It all started with salt water.
Atlantic City — legendary Prohibition good-time town, birthplace of the Miss America pageant, iconic gaming destination — got its start in the mid-1800s as a health resort. Believed to be good for what ails you, its ocean shoreline was enticing hundreds of thousands of travelers by 1870. That was the year Atlantic City’s first permanent boardwalk was built as a way to keep sand out of the grand hotels that fronted the beach.
Today, the boardwalk is more than five miles long and sports enticements like the historic Steel Pier, which features three bars, abundant carnival rides and games and the country’s third-largest observation wheel.
But it’s just one of the attractions that beguiles groups in Atlantic City, the city that is always reinventing itself.
“What’s unique about Atlantic City is that it never stays the same,” said Heather Colache, tourism account and film commission director for Meet AC. “It’s always changing. There’s always something new coming on, something fresh or something that is being remodeled.”
Most recently, that has included the three-block-long development known as the Orange Loop, so named for the group of properties in the game Monopoly, which was inspired by Atlantic City. Among the businesses happy to welcome groups are a beer hall, a chocolate bar and a donation-based yoga studio, as well as Bourré, a New Orleans-inspired bar and restaurant with live music. The Orange Loop, which frequently hosts outdoor events like craft beer tastings in the warm-weather months, offers free motorcoach parking.
Looking ahead, as this Boardwalk Empire likes to do, groups will eventually be able to enjoy a completely revamped Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino. The property was just purchased by a hedge fund operator who has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for an overhaul. Meanwhile, the hotel Showboat, which does not have a casino, has announced intentions to build an indoor water park on its property, and January is scheduled to see the implosion of Trump Plaza, which may be replaced by a multiuse outdoor space.
And Atlantic City continues to reinvent itself as a prime culinary destination with beloved eateries new and classic. Big names like Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsey can be found at the casino properties, while historic favorite Knife and Fork Inn, which dates to Prohibition, serves upscale steak and seafood. Another iconic eatery, according to Colache, is White House Subs. “The celebrities all come in, and their pictures are plastered all over the wall,” she said. “It’s a little local gem and a must-visit when you come to Atlantic City.”
Despite the city’s love of reinvention, there’s still plenty of tradition to be found in AC. The historic Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall, built in 1929, is home to the Midmer-Losh Organ, the largest, loudest musical instrument in the world. Groups can schedule free tours year-round, and during the summer, there are free half-hour concerts weekdays at noon. Likewise, the Absecon Lighthouse, the third-tallest lighthouse in the United States, also offers tours to groups. Built in 1857, the 171-foot-tall lighthouse, with 228 steps, still boasts its original, first-order Fresnel Lens.
Groups that want to visit the lighthouse should schedule their stop around a half-day adventure in Historic Gardner’s Basin, just five minutes away. Atlantic City Cruises, which offers three cruises a day, as well as private charters, is based in the little marine community, but it’s not the only attraction to be found there, as Colache noted.
“Within that area are a couple of restaurants, like Gilcrist Restaurant, which is a family favorite famous for its blueberry pancakes,” Colache said. “And then there’s also a small aquarium, and all of the animals are indigenous to our water. It’s just really a beautiful area. You can bring your own food and have picnics there. There’s a marina as well. You can fish off the pier. And everyone works with groups. Oh, and AC Cruises can also cater breakfast onto the boat, so you can have your cruise with breakfast.”
With nine casinos, three on the marina and six on the boardwalk, it might be difficult to tear the group’s gamblers away from Atlantic City. But just outside the city limits in Margate sits a sight that will disappoint no one: Lucy the Elephant. Built in 1881 of wood and tin sheeting to attract tourists and promote real estate, the beloved pachyderm is a six-story marvel that has been happily refurbished and now hosts tours.
“You go all the way to the top, [and] there’s a 360-degree view of Atlantic City and all the barrier islands,” Colache said. “Lucy also has a great gift shop and a little sandwich stand. She’s fun for older groups, younger groups — it doesn’t matter. She’s just really interesting. They can probably take only 10 at a time, but there’s so much to do there [that] people aren’t ever bored.”
Which, when you think of it, might be a fine — if a bit no-nonsense — slogan for Atlantic City itself. After all, the city is an island that offers exceptional sand, surf and sun to go along with its celebrated gaming and, as Colache pointed out, serious shopping.
“We have tax-free shopping on clothes and shoes and over 100 shops in Tanger Outlets, which is in walking distance from the boardwalk,” she said. “So it’s also a very easy, walkable destination. And we have motorcoach parking now, and there are no permits needed to come into the city, so it really is wide open for groups
Groups can contact Colache directly for more travel ideas and help planning their Atlantic City itineraries.
“It’s all about the story, and Atlantic City has rich and vibrant stories,” she said. “We want to make sure people have a memorable experience when they come and visit us.”