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Tales From the Road: Atlantic City, Still Awful

John Deiner

A few years ago, I wrote a story for The Post's Travel section about the renaissance of Atlantic City. Things were getting hipper, happier, cleaner. The future seemed so bright I had to wear shades.

Okay, things for AC aren't quite panning out the way I'd expected. Gaming revenue, according to one report, was down almost 10 percent in March from a year ago. Ouch. The reasons? The poor economy, a partial smoking ban and . . . competition. Folks can go to Pennsylvania to gamble now, and AC is looking progressively less appealing.

The Atlantic City boardwalk: kitschy, kitschy, ew? (AP Photo/Jose F. Moreno)

I was there a few weeks ago, and it's easy to see why it has become unattractive. A partial smoking ban just doesn't work: The place still reeks, and there was little policing of the rules in the non-smoking sections. Last week, AC's City Council passed a total smoking ban that would go into effect in October; smoking would be allowed only in lounges without slot machines or gaming tables. That's not going to help the bottom line, however. I imagine it's just going to scare away those who do smoke (and incessantly, at that).

While the streets seem cleaner, there's little to do off the boardwalk or beyond the marina other than outlet-shop. You have to pay (pay!!) to park at the casinos, and the boardwalk itself remains a mess. There's been some refurbishment of old facades, but the restaurants and shops along the boardwalk are super-junky. Most of the crowd (many of them elderly) doesn't seem to be having much fun; unlike Vegas, people come to AC to gamble. Fun seems to be at the bottom of the agenda.

In early March, the New York Times ran a piece on a new boutique hotel, the Chelsea, that's slated to open in AC in May. Evidently, it's another attempt to bring some hipness to the town. But here's my favorite quote from the story:

"Atlantic City is one of the most disgusting places in the world," said Sean Kalish, a 26-year-old lawyer who visits the casinos to play poker. He was standing in a slender peacoat waiting for the Atlantic City bus at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Wednesday. "It's like Las Vegas got drunk and slept with South Jersey and this is their bastard child."

I've had fun in AC, and I really don't want to see the place fail, as it employs thousands and its residents deserve better. But while casino hotels like the Borgata and Harrah's continue to upgrade and grow and put a pretty polish on the city, it's clearly having a difficult time these days. It'll be interesting to see what happens once the smoke clears in October.

By John Deiner |  April 18, 2008; 6:21 AM ET  | Category:  John Deiner , Tales from the Road
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In my experiences in AC, the people are down on their luck and looking for a break. They're not there to see shows, enjoy the weather, or take in the spectacle. There is an aura of desperation in AC that just isn't present in Vegas. Or at least Vegas does such a better job covering it up. AC is break or bust.

Posted by: M Street | April 18, 2008 9:33 AM

Do what my family does and stay at the Borgata. No question the nicest hotel in AC. I only go maybe once a year, but I have cousins who go monthly. They don't EVER leave the hotel. Gamble, eat, sleep, shows, whatever--they don't step outside of the Borgata until they are coming home. That way you don't even experience the skanky AC.

Posted by: Sweetie | April 18, 2008 9:36 AM

This is what we in Maryland can look forward to if the Slots bill passes.

Posted by: Tom | April 18, 2008 9:39 AM

I'm not a regular reader of the travel log, but I had to comment on the title of today's article. Hilarious and stingingly accurate. I went to AC a few years ago. My most enduring memory of the trip is shaking a mustard bottle at the Hard Rock Cafe, then watching in horror as the lid flew off mid-shake. I managed to cover myself and a large swath of the table and floor with condiments. The weekend went downhill from there.

Posted by: 51 | April 18, 2008 10:25 AM

I went to AC a couple years ago and was pretty disgusted. Glad to see that they are on their way to banning smoking. I smoke sometimes when I go out and the place turned me off smoking for months -- so gross. It's a haze of smoke, trashy people and no good food. Our hotel was almost $400 a night and smelled. They have a long way to go...

Posted by: LM | April 18, 2008 10:29 AM

You don't want to see it fail but you write an article to bash it?

Posted by: Shawn | April 18, 2008 10:36 AM

John, I was just there last weekend for a girls' reunion, and when I came home, friends asked how it was. All I could say was, "weirder than words can describe." I spent the summers of my youth in next-door Ventnor and remember when Resorts opened in 78, have fond memories of Capt'n Starns and riding my bike on the boardwalk every morning. We stayed in one of the new waterfront tower rooms at Harrah, and yes, the room was nice, but for $250/night I would have expected a robe. Dollar for dollar, my night at Sofitel in Philadelphia on Saturday was money better spent. I know it's like number 4 tourist destination, but my idea of a quiet morning getting my coffee doesn't involve the clanging of slots and disco tunes from the speakers.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | April 18, 2008 11:26 AM

We used to have a house in Ocean City, and when we refinanced it we had to go to Atlantic City to sign some papers. My impression then was that A.C. was like Las Vegas without the class, and it sounds like that's still accurate, though I think the "bastard child" image is a better way to put it.

Posted by: ajsmithva | April 18, 2008 11:44 AM

That was over the top and unfair.

Borgata, as one commentator mentioned, is fabulous. Also in the marina is the equally fabulous Harrah's.

On the boardwalk, the best thing isn't a casino but the Pier Shops at Ceasar's ( which has shopping that rivals Miami's Bal Harbor and, as you mentioned, the great but still expanding outlet shopping a few blocks off the boardwalk from Ceasars'.

Hotel rooms are pricey, but that's a testament to demand.

AC ain't a family town, but if you want to be grown and sexy, it's the best option within 3 hours of DC.

