Casinos in south Fla. hope to gain revenue from cruisers

May 22, 2012 3:00 AM

South Florida is now a gambling hot bed, which adds to the water sports, recreation and leisure profile it has long enjoyed.

You can park your car at the old Flagler Dog Track, now Magic City Casino, take a jitney to the new Miami Marlins Park (about 10 minutes away), cab it over to Miami Beach, jump on a charter, game fish in the Atlantic, rub shoulders with Jay Z, “The Rock” and all the Kardashians at SoBe (South Beach) and still make it back to Magic City Casino for some late night poker.

However, many of our tourists never enjoy any of the above glitz and glamour of this year-round paradise. They jet into Miami International Airport (MIA), get herded onto giant busses, taken to the Port of Miami and loaded onto monster cruise ships headed into the Caribbean, Atlantic and some, ultimately to the Pacific.

It happens multiple times daily. The lineup of great cruise ships along the Government Cut is stunning. Many locals sit on the porch at Smith & Wollensky restaurant on Ocean Drive and watch the parade of ships from Carnival, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Holland American, Celebrity and more, sailing majestically out every afternoon. The same is true at the Fort Lauderdale airport (FLL) and Port Everglades seaport in Fort Lauderdale. The airport to the cruise port is a five minute bus ride.

For years Miami Dade and Broward County officials have tried to lengthen the stay of the huge volume of cruise passengers, hoping to capture just a little slice of the revenue from those happy go lucky vacationers. Now with casinos sprouting all over the area, there’s a slightly better chance of parting some of the sunburned voyagers from their money…even if it’s while they wait for their return flights.

Mardi Gras Casino is a short ride from FLL. Magic City and Jai Alai Casinos are five minutes from MIA.

The vast majority of the 4 million-plus cruisers really don’t have any interest in visiting Miami. Nor do the 3.5 million departing from Fort Lauderdale. Their anticipation is for the non-Disney, luxurious and entertaining worlds of the Windward and Leeward Islands, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Caymans and the Mexican resorts of Cancun and Cozumel.

Recently we had occasion to sample the Caribbean aboard the astonishing Allure of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean line vessel, which is the newest, and largest cruising vessel on the seas. It carries around 6,000 as opposed to the “normal” size cruise ships that carry a paltry 3,000 or 4,000.

Allure is a handsome ship. It dwarfs everything else in port. In fact, you can see it against the horizon from the top of the parking garage at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino…a good 20 minutes to the west.

Allure is not just a state-of-the-art cruising machine, it offers its very own casino gaming on a nonstop basis when at sea (casinos close in port), including Vegas-style slots ($.01-$100) table games, craps, and a daily bingo game with big cash payouts. Bingo has long been a staple of the cruising industry and is one of many ways for cruisers to spend  their money.

The Allure, like its competitors, takes the intrepid journeyer to gaming meccas all over the southern hemisphere. Recent excursions aboard the Princess Cruise Line (a Carnival product) reveal similar casino enterprises aboard, but slightly less glitzy and a bit long in the tooth.

The slots and poker prove the most popular. Blackjack tables are usually full nightly, and the two roulette wheels go full tilt late into the night. The slots (also $ .01-100) are a bit dated, but have a full following, including several slot tournaments during the cruise.

Norwegian Caribbean Lines (NCL), which invented “any time dining” (to its lasting credit), has serviceable onboard casinos as well. Our most recent excursion (four years ago) aboard NCL had a compact casino with a few blackjack tables and poker. Craps was the game of choice. The slots were dated but have probably been upgraded.

As for Ports of Call, many of the islands have multiple casino options ranging from one room neighborhood dingy, smoky parlors to stand alone buildings with two and three story slot floors.

For the most part the slots are a bit dated, especially the quarter and dollar machines. The penny machines are relatively new. A few minutes searching on the Internet in advance of boarding the ship gives information and directions to the port casinos.

Atlantis resort in Nassau (gone funky) is the Cadillac of the Caribbean gaming business. Built by Sol Kerzner on the old (Merv Griffin/Donald Trump) Resorts International properties on Hog Island (Paradise Island) in 1998, the giant pink palace with its hotel towers appears to float above the sun dappled, clear green waters of Nassau Bay.

The hotel-shopping-casino complex easily rivals the great Las Vegas structures. The ground floor casino is expansive, clean, state-of-the-art and busy. It’s a pricy destination with an international family atmosphere. Some guests never leave Paradise Island to visit the mainland and Bay Street, one of the Caribbean’s unique shopping (and people watching) districts.

Nassau has two other excellent casinos, including Cable Beach Marriott Crystal Palace and Port Lucaya. On Freeport Grand Bahama the Isle Capri casino is a long time favorite of tourists, especially those from the United Kingdom.

We’ve visited a number of casinos in the tropics recently including: one smoky, dingy, neighborhood casino in Aruba, a megaplex in Curacao, casino row along the waterfront on St. Martin (Dutch side), Treasure Bay on scenic St. Lucia, Play City in Cancun, Peppermill in Montego Bay, Jamaica…the list goes on.

Several top island destinations do not offer casino gaming, including St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands. St. Croix, British Virgin Islands does have casinos. In most cases the casinos on the islands are near the cruise port…within walking distance or a cheap cab ride.

Island natives, since time immemorial, relish numeric gaming (lotto-style games of chance) and lotto parlors are plentiful on every street corner and in every bar and restaurant.

Sports books are alive and well at some Caribbean destinations. Usually the horse/dog race wagering is provided in the back of a casino with a big screen television and automated bet/cash machines. Generally both U.S., U.K. and Hong Kong tracks are offered.

Soccer, football (NFL, college) and some basketball books are operating inside the casinos, too. They are not widespread, but do use Vegas odds. Cruise ships do not offer sports betting.

If you are a cruiser, or want to give it a shot, you won’t be disappointed. The all-in-one fees (food/room) coupled with interesting and colorful ports of call make for an affordable and entertaining escape.And, rest assured, for the gaming inclined there’s no shortage of wagering opportunities.