The Great Pennsylvania Casino Tour [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]
Pennsylvania legalized casino gambling in 2006, but the state’s casinos are about to pass Atlantic City in revenue to become the United State’s second gambling mecca, right on the heels of Nevada. So, how did my home state turn into a gamblers paradise after years of shooting it down? Some friends and I took a road trip to find out.
The area where I live near New York City is littered with billboards and commercials for tons of casino action. Take a simple ride on the subway, or a drive through the Holland Tunnel, and you will find ads for the glittering Indian casinos of Connecticut, New York’s Yonkers’ Raceway, several of Pennsylvania’s offerings, and Atlantic City – the giant who used to dominate the ads.
Yonkers Raceway, just north of Manhattan, has recently dropped a ton of cash to overwhelm the local advertising, pushing their new craps games. PA’s casinos are right behind. Emeril Lagasse’s face, touting his Sands’ restaurants and hotel tower, are plastered all over the PATH trains. The mascot squirrel on the craps table for Mt. Airy ads is all over the F train. Some casinos are even sponsoring the weather on local TV stations, just to get attention.
The New York area is definitely being targeted by the several Pennsylvania gaming halls that are just a short drive away. We went for it, plotted our trip and decided that the best route was to explore the gambling halls in Eastern PA. After departing North Jersey, we went West on I-80 headed for the Poconos. Our first stop was Pennsylvania’s first casino, Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs.
Total Number of Slots: 2,232
Total Number of Table Games: 82
Just a few minutes off of I-81 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s northern extension, the struggling Pocono Downs was on the verge of closure. Located in Wilkes-Barre, PA, the Mohegan tribe who own the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut saw the state was on the verge of passing casino legalization. They quickly purchased the track from Penn National Gaming, underwent a renovation, and were open as the first legal casino immediately after the law was signed.
They already had the know-how to run the place, having been so successful in their Connecticut ventures. Executives, machines, and equipment were available just a few hours down I-84.
The original casino structure opened in a renovated section of the grandstand. The two levels were jammed full of slots and poker machines. Construction took place on a new adjacent building and was ready to go in time for the legal approval of table games in 2010. The new and old buildings were then connected by a long ramp and escalator. The old section is still open and contains the property’s poker room, several bars, and additional machines. I nicknamed the old section “the annex” although it’s not officially named that.
My first impression upon entering the property is it has the appearance of a small airport. There is a large tower surrounded by tons of little yellow lights. The design is based on their flagship Connecticut property.
The sprinklers were on full blast around the beautifully landscaped parking lot, although many were shooting off onto the sidewalks, causing patrons to get a little unexpected shower.
We signed up for the casino’s player card which is identical to the Connecticut flagship’s card, but is unfortunately, not connected. We were awarded $10 slot dollars for signing up. The casino floor is a perfect circle with a large poker bar in the middle. After circling for a bit, we headed over to the annex.
The annex area is a significantly tighter. We sat at one of the multiple poker bars and were promptly greeted by the lonely staff member there. For a Friday night, this place was quite empty. He informed us that we had arrived on one of the deadest weekends he’s ever seen.
PA liquor laws do not permit alcohol to be served or consumed after 2am. We witnessed late night security walking the floor, removing empty glasses, and taking them from other patrons whether they were finished or not.
I didn’t leave the place ahead, but I did get a lot of play for my money.
Total Number of Slots: 2,450
Total Number of Table Games: 72
Our next stop was the historic Mount Airy Casino/Resort in Scotrun, PA. Just a few minutes from I-80 and the New Jersey border, the resort has had a long history in the area. It was originally constructed in 1898 and then reconstructed in the 1950’s as the Pocono’s largest resort.
Many residents in the northeast can still remember their commercials telling visitors to come and visit the Mount Airy Lodge as it was known for decades. The original hotel contained 890 rooms and did quite well until the 80’s when the resort faced stiff competition from Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
The original resort was known for their honeymoon getaways. Rooms featured outrageous amenities such as floor to ceiling windows, velvet-swag canopy beds, and even heart shaped bathtubs.
Sadly, the resort went into foreclosure in 1999. After changing hands a few times, the new hotel was built on the exact same site now only featuring 188 rooms. The building is a two level box type structure with the restaurants and buffet located along the back wall.
There is a small, almost hidden slot area on the second floor that can only be reached by one elevator. It isn’t well marked and was hard to find. You need to take the elevator bank just as you enter the casino to reach it. This area contains a small, portable service bar and about 300 slot machines. One end of the floor has large windows that overlook the casino below. The other is a sweeping outdoor view of the golf course and mountain lake. It’s actually kind of refreshing to play up here as there is lots of daylight that sweeps in, unlike most other casinos. There are slots tucked into every nook and cranny on this floor making for several private areas where private people or couples can to play in solitude.
