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Betting Big On The Sunshine State

Florida emerges as the U.S. gaming industry’s tropical hot spot

By David Stratton

Betting Big On The Sunshine State

Florida has it all – sunshine, tropical breezes, white sandy beaches, theme parks and cruise ships – and a booming gaming industry that has something for every gambling enthusiast.

Gaming choices in the Sunshine State are as vast and varied as the landscape. Here you can enjoy Las Vegas-style tribal casinos, pari-mutuel horse and dog tracks, racinos, jai-alai, poker rooms, high-stakes bingo, gambling cruise ships and the third-largest state lottery in the country.

Already the fourth largest gaming state in the country, Florida was poised to take a giant leap this year in its gaming choices with several multi-billion dollar “destination casinos,” but the enabling legislation was shot down last month and probably won’t be revisited until next year. The legislation would have paved the way for three non-tribal mega-resorts, to be built in and around the Miami area, by major gaming companies based outside of the state. It also would have authorized a single, statewide gaming commission, patterned after the ones in Nevada and New Jersey. (The existing “system” is governed by a hodgepodge of regulation and taxation.)

For now, Florida’s gaming growth will have to come in baby steps. For instance, Miami Jai-Alai in January unveiled an $87 million casino expansion consisting of 1,050 slot machines and 24-seat poker room. Next year, two new racinos (poker and slots) are scheduled to open at Hialeah Park and Dania Jai-Alai. In the meantime, the Seminole Tribe is pouring $400 million into improvements and upgrades at its signature Hard Rock resort casinos in Hollywood (near Ft. Lauderdale) and Tampa, and Seminole Casino in Coconut Creek.

Despite the potential loss of three Las Vegas Strip-style casinos, at least temporarily, operators remain bullish about Florida’s gaming future. But the industry is in dire need of meaningful regulatory reform. Currently, there are no fewer than five state agencies charged with the regulation and taxing of Florida’s gaming operations.

Before taking a closer look at Florida’s gaming venues, a quick review of its history will give a glimpse of how everything got here.

 Florida’s Gaming History

Florida has had a checkered past with casinos and horserace betting, long before gambling was legalized in the 20th century. More than 120 years ago, illegal gambling halls – often built in or near resort hotels – lured patrons with roulette wheels, craps tables and bookie boards for horse and sports bettors.

In the 1920s, a numbers game, similar to ones run in Chicago and New York became popular, along with illegal race track betting at Hialeah Park. Soon notorious mobsters such as Al Capone and Meyer Lansky established Florida strongholds. To stem the tide of illegal gambling, the state legalized pari-mutuel horse and dog racing in 1931, and four years later legalized jai-alai and slot machines in order to generate tax revenue during the Great Depression. But due to public outcry, slots were banned two years later.

Over the next 40 years, various factions tried to expand legal gambling, but their efforts were thwarted by Christian conservatives, animal rights groups, Walt Disney World and various tourism agencies. The gaming climate began to change in 1971, when Florida joined other states and legalized bingo halls, although jackpots were limited to $100.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which faced poverty and near extinction a century ago, defied the $100 limit in 1979 by opening a 1,200-seat bingo palace with nightly prizes often eclipsing $60,000. The wildly successful bingo operation fueled additional high-stakes bingo halls, and when the federal government legalized Indian gaming in 1988, the Seminoles added Class II video lottery terminals, which look and act like slot machines, to their growing roster of casinos.

That same year, Florida launched a statewide lottery, which was successful from its inception. What started as a once-a-week drawing grew to dozens of scratch-off games, Powerball, Mega Money and a Lotto machine in every convenience store (in Florida it’s easier to buy a lottery ticket than a Big Mac), resulting in more than $4 billion in lottery sales annually.

In 1984, Florida christened “Cruises to Nowhere,” which began under authority of federal law. These cruises set sail from Florida ports and when they reach international waters, patrons are allowed to gamble. The on-board casinos are usually modest, with a couple of hundred slots (usually tighter than at other Florida gaming venues), a few table games and poker tables. Since gambling revenue isn’t taxed, there aren’t any concrete estimates of annual revenues.

In 2004, the Seminoles were once again a catalyst for expanded gaming when they negotiated for Class III (Las Vegas-style) slot machines, and a few years later won the right to offer banked table games, such as Blackjack, Baccarat and Pai Gow Poker. While the Seminoles were expanding their gaming business, the pari-mutuels – race and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons – were allowed to keep pace, first with poker rooms and later slot machines of their own.

