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Rolling on the Rivers – Riverboat Casino

After 15 years of evolution, riverboat casinos have become resort destinations in and of themselves
by Frank Legato


Consider the term “riverboat casino.”
These days, the term conjures up images completely different than when the modern riverboat gaming industry was inaugurated in Iowa some 15 years ago. Back then, riverboat casinos were little more than a means of bailing out state budgets—of clearing red ink in government ledgers without raising taxes.

The idea was to use gambling to raise money, but to restrict it to waterways¬. To distinguish them from “real” casinos, as existed only in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, they would be kept from land, thereby saving “respectable” people from the specter of gambling in their neighborhoods. To give them charm and appeal for gamblers, they would recall the times of Mark Twain, designed as replicas of legendary 19th century paddlewheel steam riverboats on which frontier characters played draw poker while floating lazily up and down the Mississippi River.


While one can still find many paddlewheel riverboats with casinos, these days, the gaming boats that actually cruise rivers are few and far between. Today’s typical “riverboat” casino is actually a docked vessel—certified by the U.S. Coast Guard as navigable but not required by law to actually navigate—that is part of a much larger complex. Inside, it is more likely to resemble a modern Las Vegas casino than anything that cruised a river in the old days. Many of the vessels sit adjacent to world-class hotels, with landside entertainment complexes, dining, lounges and resort amenities to rival any gaming destination in the country.

Riverboat casinos, once viewed as a necessary evil to communities in which they were legalized, grew to be vital parts of those communities, providing jobs and economic revival to depressed areas, and donating millions to local charities. For the people who played there, the vessels became hot regional destinations, providing escapes for drive-in customers and great gambling deals for the locals.

Anthony Sanfilippo, president of Harrah’s Entertainment’s Central Division, has been operating in the riverboat market since the early days. He has been with Harrah’s for nine years, and he says the past decade has seen changes not only in the way players see riverboat gaming, but in the way communities see the casinos.

“The main difference today is the acceptability of gaming in communities that were considered new jurisdictions 10 years ago,” Sanfilippo says. “Ten years ago, gaming was stereotyped—from movies, mainly—and communities didn’t have an understanding of their economic impact in the local community and state, as well as the ability to bring a whole new type of entertainment experience into their community.”

An Industry Born
This unique sector of the gaming industry was born when, in 1989, state lawmakers in Iowa passed a law permitting cruising river vessels to offer casino gaming. It took two years to iron out all the rules, but in April of 1991, the new entertainment genre was officially launched when Bernard Goldstein, founder and owner of a shipbuilding company called Steamboat Development Corporation, placed twin paddlewheel boats christened Diamond Lady and Lady Emerald into the waters of the Mississippi River in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Those two vessels would eventually grow into what is now Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., but first, Goldstein faced quick competition, both in Iowa and across the river in Illinois. The biggest threat to those first riverboats, though, was Iowa’s own gaming law, which imposed a limit of $5 per bet and a “loss limit” of $200 per person, per cruise. With boats required to cruise during the warm months, that meant if a customer lost $200 in the first half-hour of a two-hour cruise, he was stuck doing nothing for the other hour and a half.

Nearby states were quick to pick up on the fact that gamblers were looking for less restrictive rules. In September of 1991, Illinois launched its riverboat gaming market, with no bet restrictions or loss limits. The following year, Goldstein moved his two original boats to the Gulf Coast to become the first to open in Biloxi with his renamed Isle of Capri casino. Not only did Mississippi allow casinos to operate without betting restrictions; there was no cruising requirement. Vessels were permanently docked, and—for better or worse, as we now know—most were built on barges directly on the water, forming what were essentially floating land-based casinos.

The riverboat market quickly exploded, and by 1993, gaming boats were cruising rivers and man-made waterways (known as “boats in moats”) not only in Iowa and Illinois but in Indiana, Missouri and Louisiana. Mississippi made a total of six floating casino markets with more than 60 total vessels and dockside casinos.

The first riverboat casinos made money through what is known in the trade as “convenience gambling,” meaning people went there solely because it offered gambling close to home. The ability to gamble without traveling to Las Vegas or Atlantic City made up for the fact that typically, one would find slots and table games cramped on several levels of a paddlewheeler. Little comfort, lots of action.

However, as with most forms of entertainment, increased competition ultimately led to better offerings, larger facilities, and a wealth of choice for the player. This was aided by the fact that the Indian gaming market was launched at essentially the same time as the riverboat market. Racinos were not far behind; nor were new land-based commercial casinos in markets like Detroit. Riverboat casinos could no longer afford to be convenience gaming outlets. They now had to compete for their customers with a collection of gaming choices that was not even on the radar of the visionaries who started riverboat gaming in the early 1990s.