The main casino is set up as a large rectangle with dark brown accents. There is a high limit area in the back, enclosed with glass and curtains. They were offering free cookies to the players inside.
Again, I got quite a bit of play for my money and I received $10 slot dollars for signing up for their player’s card. Here, the card will get you a discount to their hotel. I hope to return for a full weekend soon.
Total Number of Slots: 3,000
Total Number of Table Games: 123
Before this road trip, The Sands Bethlehem was my first visit ever to a PA casino, so we definitely had to make a stop here to see what’s changed. Located a few miles off of I-78 in Bethlehem, PA, the casino is on the edge of town and can only be reached via tight city streets.
The Sands was constructed on the site of large abandoned steel mills. Some of the buildings are still standing, but The Sands is currently renovating the area to add a 30 store shopping district. They have integrated some of the other steel mill structures into their building’s design.
They also recently opened a new hotel tower, which is owned by the same company that operates The Venetian in Vegas and The Sands Macau in China. I understand it is quite a walk from the hotel tower to the casino area.
The inside of the casino kind of reminds me of a big box retailer. It has high ceilings and is surrounded on all sides by restaurants and the buffet. The general look and feel is highly energetic. Red carpet works perfectly with the high ceilings and orange designer light accents. This color scheme really brings out the colors and excitement of the slot machines. The sound of the machines, and the people cheering at the table games really makes this place full of life.
When table games were legalized last year, the Sands made space on their floor by rearranging the slot area and adding a large amount of tables. Both times I’ve been there, the tables are packed. They also added a poker room located behind a small fence that is also right on the main floor.
The centerpiece of the casino is a large round poker bar with a beautiful spiral sculpture. Unlike other PA casinos, there is no race track or simulcast areas.
I didn’t walk away a winner here, but got quite a bit of play for my money. Using your Sands card will earn food discounts and slot dollars on your next visit. They are very loose with dishing out the free slot cash. I hadn’t been there in almost a year and I had $15 waiting.
I find the town of Bethlehem, PA quite fascinating. While their commerce was centered on steel mills, the town was able to continue when the mills went bankrupt and folded up. There are a large amount of restaurants, bars, and things to do within a short walk or drive from the casino. This town also always seems to have a festival going on and the people are mostly friendly. The area is definitely worth the visit and make sure you check out some of the local attractions going on as well!
During construction of the casino, the location was used for three days of filming for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. A casting call went out to locals looking for Asians as the setting was to represent Shanghai in the final film.
Total Number of Slots: 3,500
Total Number of Table Games: 81
Our next stop was the Parx Casino, formerly known as Philadelphia Park. Originally built as a horse racing track and opened in 1974, the casino was integrated into the original grandstand area when finally legalized. The two levels of slot games were slammed underneath the seating areas while a second building was constructed.
When the new building opened, the name was officially changed to Parx and has earned the nickname “Baby Borgata,” in reference to Atlantic City’s newest and nicest casino by fans. With the new building open, the original was shut down, only to be reopened again with the legalization of table games. The new building is mostly slots, while the original is mostly tables and a few dozen machines sprinkled along the back wall.
Upon entering the complex, you cannot help but notice the multiple giant screens advertising the latest offers and specials. Their logo and color branding are very noticeable. Inside the new building, the slot floor is well laid out with a few table games in the middle. The colors and design have a more upscale feel than others in the state, but is by no means stuffy.
Along one side, is the most gigantic assortment of video roulette machines I’ve ever seen. Dozens of them line the area leading into a little roulette land. It works. The place was booming and a large amount of the machines were taken.
I signed up for the Parx player card, which gets you food discounts and $10 free slot dollars.
One downfall is the poor layout of the parking lot and a disconnect between the two buildings. To go from one building to the other, you have to make a several minute walk outside, or take a shuttle bus. That’s not fun in the hot sun, cold snow, or rain. The parking lot is large and quite jammed. It’s like a badly organized shopping mall. Don’t be surprised to see cars stalk you as you walk back to your car hoping to scarf up your space. If you park in the far ends of the lot, you are in for a walk!
This place had quite a crowd for a Saturday. The machines seemed to be a little tighter and I did not get as much play as other places. I would go back, but the casino is kind of in the middle the Philly suburbs and is a bit of a drive once you exit the I-95.
The movie Safe, starring Jason Statham was filmed last year at the casino. The release date has been pushed back until March 2012.
Total Number of Slots:1,642
Total Number of Table Games:43
Located right in the Philadelphia city limits, Sugar House was built on the river at the location of an old sugar factory, hence the name.
Sugar House is located in the not-so-nice part of the city and there’s not much you would want to do around it. The parking lot is small and packed. The casino is not much better.
The inside is set up as a large rectangle with the table games off center. The machines are so tightly packed its difficult to walk between. The floor is overcrowded and very, very smoky.
