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Atlantic City: A Regional Getaway That's Attracting Players Like Carl Icahn and More Vegas Operators

18 February 2000

There are no super-cheap buffets in Atlantic City; lunches are in the $7-$12 range, dinners in the $7-$16 range. Many visitors like Harrah's buffet best. It cost $7 million to build and makes it seem as if you're in an undersea grotto. Aquariums and fish are everywhere. The food is good, too, as it's served in small pans to ensure freshness.

"Harrah's has a beautiful buffet, the nicest," Steve Bourie of the American Casino Guide says. "It's the only thing in the city comparable to Las Vegas. Everything else there is just more expensive."

Resorts, which was the first casino to open, in 1978, has two of the finest gourmet restaurants in Le Palais and Capriccio. The Hilton can match those with the Oaks and Peregrine's, so named for the nesting falcons that frequent its hotel high rise.

Eight of the 10 Boardwalk casinos have direct access to the Atlantic Ocean beach, but Hilton's is by far the best. It's wide and relatively secluded, and Hilton offers the widest selection of beach amenities for its guests.

Claridge and Sands don't promote the beach too much because they're set back one block from the Boardwalk. Across town, Trump Marina and Harrah's don't have beaches, but they do have the only two casino marinas in town. If you're arriving by boat, they'd be your choice.

If you're a rock'n'roller, check out Trump Marina. It specializes in showcasing acts that are just reaching their peaks, such as the Goo Goo Dolls, and classic bands such as Van Halen and Grand Funk Railroad.

Two casinos, Sands and Claridge, are both operating under bankruptcy protection, but that shouldn't scare you. The situation has actually allowed Sands to become a lot nicer, as its spent millions on new slot machines, renovated hotel rooms and a new entryway. Corporate raider Carl Icahn is trying to buy both of them.

Atlantic City may receive a real jolt -- one certain to benefit the consumer -- in three years or so. Major Las Vegas operators Mirage Resorts and Boyd Gaming are combining to build the $750 million Borgata in the Marina District, and within a year after that opening Mirage alone is planning to open the $1 billion Jardin Palais.

MGM Grand, which operates the biggest place in Las Vegas, is also planning to build a huge casino, next to Showboat in perhaps four to six years.

The three companies are promising to "raise the bar" in terms of service, amenities, entertainment and the whole resort experience. That means the existing casinos will have to match them if they want to survive.

This isn't going to turn Atlantic City into Las Vegas, but it should help make Atlantic City what it really is: a regional getaway.

As Paul Rubeli, chief executive of Tropicana's parent company, Aztar Corp., loves to say, "We should not try to become an Orlando or Las Vegas. Our winter weather and Northeast urban environment will not ever permit us to become those cities, and we should not try. But we should try to become a regional getaway for the 42 million adults in the Northeast region."

(Joe Weinert covers the casino industry for The Press of Atlantic City.)

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