East to west, north to south…
Atlantic City is home to a lot of fun beyond the casinos
By Frank Legato
Way back in the spring of 1997, I did a little piece right here in Casino Player that was called “A Day On The Boards.” The idea was to seek out non-gaming entertainment in Atlantic City, starting at one end of the famed Boardwalk and strolling the entire four and a half miles of the Great Wooden Way. I sought to report on all the entertainment I could find along the way, without setting foot into a casino.
Well, the captains of our fine publication—the Fines, as it happens—asked me to do another whimsical journey across the Boards to see what has changed in these nine years since I did my last non-gaming tour of town.
I picked a bright spring day for my tour, in early April—right about the same time of year as the last one, which was logged in the June 1997 “Summer at the Shore” edition of Player. This time, it would be a Sunday—not as warm as I would have liked, but, as you will see, thoroughly enjoyable. There were four of us on this day: myself, my wife, my daughter and a special friend, Sarah Renner, an exchange student from Germany on her last day as our guest. Good perspective, I thought—If Atlantic City can entertain a 16-year-old from Germany for a day, it would be a testament to the non-gaming attractions in the seaside resort.
Unlike my earlier Boardwalk experiment, I decided to broaden the scope of my study this time. Instead of beginning just northeast of Showboat on the Boardwalk itself, I went around the far corner of Absecon Island to begin my tour—past the inlet area and up New Hampshire Avenue to the back bay, arriving at Historic Gardner’s Basin.
This is a marine life museum and aquarium which, in summertime, is teeming with seafaring happenings like the New Jersey Seafood Festival. Great place in the summer. In early spring, though, you’re pretty much restricted to the New Jersey Coast Aquarium and Ocean Life Center, three floors of fish tanks and educational exhibits. If you’ve got toddlers in tow, they’ll probably love it. We had four adults, and for $7 a head, I’m sorry—the giant turtle and big fish swimming around the 23,000-gallon tank just didn’t cut it. It was like paying $28 to visit fish in jail. I wanted to slip them some cigarettes or something, or at least give them some magazines.
Back down New Hampshire Avenue, and a right on Pacific to our next stop—the Absecon Lighthouse. This is a popular tourist attraction—a recently renovated relic. (Really.) It was built a few years after the city was chartered, completed in 1857 as a way to stop ships from buying it in the dark of Absecon Island back when there weren’t any casinos to show where the shore was. (They once called this end of the island the “Graveyard Inlet” because of a collection of dead sailors whose last words had been, “Did you say there’s an island here?”)
We were originally just going to the museum—a $5 donation, and then you learn stuff about the lighthouse in the rooms of what was once the lightkeeper’s house. This was pretty interesting. I learned, for instance, that one of the engineers of the lighthouse was General George Meade, the Union victor at Gettysburg. And I learned that the lighthouse was first lit on January 15, 1857, that it’s 171 feet high, and that the lightkeeper’s house may or may not be haunted. (They wouldn’t let us upstairs to find out.) We weren’t originally going to actually walk up the 228 winding stairs to the top of the lighthouse.
But after we learned all the stuff, and looked at the tiny museum in the keeper’s house, we figured—How can we not climb the damn stairs? It’s interesting that they make you pay $5 a head to climb the stairs, considering that you may very well die on the way up. But we shelled out the green and started up the stairs.
Funny thing about climbing 228 stairs. You’re all gung-ho at the bottom. “I’m going up to see the coolest view of Atlantic City there is!” you say. Then, starting at about Stair No. 70, it seems like less and less of a good idea. There are landings, but even if you’re in relatively good shape, it gets brutal.
You begin to notice that the higher up you get, the more little golden plaques you see on the stairs with people’s names on them. My first thought—either people paid to “sponsor” stairs, or the plaques marked the spots where various people died from heart attacks as a result of climbing the stairs. The higher I got, the more I suspected the latter.
We finally got to the top, and stood out on a platform by the base of the lens to take in an amazing view of Atlantic City and the ocean. They won’t let you go up into the actual “lantern room,” but that’s 12 more steps anyway, so I was fine with it.