Today, Florida’s gaming industry produces nearly $2.5 billion in annual revenue, placing it fourth in the U.S. behind Nevada, New Jersey and California. Most of the revenue is generated at eight tribal gaming casinos. The balance comes from six racinos, 23 poker rooms, 16 greyhound tracks, three thoroughbred tracks, one harness track, one quarter horse track, six jai-alai frontons and dozens of gambling cruise ships.

 Inside Florida’s Tribal Casinos

At the top of Florida’s gaming food chain are the state’s eight tribal casinos. Most of them are concentrated in South Florida’s Dade and Broward counties. The Seminole Tribe is the state’s biggest gaming operator in terms of revenue, and because of its compact with the state, it’s the only one that can offer slot machines outside of South Florida.

Of the Seminoles’ seven casinos, the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood is its crown jewel. Located halfway between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, the Seminole Hard Rock sits majestically on 86 acres and features an upscale 500-room hotel, flanked by a tropical lagoon with waterfalls, thatched cabanas and a water slide.

Inside, the venues include a signature Hard Rock Café, 5,000-seat concert hall, plush nightclubs, stylish boutiques, and 17 first-class restaurants – all of which ensure a steady stream of A-list celebrities, musicians and fans from around the world.

The resort’s casino rivals any on the Las Vegas Strip. The 140,000-square-foot gaming floor features nearly 100 table games, including Blackjack, Baccarat, Mini-Baccarat, Pai Gow Poker, Three Card Poker, Casino War and Let it Ride.

Slot players can choose from 2,500 slot machines, which include tribal-casino linked Multi-Area Progressive Jackpots, similar to Wheel of Fortune and Megabucks in Nevada. Well-heeled gamblers will like the high-limit slot parlor, as well as a high-stakes room for table games. Rounding out the gaming amenities is a 50-table poker room that offers all of the popular limit and no limit games, as well as regular tournaments on the World Series Circuit and World Poker Tour.

The Seminoles operate a second Hard Rock resort in Tampa. Although not as large as its sister property, Hard Rock Tampa isn’t lacking in gaming excitement. The 178,000-square-foot casino is crowded with over 4,000 slot machines, ranging from all the newest games to the classics. Like the Hard Rock Hollywood, the gaming floor has 90-plus tables of banked games, and its poker room is the largest in the state.

The resort’s hotel is half the size of its Hollywood counterpart, about 250 rooms, but the accommodations are top notch – the American Automobile Association (AAA) has awarded the hotel its Four Diamond rating for four straight years.

When it’s time to refuel, the resort’s Council Oaks steakhouse is the best in Tampa. And if you have no culinary inhibitions, the Fresh Harvest buffet is a seven, live-action kitchen dining extravaganza. Oddly, there’s no Hard Rock Café at the resort. Guess there weren’t enough guitars and memorabilia for two in the same state.

Just down the street from the Hard Rock Hollywood is the Seminole Hollywood Casino, the first gambling hall built by the tribe in 1979. It was, in fact, the first high-stakes Indian casino in the country. Resembling a long warehouse or airplane hangar (except for all the palm trees), the Seminole Hollywood is home to 900 slot machines, a 48-table poker room and a high-stakes bingo hall where jackpots often soar into the tens of thousands. For a quirky change of pace, the casino has a 50-seat Lightning Bingo lounge, where it takes only three numbers to win and there’s a winner every 30 seconds!

Dining options here are modest and include a café, deli and all-you-can-eat buffet. If you opt for the latter, the seafood, barbecue and Cuban-themed nights are quite good.

The only other Seminole casino with table games is Coconut Creek Casino, located on Pompano Beach in north Broward County. Currently, the casino features about 1,700 slot machines, Blackjack and a poker room, but the tribe is expanding the property and more amenities are on the way. In fact, the Seminoles have lofty long-range plans of adding a hotel, entertainment venues and additional dining options in the future. With the high-rent communities of Palm Beach and Boca Raton nearby, the improvements should pay dividends.

In the heart of Southwest Florida, the tribe operates Seminole Casino Immokalee, not far from Naples and Ft. Myers. The casino is a single level, sprawling structure like a massive discount store. But the 950 slots inside are always churning, and the casino bosses say over $62 million in cash and prizes are paid out every month.

The seats in the 18-table poker room are seldom vacant, and players can choose from Texas Hold’em, Seven Card Stud and Omaha. The tournaments here are reasonably priced, and the bad beat jackpots are worth chasing (highest paid to date is $240,000).