Posted by: bfulton | April 18, 2008 11:56 AM

I grew up in South Jersey. We went to AC every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon. That was 50-60 years ago. The boardwalk attractions haven't changed much. Not a gambler and can't stand smoke. Only reason I make the trek to AC is to go to the White House and have a sub. Now that is worth the trip!

Posted by: rweissva | April 18, 2008 11:57 AM

AC is a joke. Poor games and a lousy atmosphere. WV has legalized table games now, that's where my money is going.

I've never been at a table where the minimum hasn't been grandfathered before!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 18, 2008 12:34 PM

I don't get it - are you blaming Atlantic City for faulty mustard?

Posted by: kathycoulnj | April 18, 2008 2:02 PM

hehehe. Funny article and a good warning. The dingy boardwalk and lack of decent quality things to do sounds a lot like Virginia Beach where I went on a family vacation last summer. At least the beach was nice in VA. How it it in AC?

Posted by: NS | April 18, 2008 2:11 PM

bfulton calls AC "grown and sexy"? Only if you consider a $10 hooker grown and sexy.

Posted by: Margate | April 18, 2008 3:13 PM

"Grown and sexy"? What? How about you stay home and, you know, be a sexy grownup there?

Posted by: hh | April 18, 2008 3:55 PM

I went to AC couple weekends ago for a buddy's bachelor party. We stayed at Bally's/Claridge tower. The whole place smelled like bathroom deodorant and I literally cough and gag when I accidentally walk through the smoking gambling sections.

Yeah, DON'T go to AC if you don't plan on gambling much (which I didn't)

Posted by: H.K. | April 18, 2008 4:09 PM

I don't smoke, but as a casino worker in my former life, I can guarantee you that one reason gambling in AC is down is because smokers, who traditionally represent most gamblers, have to step out for breaks. Consequently, they spend less money. Casinos were one of the last smoker friendly places, so they are feeling the pinch directly.

Posted by: CPS | April 18, 2008 4:26 PM

Don't leave the Borgata. After a while, you forget you're in AC and think it's Vegas.

Stay there twice, and they start sending you tons of free room offers for late fall and winter.

As for smoking, I still see people smoking everyone. The ban is definitely not enforced.

Posted by: Borgata | April 18, 2008 8:10 PM

I happen to live in Wilkes Barre PA, where the first PA slot palace opened up. I was astounded by the amount of revenue that came pouring into that place. I thought that AC might loose some players, but I didn't think it was going to make that big of a dent. There are no table games, just slots and racing. I figured AC would be able to keep up with the Bus loads of day trippers etc.
To the person looking at the MD gambling possibility, the only thing you could look forward to is a closer place to gamble(if you want that), or more money in the local coffers which was why PA got into the game in the first place.
The Moehegan Sun at Pocono Downs is getting ready to open their new Entertainment and Gaming buildings (original slots were put into a temporary structure) I am just wondering what kind of negative impact it will have on all of the new chain restaurants that moved into the area in the last 3 years ( if the new restaurants on site have good food why go elseware if you came to play)

Posted by: rja112 | April 20, 2008 11:45 PM

bfulton, "grown [up] and sexy"? The first two words that come to mind when I hear Atlantic City are "tawdry" and "schlocky."

Probably another reason AC is losing business is Indian gambling in Connecticut. The casinos there have a much better rep than AC, they're equidistant from NYC and they are closer to New England.

Posted by: BxNY | April 21, 2008 11:21 AM

I am a frequent visitor to AC and I am a smoker. It's my choice to smoke until I stop. But in the meantime, if I choose to go to AC and want a machine where I can smoke or a room, I deserve to have a room of my liking just like anyone else. I frequent the Harrahs Hotel and I love it. Most of the Hotels are geared to keep you inside during your whole visit. It is my get away from home (DC). When you go on a regular basis, your rooms are free and all you pay is your taxes when you have a reward card. If I do not stop smoking by the time the ban takes effect, I may stop going to AC myself for that reason. There is no harm in letting us have a space away from all the non smokers. It's our decision to smoke, not yours. I do admit that some weekends in AC you can't find room to walk and some weekends it's very slow. I assume that the weather is another factor when making the trip. It's a nice place to visit if you plan your day and visit other places besides the casinos.

Posted by: Linda R | April 23, 2008 5:06 PM

Just wanted to respond to "Shawn," who's wondering how I can bash AC and not want it to fail at the same time. Point is, maybe some day it will become a nicer, cleaner, happier place. Weirder things have happened; witness Vegas, which reinvents itself every few years. I ended by saying that it'll be interesting to see what happens when smoking is banned completely. As some posters noted, the partial ban has driven business down, but a total ban may make it a more pleasant experience overall. Let's hope so.

Posted by: John Deiner | April 23, 2008 6:03 PM

My husband and I go to Atlantic City about every 6 weeks. We don't go to shop or enjoy the ocean. We don't walk the boardwalk. We go to enjoy ourselves and take a break from everyday routines. We get comped rooms and comped meals. You get these things by gambling. We win a lot and sometimes lose a lot. There are very few areas to smoke in. I am a smoker. It doesen't bother me not to smoke at video poker machines, which I love, so long as there are areas I can smoke in. Now a law will come into effect to totally ban smoking. People should not be working in casinos if they can't take the smoke. A few weeks ago I was in a smoking area in Showboat playing a machine. The woman next to me was waving her hand and asked me to blow the smoke the other way. I reminded her that this was a smoking area. She got indignant! Have all my rights been taken away, even in a smoking area? What was that woman doing in a smoking area when 95% of the casino is non smoking? What next? How about passing a law to a 2 drink limit?

Posted by: Barbara | April 24, 2008 9:23 AM

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