One by one, riverboat markets dropped remaining betting and loss limits, and then cruise requirements. Missouri is the only remaining riverboat market with loss limits—you are not permitted to lose more than $500 within a two-hour period. The last market to drop cruising requirements was Iowa, which passed a law in 2004 eliminating the five-month cruise schedule and authorizing the gaming commission to approve an open-ended number of new licenses.

Many of the older multi-level paddlewheel riverboats were replaced by massive single-level vessels with as much casino space as many traditional land-based casinos. Riverboat gaming operators expanded landside entertainment and dining complexes, added hotels, and built golf courses.

Riverboat casinos were no longer cramped vessels where gamblers put up with crowded conditions and discomfort for the sake of laying down a bet. They were resorts.

Evolution of the Offering
Sanfilippo of Harrah’s says he has watched the riverboat market grow from gambling joints into full-blown destination resorts. “Early on, the experience was centered around pure gambling, with some food offerings,” he says. “Over 10 years, we’ve seen an evolution of our offerings. For example, at our Horseshoe Hammond, we are under way with a complete renovation that will transform the property.”

Horseshoe Hammond’s transformation is typical of the upgrades to be found across the riverboat gaming markets. It is one of two Harrah’s riverboats in Indiana, and one of seven covering four states in or near the Chicagoland region. It originally was the Empress riverboat, before it was bought by Jack Binion and subsequently by Harrah’s when the operator acquired the Horseshoe brand. It has the distinction of being the closest casino to downtown Chicago.

While many improvements and expansions have been made to the landside dining and entertainment facility, the multi-leveled vessel itself had little room for improvement. The $485-million makeover of Horseshoe Hammond will replace that vessel with a huge riverboat placing all gaming on one level. On the second level of the new boat will feature a state-of-the-art entertainment venue, two celebrity chef restaurants and a 2,500-seat buffet. New shore-side facilities will include Diamond and Seven-Star Lounges for top players. The expansion will be complete in the summer of 2008.

Horseshoe Hammond’s new facility will demonstrate something that has become common over the evolution of the riverboat gaming market: Riverboats these days are destinations, in and of themselves, and they are viable alternatives to the plane trip to Las Vegas or the larger land-based casinos of Atlantic City or Connecticut.

“The (riverboat) markets have evolved to where the non-gaming aspects of the properties are much more important,” says Wade Hundley, president of Pinnacle Entertainment, the Las Vegas-based company that operates two of the most elaborate riverboat properties in the nation, Belterra in Indiana and L’Auberge Du Lac in Lake Charles, Lousiana. “These are entertainment destinations rather than several decks of gaming.”

Hundley says the evolution of the riverboat market in this respect was not too different than the growth of non-gaming attractions in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. “As in those markets, the desires and tastes of the customers have caused riverboat operators to provide what that customer is asking for, and that’s a broader entertainment experience,” he says.

He adds that at the same time the non-gaming amenities have been proliferating, the riverboat markets have maintained the familiarity with their customers possible only in locals markets. “The riverboat properties will give you more personal attention than many Las Vegas properties,” says Hundley. “Your personal relationship with employees is much more evident, because Las Vegas tourist properties may see customers a couple of times a year, where in regional markets, you see them much more often.”

Hundley predicts that the riverboat market will continue to evolve along the lines of offering the best in non-gaming entertainment and pampering to go with the gaming experience. “Our company believes in building world-class destination resorts,” he says. “That’s the type of property that will be successful in the future. You want to be able to get a free spa visit or a steak dinner, and play a round of golf. People can get these things in Las Vegas, so you have to offer the same kinds of amenities—and they can get them without having to go to an airport, go through security, and go through all the other hassles that come with traveling far away.”

Sanfilippo at Harrah’s adds that riverboat facilities will only improve as we move into the next decade, in large part because of the community support riverboats now enjoy. “State by state, local officials have been able to understand and measure the impact gaming has had in state and community,” he says. “Communities and states are no longer dealing with what may be, but with what has been. And therefore, they can make true, fact-based decisions on how to develop tourism based on gaming entertainment.”

Tourism based on gaming entertainment—it’s a concept that once was confined to markets such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Nowadays, the Midwest riverboat markets offer an experience that is, in the end, worth the trip.

The Gems
You will, in fact, find something worth the trip in each riverboat region of the country. Here are a few of the gems to be found in each of the riverboat states:

Much of the first riverboat gaming market remains as it was when it launched the industry in the early 1990s. While they can now remain docked and can operate without the silly betting restrictions, most of the 10 Iowa riverboats are still simple and small.