For a taste of Florida’s picturesque rural countryside, check out the Seminole casinos in Lake Okeechobee and Big Cypress. Seminole Casino Brighton is planted among sugar cane fields and cattle ranches just west of Lake Okeechobee. The building looks something like a Western fort, but inside there are friendly faces on the 300 slot machines, including Monopoly, Star Wars and Sex and the City. The casino’s bingo hall and poker room always seem to be in the midst of some kind of promotion, such as weekly specials, high-hand bonuses and the like.

Brighton’s only dining option, Josiah Restaurant, is probably worth the 90-minute drive from Palm Beach. The catfish is fresh, the porterhouse pork chops are butter tender, and the bone-in rib-eye steak is to die for.

The Seminole’s Big Cypress Casino is about 90 miles northwest of Miami, located on the edge of Florida’s famous Everglades. To call Big Cypress a casino is generous. It’s actually a big tent with slot machines, a restaurant and a few other retail businesses. There’s a campground and RV park nearby, so expect to rub elbows with a lot of truckers and bikers.

That’s not to say the drive out here isn’t justified. There are museums worth exploring, as well as swamp safaris and grass-and-water airboat tours.

Florida’s only non-Seminole casino is Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, located on the tribe’s reservation about 20 miles west of Miami at the southeast edge of the Everglades. The brightly-colored, 250-room hotel is a Miami Modern affair with a convention center and 1,200-seat Entertainment Dome, where parties, concerts and sports events are held throughout the year.

Even though the sprawling casino lacks table games, there’s plenty of action. Start with the 1,900 modern slot machines featuring games like Triple Blazing 7s, Black & White Wild, Shockwave and Cool Catz. Denominations range from 1¢ to $100. The adjoining high limit slot area has 90 machines with bets ranging from $5 to $400 a spin.

The Miccosukee’s 1,050-seat High Stakes Bingo Hall runs games daily while offering special sessions such as Saturday’s Sizzler, Night Owl Sessions and Bingo Marathon. Poker players, meanwhile, are drawn to its high-energy 32-table room where they can play Texas Hold’em, Seven Card Stud, Omaha Hi-Lo 8 or better and scheduled poker tournaments.

 Racinos/Pari-Mutuel Facilities

Florida enjoys a robust pari-mutuel industry, with betting offered at five horse tracks, 16 Greyhound tracks and six jai-alai frontons. For fiscal year 2009-2010, the total amount handled for all venues was $958 million, the most for any state that offers pari-mutuel betting.

However, like virtually every other pari-mutuel state, Florida’s handle and attendance continues to dwindle. The $958 million handle was a 14 percent drop-off from the prior fiscal year. In addition, attendance at the various Florida tracks slipped by 15 percent. The trend isn’t new; it’s been ongoing for 10 years and longer.

To help attract patrons and generate revenue, Florida pari-mutuels in 2000 began installing poker rooms in their facilities. Today, 23 of the 26 pari-mutuel venues operate poker rooms, which collectively raked in $104 million in gross receipts last fiscal year.

When slots became available to pari-mutuels in 2006, five tracks signed on and subsequently created five racinos in South Florida. (Slots aren’t available to pari-mutuel facilities outside of Dade and Broward counties, because of the stipulations in the Seminoles’ pact with the state.)

This year, the 5,627 slot machines in the five racinos took in $3.84 billion from players while retaining $276 million for a win percentage of 7.2 percent.

Miami Jai-Alai became the state’s sixth racino in January and its location near Miami’s airport, restaurants and hotels should provide plenty of action. Early returns were favorable with overflow crowds and lots of slot play.

Among the other five South Florida racinos, Pompano Park leads the field with about 30.5 percent of the market, followed by Flagler Dog Track, 20.4 percent; Mardi Gras Gaming, 18.2 percent; Calder Race Course, 18 percent; and Gulfstream Park, 15.8 percent.

The best slot payout in January was at Magic City Casino at Flagler Dog Track, where players won 92.96 percent of their wagers (slots on the Las Vegas Strip returned 92.67 percent to players last year).

 The Next Step?

With the tabling of legislation that would have paved the way for three $2 billion casinos, Florida will have to wait another year to gain elite status among gaming venues.

The standoff between casino promoters and casino detractors wasn’t a new one. The legislators in rural north Florida have always cast a jaundiced eye at the “heathen” gambling promoters in the south. And the casino activists in the south have always been wary of the “Bible thumpers” in Tallahassee, the state capital, and other northern communities.

Still, knowledgeable observers believe the two sides could work out their differences. “Florida’s policymakers move only when they have to in the area of gambling,” said attorney Marc Dunbar, who teaches Gambling and Pari-mutuel Law at Florida State University. “It would appear that the state is closing in on the moment of truth where policymakers will be forced to act.”

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