undertaking the construction.

"I have a tremendous amount of cash," he says. "I'm opening up the Taj Mahal right on budget. Trump Plaza is the most successful casino in Atlantic City. Trump Castle is one of the most successful casinos in Atlantic City. I have the best real estate in New York. I have the most successful casinos in the world."

Profits and Poverty "YOU'RE ONLY MINUTES FROM A MILLION BUCKS," says the Trump Plaza sign near the bus terminal. For most of this increasingly poor and black city of 35,000, however, those 11 glittering casinos might as well be light-years away.

Despite the promises surrounding the 1976 referendum that brought legalized gambling to New Jersey, parts of the Boardwalk are surrounded by dilapidated wooden shacks, abandoned flophouses and debris-strewn lots. The Boardwalk itself is a motley collection of T-shirt shops and chili dog stands, fortunetellers and elderly strollers. Atlantic City has more than 18,000 slot machines but no movie theaters, and only one supermarket.

Pausing from his daily routine of greeting passersby in front of a shoe repair store on Arctic Avenue, Harold Mosee, a former city councilman in a gray suit, yellow T-shirt and goatee, sounds bitter.

"The casino owners built the casinos to be self-contained entities," he says. "You can drink, you can eat, you can sleep, you can gamble right there. That was no accident; that was by design. All of our local restaurants have had to close. They've destroyed the city. We used to have 18 movie theaters. They were all bought up and torn down for parking lots.

"The casinos are making money," says Mosee, "but none of it's getting shared with the folks who live here. I think Trump is worse than the rest because Trump has the air of being a productive and concerned individual. But his concern is not about the town he's in, his concern is about the bottom line, like the rest of them. Trump made a commitment that he was going to produce housing and help the local citizens, but no one's seen any of that yet."

Trump inherited an existing obligation to build low-income housing when he bought Resorts, but says he transferred that to Merv Griffin when Griffin bought the company. In any event, Trump says he has created nearly 15,000 jobs and that, like all casino owners, a percentage of his proceeds is channeled into a local redevelopment fund.

Some say it is unfair to expect private businessmen to rescue this aging resort. "Atlantic City suffers from all the problems of urban American, and you're not going to fix that by putting up casinos," says Carl Zeitz, a former member of the state's Casino Control Commission. "It's simply not a big enough place to handle all these problems. It's a village. It's one of the richest municipalities in the state, with $6 billion in property assets, and it has no capital budget."

Still, the obvious contrast between wealthy, white-run casinos and predominantly black slums has contributed to racial tensions. "The city has historically been divided," Mosee says. "When you get to Atlantic Avenue, on this side it's the black section and on the other side it's the white section."

White business leaders were further chagrined by the indictment of James Usry, the city's first black mayor. Usry, three city councilmen and 11 others were indicted on bribery and other charges two months ago in what New Jersey's attorney general has described as a "government for sale" scheme. Usry, a Republican, is accused of taking $6,000 from an undercover informant in exchange for approval of a Boardwalk electric-cart franchise. He is the fourth Atlantic City mayor indicted in 19 years, having replaced Michael Matthews, a white Democrat later jailed for corruption, in a 1984 recall election.

While the government has been preoccupied with scandal, the crime rate has soared. "You've got a lot of dope and prostitution in Atlantic City," says Richard Suarez, a local cabdriver. "At nighttime you've got to have two guns out here. The casinos created a lot of jobs, but they brought in a lot of people from out of town to take those jobs. If they had {gambling} on the ballot tomorrow, the local people would vote it down."

Although Atlantic City draws more than 30 million visitors a year, its shortcomings are legion: The airport, with its tiny one-room terminal and few scheduled flights, is a joke. The winter weather is lousy. Convention facilities are inadequate. Most visitors are day-trippers who stay for six or eight hours before getting back on the bus. There isn't much to do except gamble, and many high rollers prefer the golf courses, mountains and balmy climate of Las Vegas.

"The place is just a mess," Roffman says. "Comparing it to Las Vegas is like comparing a Rolls-Royce to a bicycle. There's a rinky-dink atmosphere with these little schlock stores on the Boardwalk and a very low clientele walking around."

The stagnant regional economy has taken its toll. Casino revenues here grew by just 2.6 percent last year, the smallest increase in 12 years of legalized gambling. At least four casinos, including Trump Castle, lost money in 1989. If there is a recession or another jurisdiction legalizes gambling east of the Mississippi, more casinos might slip into the red.

Optimists prefer to see the Taj Mahal's opening as a watershed event. "It's going to turn Atlantic City from a neighborhood crap game to a destination resort for people across the country," says Al Glasgow, publisher of the industry newsletter, Atlantic City Action.

But some casino owners worry that the new hotel may fatten Donald Trump's wallet at their expense. Beginning next month, Trump will own 31 percent of the city's gambling capacity, 39 percent of the first-class hotel rooms and more than a third of the convention space.

"There's a lot of trepidation because nobody really knows what the Taj is going to do," says Thomas Carver, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey. "It's a massive increase in capacity at a time when the market has really been dead."

Trump, for his part, has no problem envisioning the Taj making $1 million a day from gambling, not when Trump Plaza's daily take is $837,000 from a casino half the size. And even if the new palace falters, it's the bondholders, not The Donald, whose chips are on the line.

"The whole Trump style is to put up other people's money and let them take the risk," Roffman says. "No way in the world is Donald going to reach into his own pockets. No way, Jose! You see how he did things with Ivana."