The exceptions to this rule are obvious every year when we do our “Best of Gaming” survey. Iowa’s two “category-killer” riverboat casinos are in Council Bluffs—Ameristar and Harrah’s. Over in Bettendorf, Isle of Capri’s second Iowa entry is definitely worth a visit as well.

Ameristar Council Bluffs
This massive paddlewheel-style riverboat features around 38,000 square feet of casino space spread over three levels, with 1,651 slots and 31 table games. A great player’s club offers frequent 4X-point days and cashback on both slots and tables. Ameristar would be a typical old-fashioned riverboat casino, except for all the stuff that goes along with the games, much of it on the shore-side complex: great restaurants, including the much-acclaimed Waterfront Grille for the best steaks in the market; a 160-room hotel including eight beautiful luxury suites, 32 unique “king whirlpool rooms” and great river views; lounge entertainment at two cabaret bars, and headliners at the Amerisports Bar. In short, all the casino comforts in a river setting.

Harrah’s Council Bluffs
Similar in style to Ameristar—a three-deck paddlewheel vessel with hotels and restaurants on shore facilities—Harrah’s consistently gets our readers’ nod as the best overall riverboat casino hotel in Iowa. With just over 1,000 slots and around 35 table games spread over three levels, the gaming is comparable to Ameristar, with the added benefit of the Harrah’s Total Rewards national player’s club. Harrah’s also is known for its great 240-room hotel; restaurants such as the 360 Steakhouse and the ’50s-style Ace’s Diner; and the hip Stir nightclub.

Isle of Capri Bettendorf
Isle deserves honorable mention in Iowa for the property it built in the location of the property that inaugurated the riverboat market, Bettendorf. While gaming offerings are on par with other riverboats its size (like the Council Bluffs boats, it is a three-level, paddlewheel-style vessel), the adjacent 256-room hotel is outstanding, from its elegant lobby to comfortable standard rooms to the fantastic theme suites.

Illinois has nine riverboats, with the 10th license still wrapped up in the courts with legal challenges from Emerald Casino, Inc., over the revocation of its license.

The other nine riverboat casinos are mostly smaller properties, with a few large gems. There is still a $5 admission fee, although some properties, such as Harrah’s, have waived it if you flash a player’s club card. The best feature of many—and a large reason for their popularity—is proximity to the city of Chicago. In fact, the four Illinois casinos and five Indiana casinos which are all within an hour’s drive of Chicago, and which form the casino market commonly known as “Chicagoland,” constitute the third-highest-grossing casino market in the country.

Gems on the Illinois side of Chicagoland include Harrah’s Joliet and the Grand Victoria in Elgin, but one other Illinois casino far from Chicago deserves honorable mention—the Casino Queen in East St. Louis, on the Missouri border.

Harrah’s Joliet
Located around 30 miles from Chicago, Harrah’s Joliet is casino on a barge docked on the Des Plaines River. During the third quarter of 2001, the two existing riverboat casinos, which had been linked by a “transition barge” after Illinois approved dockside gaming in 1999, was replaced with the single-level, Vegas-style casino. Shore-side facilities adjacent to the casino include a pavilion featuring a lounge and a retail shop, and n 11-story luxury hotel with a fitness center. You will find some of the best video poker in Chicagoland here, as well as great headline entertainment at the Stage 151 concert venue.

Grand Victoria
Docked on the Fox River in Elgin, around 31 miles from Chicago, the Grand Victoria is a classic paddlewheeler on the outside, but once inside, you’d never know it. The casino’s spacious single-level interior, housing around 30,000 square feet of gaming space, sports the classic elegance of a high-end Las Vegas-style design. Grand Victoria is one of Chicagoland’s most popular casinos, and our readers consistently vote it Best Casino in the market because of good rules on the table games, great cashback and comps, and the best dealers and hosts in the business. If you go, don’t forget to visit Buckingham’s for great steak.

Casino Queen
Across the state from the Chicagoland market in East St. Louis, you will find the casino with the loosest slots in the nation. This classic paddlewheel riverboat with its 27,500-square-foot casino did something last year that no other casino in the nation has been able to do: it unseated the Las Vegas locals casinos for the crown of Loosest Slots in the Nation, returning a remarkable 95.13 percent of all wagers to players, in all denominations. Among the other pleasant surprises here are a first-rate hotel, a great sports bar, and a fantastic steakhouse called the Royal Table.

There are two distinct markets for riverboats in Indiana—the five casinos on the Indiana side of the Chicagoland market, and the southern Indiana casinos along the Ohio river, which serve the Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky markets. In all, there are 10 riverboat casinos, with an 11th on the way in French Lick, to be placed on a man-made lake between two resort towns.