I never thought going down stairs would be difficult, but it was. For the next several hours, it would seem as if my 49-year-old legs were constructed entirely of Jell-O pudding. I did the Monty Python “Silly Walk” to the car, to travel a few more blocks to the Boardwalk proper.
We parked in the Showboat garage, where it’s free if you have your Harrah’s Total Rewards card. On weekdays, you pay or flash your card on exit, so, even though I didn’t have my Total Rewards card on me that Sunday, I figured I’d get a replacement card before we left so I could park for free. Then, I found out they pull the “old switcheroo” on weekend. You pay when you enter. No card? It’s five bucks. Oh well, live and learn.
Our German friend Sarah was delighted with the promenade you walk between Showboat’s parking garage and the Boardwalk. That’s because we stopped and soaked in some free entertainment, when one of the classic Showboat strolling Dixieland bands stopped next to us and belted out a couple of extremely cool tunes.
On to the Boardwalk.
An essential free thing to do on the Boardwalk is a visit to the Atlantic City Historical Museum at the Garden Pier. There are videos and artifacts of old Atlantic City, showing how the Boardwalk was once the entertainment spot on the East Coast, with the biggest movie stars of the first half of the 20th century visiting regularly to perform on the Steel Pier or just to relax in rolling chairs or get their pictures taken on the beach. You’ll learn about Miss America. You’ll learn about Mr. Peanut. It’s an entertaining primer on the Boardwalk, and gives a good sense of perspective for what lay ahead.
After our lesson, we began our spring jaunt on the Boards. When the sun’s out, the northeast end of the Boardwalk is a postcard scene of oddly juxtaposed images—the modern-day Steel Pier with its amusement rides next to the Arabian minarets of Trump Taj Mahal, which frame the sky along with the 1930s-style art-deco tower of Resorts Atlantic City. Sarah was snapping pictures all over the place.
Our next “non-gaming activity” was to plunk down some money for a couple of the arcade games in the Steel Pier mini-amusement park, which also has several good rides and carnival games. I found out I still cannot throw a basketball. I also found out that the hot dog stand, in an inspiring show of patriotism, now offers “Freedom Fries.”
While at this end of the Boardwalk, a visit to the Hard Rock Café inside the Taj building is essential. The food is fairly good, but there are major cool rock and roll artifacts. I stood and gawked stupidly at Jimi Hendrix’ leather jacket, Pete Townsend’s green 12-string Gibson acoustic guitar, and John Lennon’s American Express bill from 1974. (It includes a delinquency charge, next to which Lennon wrote, “Who screwed up?”) They’ve got Lennon’s purple jacket, Elvis Presley’s embroidered bathrobe, and Michael Jackson’s red shoes. (Not on the same mannequin.) The coolest thing is this giant mural of rock star heads, including the heads of just about anybody who has ever been associated with rock and roll. The t-shirt girl told me there are no prints of this amazing work.
After the Hard Rock, it was back out to the Boards, where we strolled by a progression of typical Jersey-shore-type shops, under a steady stream of signs reading: “Hot Dogs”-“T-Shirts”-“Pizza”-“T-Shirts”-“Pizza”-“Hot Dogs” … You get the idea. Along the way is another amusement pier, the Central Pier at Tennessee Avenue, and one more essential stop—the Fralinger’s shop.
Fralinger’s is one of the two famous salt water taffy shops in business on the Boardwalk since the 19th century. Don’t get the taffy they sell in cheap boxes in casino gift shops. This is the real thing, although we found out that it is hard to explain something called “salt water taffy” to a German teenager. We just bought her a few bucks worth of the stuff, which she took back across the Atlantic.
Another block down on the Boardwalk to our next stop—the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum at New York Avenue. If you’ve never seen this place, it’s worth the $13 ticket. There are exhibits showing the tallest man in history, the “Fiji Mermaid,” the guy who pounded nails into his own head, the guy who got impaled by a fencepost and lived, the guy who… Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say there is a lot of really cool and really bizarre stuff in this, one of Ripley’s famous “Odditoriums” displaying oddities the famous cartoonist collected during his travels around the world. You can spend hours in this place.
