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Whether floating or beached permanently, coastal casinos offer Vegas fun

When Iowa brought back the tradition of riverboat gambling in 1991, it set off a flurry of activity that soon saw floating riverboat-style casinos plying rivers and lakes in five other states.

Gambling was initially limited to when the boats were away from shore on cruises, but increased demand for gaming led to many revisions in regulations over the years. Today, although some states still require their casinos to be on water, none require the casinos to cruise, and some states, such as Iowa, Illinois and Mississippi, have allowed the casinos to move inland.

Even those floating casinos that remain have become virtually land-based operations with large hotel, dining and entertainment facilities on shore and seamless transitions to gaming areas that give no impression of being on water.

Here’s a sampling of floating casinos as they look today.

Majestic Star Casino and Hotel
Gary, Indiana

SunCruz Casinos combine ocean scenery with gaming entertainment

Some states that don’t allow casinos on their shores permit gambling off their coast, which turns a night at a casino into a scenic ocean cruise. SunCruz Casino, the world’s largest offshore gaming company, operates a ship in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, that sails out of the Little River into the ocean for three miles into international waters before letting the gambling commence.

The first hour of the 600-passenger cruise serves as a sightseeing voyage with dinner, live entertainment and the option of just lazing around on the sun deck. More than 375 Las Vegas-style slots, table games and sports book wagering options add excitement to the five-hour cruise with the additional benefit of free drinks while gaming.

“It’s sort of like Vegas on the ocean,” said Gary Inks, chief marketing officer for SunCruz Casinos. “We have all the games they have in Vegas, plus you get to enjoy the beauty of the ocean, which it is worth the trip just for that. It’s a great play to relax and have fun.”
About 40 percent of Myrtle Beach’s passenger count comes from groups from many different states, so many group rates come along with the voyage.

Indiana, which now requires only that casinos be surrounded by water even if they have no intention of ever sailing, has 10 riverboat casinos along the Ohio River and on Lake Michigan.

Belterra Casino and Resort in Lawrence, Indiana, and Horseshoe Casino and Resort in Elizabeth, Indiana, near Louisville, Kentucky, both on the Ohio River, are major resorts with large land-based amenities and golf courses. The newest, and only inland casino, is the French Lick Resort Casino, whose beaux-arts-style casino area does reside on a small man-made pool of water.

Majestic Star I and II riverboats in Gary seek to move to a more favorable land-based location near Interstate 69. Legislative committees in October decided that moving the two floating casinos to a land-based facility would generate an additional $10 million a year, but discussions are expected to continue for a while.

The two riverboats feature all the classic and modern slot machines, and constantly updated video reel games. More than 2,400 slot machines and 50 table games fill the gaming rooms of the two boats.

Although the casinos must remain permanently moored in the water, the 300-room hotel overlooking Lake Michigan is entirely on land and only a few steps from the boat.

Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Stationary casinos floating along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were taken for a ride by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In response, Mississippi officials changed regulations to allow casinos to build on land up to 800 feet from the water’s edge.

Eleven casinos have rebuilt along the Gulf Coast, including the Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis, whose original gaming barge was washed away by Katrina’s powerful waves. The company constructed a new gaming facility and restored the battered hotel.

“It took a year to renovate everything,” said Bob Davidge, advertising and public relations manager for the casino. “The water touched the chandelier in our meeting room. Now everything is new and renovated. There is a laid-back feeling you get when you walk in here that if you are in a busy city you can’t expect.”

Guests can kick back at the casino’s 300 waterfront rooms, 1,200 slot machines, table games and four restaurants. The casino also owns an Arnold Palmer 18-hole championship golf course that has Audubon International Silver Signature status and pristine views of the surrounding marshland.

Jumer’s Casino and Hotel
Rock Island, Illinois

Illinois was the second state to legalize riverboat gambling, and casinos clung to the state’s riverbanks until December 2008, when Jumer’s Casino and Hotel moved from its position on the Mississippi River to a new land-based building by Interstate 280 in Rock Island.

The new casino features an attached 205-room hotel and 700-seat multipurpose venue. Art-deco style of the late 1920s and early 1930s pervades the facility for a stylish flair, and the central focus of the building is the Oculus Bar, where musicians perform nightly.

“One of the things I like, from an entertainment value, is there are four different kinds of restaurants, a sports bar and a piano bar,” said Rick Baker, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce. “You can go out and, even if you are not a big gambler, you can enjoy a live show. It has more of a Las Vegas feel.”

From 730 original games in the original riverboat to 1,200 games in the new casino, the $151 million complex ensures even more gaming fun than previously. Jumer’s also includes a spa and an indoor pool.