In the Chicagoland area, there is one Indiana choice that stands out above all the others—Resorts East Chicago. In the South, there are three standouts—Caesars Indiana, Argosy Lawrenceburg, and the fabulous Belterra.

Resorts East Chicago
Resorts East Chicago, the massive yacht-style riverboat that opened as Harrah’s East Chicago, is the clear choice as the best casino in the Chicagoland market. Harrah’s sold the 53,000-square-foot casino a year ago to Resorts International Holdings, as part of the divestitures associated with its takeover of Caesars. Thankfully, Resorts has not altered it significantly. In our annual reader survey, this property consistently ranks as the best overall hotel casino in the market, along with the best rooms and suites, in the 286-room adjacent hotel.

Caesars Indiana
This is one of those riverboat properties which, if seen only from the inside, is virtually indistinguishable from an upscale Las Vegas resort casino hotel. Caesars Indiana is attached to one of the most beautiful hotels in the market, its elegant lobby awash in marble befitting the familiar Roman theme. The riverboat itself, on the 5,000-passenger side-wheel style vessel dubbed Glory of Rome, is the largest riverboat casino in the world, with some 90,000 square feet of gaming space. There is fantastic slot selection, great video poker, and top-notch table games and poker room. You can’t go wrong here.

Argosy Lawrenceburg
Another behemoth on the Ohio, Penn National’s Argosy Lawrenceburg casino—the closest to Cincinnati—features some of the best slots and video poker in southern Indiana, as well as another great hotel. It is one of the most popular riverboat casinos in the nation, not only for its games—2,300 slots and 80 tables spread over three levels—but for a promotion-rich slot club that many consider the best in the market.

And then there’s Belterra. Pinnacle Entertainment’s Belterra property is not as large as its neighbors, but is one of the very best riverboat casinos in the country. The two-tower hotel is twice as large as competing locations, a recent expansion bumping the room count to 608, including 57 luxurious suites. Staying at the hotel gives you access to a package of top amenities dominated by a championship golf course. The casino is just as good: The slot floor stocks the newest games on the market. Table games include five-deck blackjack and 10-times odds on craps. In short, what’s not to like?

Missouri has 11 riverboat casinos, but there are only two names you need to know: Ameristar and Harrah’s. Ameristar operates top properties in Kansas City and St. Charles, and between those properties and the Harrah’s casinos in St. Louis and North Kansas City, the two operators dominate the market.

Ameristar Kansas City / St. Charles
This is a remarkably beautiful dockside casino, its two levels bedecked in gold and elegant trappings. It is a consistent winner of most of Player’s top awards for Missouri in the annual survey—clearly a favorite of players for its hotel, its restaurants, its slots, its tables, blackjack, entertainment and restaurants. As far as Missouri goes, this is the place to be. Ameristar St. Charles, recently refurbished to the tune of $360 million, is not on par with the Kansas City property. By next year, the St. Charles property will add a new 25-story hotel tower housing 400 luxury suites.

Harrah’s St. Louis
Harrah’s dominates downtown St. Louis with this huge dockside facility, featuring a total of 120,000 square feet of gaming space. Harrah’s gets high marks for its hotel rooms—including some great room packages—as well as its casino promotions, and of course, the typical Harrah’s service and the ever-present Total Rewards national player’s club.

Louisiana has 15 riverboat casinos spread out across three regions—Baton Rouge/New Orleans, Shreveport/Bossier City, and Lake Charles. The two standouts in the state are operated by Harrah’s (which also operates a land-based casino in New Orleans) and Pinnacle Entertainment.

Horseshoe Bossier City
When Harrah’s Entertainment acquired the Horseshoe brand a couple of years ago, one of the best properties that came with it was the Horseshoe riverboat in Bossier City. Built by Jack Binion as the first casino in the market, it is a beautifully elegant paddlewheeler with some of the best poker, table games and slots in the state. It is adjacent to a magnificent 606-room, all-suite hotel with some of the best resort amenities to be found anywhere in the riverboat market.

L’Auberge du Lac
The newest riverboat casino in Louisiana is also the best. Pinnacle’s L’Auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino is simply gorgeous, its single-level dockside casino only one part of an amazing resort set on 227 acres. Pinnacle has here reprised the formula that worked so well at Belterra, with a 600-plus room, high-end hotel feeding the central feature of the resort—a Tom Fazio-designed, 18-hole championship golf course. As we said with Belterra, what’s not to like?

Rolling on the Rivers – Riverboat Casino.

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