I signed up for their players’ card but their offer is quite different from others. You are instructed to play for 30 minutes and they will reimburse your losses up to $50. Play for an hour and they will double that. You will receive a card in the mail and you bring in on your next visit to claim that cash as slot dollars.
Honestly, I hated this place. It was too small, too overcrowded, too smoky, and too rough. It wasn’t fun at all. The crowd seemed to be more desperate players just feeding their rent money into the machines. On the positive side, they do have a beautiful bar/restaurant that opens up into a large glass window that overlooks the river.
When the casino first opened, they had multiple incidents of car break-ins for both staff and customers in the parking lot. There were also a couple of incidents were people were followed out of the casino and robbed in the lot as well. They do have a large security presence that now patrols and these incidents have since seemed to come to an end.
However, I would stay away. This place just isn’t worth it and should have never, ever been built.
Total Number of Slots: 2,900
Total Number of Table Games: 121
One of the latest additions to the Caesar’s Entertainment Group, Harrah’s Chester is located a few miles south of the Philadelphia International Airport, off of I-95.
Immediately upon stepping inside, the casino has the similar feel to the other Caesar’s/Harrah’s properties — lots of spinning signs, flashing lights, and the giant rotating Harrah’s globe in the middle. The building is multi-level with the casino on the second floor. The lower level is for horse race betting and overlooks the track. The track was built brand new and opened with the casino.
Back on the second floor, a large assortment of table games are located smack in the center as is s large video poker bar. As with their sister properties, the poker bar area takes on a “pleasure pit” feel with half naked girls dancing in spotlights above the tables.
The casino also features a free soft drink machine located along the rear wall with a variety of Pepsi brand drinks. While playing at the machines, you can also use the touch screen to order a free drink. These are being introduced to all the Harrah’s properties. The screen will indicate when your order has been received and when the cocktail waitress is on the way. It works very well and the service is quite fast.
Along a large wall of video poker machines is one of the largest neon displays I’ve ever seen. Video poker is spelled out and surrounded by mass quantities of animated neon that goes all the way down the side wall. It is quite bright and you can’t miss it.
I got a ton of play for my money here and actually walked out a winner. You can’t complain when you walk away with more money than you walked in with!
Here too, parking is a problem. The garage is poorly laid out, leaving drivers to constantly circle and stalk for a spot. The third level is reserved for diamond and platinum card holders, but I don’t know how they can enforce that. Once you get to level 4, there is no marked way to easily access the levels above, leaving drivers to compete for the lower level spaces.
The casino is located in an industrial area right next to a prison! However, the porte-cochère, where you drop off passengers is quite beautiful and surrounded by tons of red and purple neon.
That last stop at Harrah’s brought our trip to an end. I had only ever visited one other PA casino in the past, and that was The Rivers’ Casino in Pittsburgh. That too, is very bright, modern, and has a good layout. It’s within walking distance of Hines Field, so Steelers fans definitely walk over for gaming action.
When PA approved casino gaming, most casinos opened on the eastern side of the state, where more of the population lives. Sadly, that leaves the central section with none, and only two in the west, with one in the extreme northwest in Erie. It’s actually an unfair layout, since those in the western part of the state are required to make a long drive to play. That distance is hurting their bottom line. One more license is still available and is being targeted for the western part of the state.
From my experiences in the state so far, I would look at the casinos in this way:
Best Guys Night Out: Sands, Parx
Best Girls Night Out: Harrah’s
Best Couples Night Out: Mt. Airy
Best Place to Relax: Sands, Harrah’s, or Rivers
Place to Avoid: Sugar House
As I reviewed in a previous blogumn, the PA casinos are certainly hurting Atlantic City and with their rise in popularity and money they are raking in for the state, there are no signs of slowing down. In July 2011, the table games again took in record profits, and the casinos are helping to create jobs in our cash strapped economy.
What: Pennsylvania Casinos
Slots gaming approved: 2006
Table games approved: 2010
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS: The industry is certainly booming in Pennsylvania and the casinos are offering all kinds of perks to get players in. If you see any good offers, give them a try.
It was tough doing the driving tour like we did in one day. Most people aren’t going to casino hop like you can in Vegas or Atlantic City. Most of the venues are setup to be one stop shops. One thing they do need to add is more live shows like you would find in Vegas. Many have the concert hall spaces available for shows and I can see this could be the next thing.
The casinos were opened to provide tax relief to Pennsylvania residents – that hasn’t happened… not one dime. They take in a large amount of the casino profits in taxes, but thus far, residents haven’t seen any drop in their property taxes as promised. This is a serious slap in the face to those who were in support of the gambling halls for the state. Believe me, I have family still there and their taxes continue to go up year after year. Where is all the money going?
But, if you are in the area and looking for a diversion, the casinos there are the most modern this side of the country. Give them a try and best of luck! Just bet with your head – not over it!
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