ATLANTIC CITY, N.J., Jan. 9 (UPI) -- You'll be happy to know that the animatronic cats are dead. Those Dixieland-jazz cat puppets that would suddenly blindside you when you walked through the Showboat, appearing from behind a little marionette curtain, have finally played their last headache-inducing note.
"Those were actually state-of-the-art animatronics when they were first installed," explains Showboat spokesman Susan Tulino as we walked by the shuttered hovels of the unemployed cats. "But some of them were not in very good repair, and we decided they had run their course."
It's all part of Showboat's plan to change its image from being the goofiest of Atlantic City casinos to one with an honest-to-God theme.
When it was built in 1987, it was the only themed casino in the city, using a New Orleans Mardi Gras decor borrowed from its sister property, the Showboat in Vegas, which finally breathed its last in 2001 after several years of looking rundown, threadbare and even downright scary in the daylight.
The Showboat in Atlantic City never got to that stage, mainly because its owners sold it in 1998 to the Harrah's chain, which decided there was still enough oomph in the "Showboat" brand to keep the name.
And now they're spending the big bucks to get rid of the Showboat's image as a place for white-shoed elderly slot-jockeys bused in from Scranton. They spent $34 million last year on two new restaurants and a casino-floor facelift, and this year they'll spend $115 million more -- $25 million for a new beach-front players club, and $90 million for a new hotel tower (the Showboat's third) at a time when all the other casinos are canceling their expansions in the wake of Sept. 11.
Before Harrah's took over, about the only thing the Showboat was known for was its state-of-the-art 60-lane bowling alley on the second floor. During the '80s, both Showboats went big-time into bowling as the casino amenity of the future. Professional tournaments were held at both casinos. Special bowling-tour packages were created. And then, for some reason, the whole fad fizzled. By this time last year all but four of the 60 lanes went unused for most of the week.
Showboat's solution was to close the lanes and use that 40,000 square feet--larger than the casino floors of both the Sands and the Claridge -- to create two restaurants, including what is now the best buffet in the city. It's called The French Quarter, and it's the creation of Executive Chef Joseph Giunta, a veteran food executive who was hired away from the famous Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.
As its name implies, the French Quarter is designed to look like the streets and storefronts of old New Orleans, with a faux sky, red brick walls, gas lamps, and festive banners everywhere. But the real innovation here is new technology that eliminates steam tables entirely. You know that pasty taste that occurs when food has been on a steam table a little too long? It can't happen at the French Quarter, where everything is placed under heat lamps on a sleek black-glass surface -- and most of the food has been prepared within 10 minutes of your picking it up.
The way they do that is to have 55 chefs working all the time at seven themed food stations, each with its own ovens and grills, so that everything is prepared in plain sight and in fairly small batches. There are a total of 45 dishes available, and they're delicious -- this from a guy who has sampled many buffets.
The French Quarter seats 560 and has been so successful during its first two months that anywhere from 3,200 to 4,000 people are eating there each day. But right next door is the equally impressive Mansion. In the old days it would have been called the "coffee shop," the catch-all name for every casino's 24-hour joint, but now Showboat employees are not even allowed to say the words "coffee shop."
The Mansion is innovatively designed as a 19th-century Southern plantation house, including an entrance that looks like a "Gone With the Wind" front porch, polished wood floors, ornate lighting fixtures, fine rugs, antiques purchased at Sotheby's and Christie's auctions, and four themed dining areas.
My favorite is the "library," which is done up in dark wood bookcases and deep red faux-leather walls. There are antique clocks, statuary and all the gewgaws you would find in a Southern gentleman's literary parlor, including 19th-century leather-bound books.
Other areas are the "courtyard" (stone tables, wrought iron chairs and a faux sky), the Gold Room (leather seats, wooden tables, antique mirrors), and the Blue Room (cobalt china but a more casual feel).
The casino floor has been spruced up as well, with all the aisles widened between slot machines (which seems to be an industry trend) and a new digital-display system called "Eball" installed to identify all the various slot areas with informational "street signs."
For high-ticket players, there's the Carousel Room (decorated with carousel horses), and the even more exclusive Bayou Gaming Club, for $5-and-up players, that has plush seats and private phones at each machine, to expedite drink orders and dining reservations.
It's all about slots at the Showboat, which has one of the largest bus-tour operations on the boardwalk, bringing in players from as far away as western Pennsylvania for six-hour stays and plying them with coupons that average about $15 worth of chips. What's odd, though, is that the Showboat currently has the tightest slots in the city. For September, they had the worst overall win percentage of Atlantic City's 12 casinos, returning an average of only 91.2 cents for every dollar wagered. Their 50-cent slots returned only 88.1 cents in a market where casinos rarely go under 91 on anything except nickel machines.
The fact that they continue to do great business probably has to do with the light and airy feel of the place and the festive atmosphere.
"Our customers are a little older," says Tulino, "and they like it bright and noisy." They always have costumed greeters at the door, strolling musicians, a little Dixieland group near the casino floor, and some kind of band in the false-front New Orleans Square, which is a lounge with no cover.
All this free entertainment has become a trademark of the casino -- they've had it for 12 years -- and it obviously helps create the "Mardi Gras Lite" atmosphere they're striving for.
They also have a traditional showroom that features headliners and revue shows from February through October. Clint Holmes, the permanent headliner at Harrah's in Vegas, kicks off the season next month.
Although the Showboat has the most beautiful facade on the boardwalk -- with French Quarter murals, balconies, wrought-iron railings, and lifelike mannequins standing on the balconies -- there's not much to see on the boardwalk itself. The nearest pier has an old local history museum that no one ever visits, and the casino is isolated at the far northern end. It's a short hike to the two casinos within walking distance, the Trump Taj Mahal and Resorts.
Not that these partygoers want to venture too far away. They have two gourmet restaurants to choose from -- Champagne Charlie's (steak with a Parisian twist) and Casa di Napoli ($36 lamb chops) -- and the veterans of the place would think a Trump casino was too pretentious anyway.
Besides, the bus back to Altoona leaves in five more hours.
Delaware Avenue at the boardwalk
Theme: New Orleans Mardi Gras
Total investment: $634 million
Known for: Party-babe greeters revealing outfits.
Marketing niche: Bus business, drive-ins from
Philadelphia, state of Pennsylvania, north Jersey and New York.
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Rare games: Spanish 21, Let 'Em Ride Bonus Slots: 3,200 Rooms: 765 (growing to 1,230 by 2003)
Surrounding area: Fronting on a white sand beach at the lonely north end of the boardwalk, a short hike from Trump's Taj Mahal and Resorts.
Overall rating: 80
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $62 after an hour of inexpert Spanish 21: total to date: +$130
(Email Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's website at joebob-briggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.