Back outside, we approached the center of the Boardwalk to find something that has really changed the whole Boardwalk vibe: The shabby old facades are being replaced. For instance, there is a whole line of Boardwalk eateries between Indiana and Illinois Avenues (between the Sands and the Ripley’s museum) on which there is now a consistent façade, beginning with the Opa Bar & Grille and continuing with newer places such as Philly Steaks and China One. It is classy, consistent frontage, even if the buildings inside are still old. They’re beginning to do this on other parts of the Boardwalk as well, and eventually, there will be a nice, consistent look to all the little shops.
I don’t know if I like it or not. It takes away some of the kitschy quality of those old hot dog stands and t-shirt shops. Keep some of the shabby old facades. It’s part of what gives the Boardwalk its character.
On down the Boardwalk, construction dominated the central places owned by Harrah’s Entertainment. There is a beautiful new façade shaping up on Bally’s, and the same with Caesars. Across from Caesars is more construction, on what will be the next great non-gaming attraction in the city—the Pier at Caesars, an upscale retail and dining attraction being created by the same folks who did the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Can’t wait.
By this time, we had gotten down to the southwest side of the Boardwalk, home to Trump Plaza, Tropicana and Hilton, and yes, more stuff to do without setting foot in a casino. The “buskers” are certainly better down at this end. Busking is the term we musician types use for those players who set up in public places and open their instrument cases for tips. On this day, there was this drummer set up outside of the Wild Wild West that was positively jammin’! We watched and listened for a good 10 minutes, and my wife and I each threw a fiver his way.
Anyway, it was time for dinner now, and another unique dining attraction—the Rainforest Café at Trump Plaza. This place is crowded, but it’s worth the wait, not just for the food, but for the atmosphere. It is set up to replicate a rain forest, with animatronic apes hanging from the trees and other critters who all come alive every half hour, just before a fake thunderstorm. Dinner was reasonable, particularly considering all the entertainment you get along with it—it was around $75 for the four of us. The only annoying part? The “birthday volcanoes.” Whenever it’s someone’s birthday, all the servers bring out a complimentary “volcano” made of cake and bursting with some kind of sugary “lava.” They all hoot and holler and scream, and then clap their hands as they embarrass whoever’s birthday it is.
As it happens, we apparently visited on a day when every single person in Atlantic City had a birthday.
After dinner, our trip was almost done. Just one more very important stop—the fabulous Quarter at Tropicana. We had already eaten, but the choice of restaurants in this Havana-themed mall is simply remarkable, from Cuba Libre to the Ri-Ra Irish Pub to Carmine’s and the Palm steakhouse. But the upscale retail shops are just as cool, from Chico’s for clothes to Swarovski for cut crystal to the Old Farmer’s Almanac store for Americana to Houdini’s magic shop for…magic stuff.
I’m always fascinated by Jake’s Dog House, with big bones, little bones, tires for you pooch to bite… I spent half an hour in that place. And I don’t even have a dog.
Let’s not forget the coolest place to watch a movie—the Imax Theatre. V For Vendetta was playing when we were there.
It didn’t matter. By this time, we were pooped. We had spent an entire day doing Atlantic City, and we had a great time. And other than walking through the promenade at Showboat, we hadn’t even looked at a slot machine all day.
I only had one more task. I was elected to walk the Boards all the way back to the Showboat to get the car. I didn’t even have time to stop and get my fortune told—there are brand-new gypsy fortune-teller shops up and down the Boardwalk now. There’s the “World Famous Psychic Reader.” There’s “Readings By Sabrina,” in the former location of the “House of Knowledge.” And prices haven’t gone up in nine years—they’re still all $5 a palm. Such a deal!
Alas, I didn’t have time. I hoofed it back to Showboat on my rubbery legs while my family was enjoying the Quarter.
No, I didn’t take a rolling chair. I needed the exercise after my big meal. In fact, if I could have, I would have climbed up and down the lighthouse stairs a couple more times.