For years the billboards along the Interstate leading out of Los Angeles promised generous slot machines, cheap buffets and beguiling entertainment.
The billboards still line the highways, but instead of hyping the casinos in Las Vegas 280 miles away, they now point to the dozens of Indian casinos that have sprung up in Southern California.
If the tribal casinos in California have a battle cry, it seems to be "We offer Las Vegas-style gambling!"
From the billboards to brochures to TV commercials to web sites, the message in the Golden State is clear, "You can get your Las Vegas fix in a neighborhood casino near you."
Five years ago the hype would have been laughable. Most of the tribal gaming in California consisted of bingo halls and card rooms — mostly smoky, depressing havens for hardcore, daytrip gamblers.
But the advent of slot machines and other games has changed the face of tribal gaming, whose casinos are bigger, more modern, better equipped and even branded by operators such as Trump, Station and Harrah’s.
"What you find in California are Las Vegas-style casinos that would fit well on the Las Vegas Strip," says Doug Elmets, a spokesman for Casino San Pablo and two other tribal casinos in Northern California.
Elmets continues his pitch by adding that the tribal casinos are "newer and more attractive and more convenient" than Nevada casinos.
First, it would be helpful to know what California marketers mean by "Las Vegas-style casinos." Strip operators are quick to point out it takes more than a buffet and lounge act to create a Las Vegas-style casino.
A representative example might be Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula (near Riverside), the largest casino in the state. Pechanga has 522 hotel rooms, 2,000 slots, 86 table games, 1,200-seat theater, seven restaurants and a health club.
Those numbers are comparable to many mid-sized casinos in Nevada, but if size counts, as many claim it does, Pechanga would barely fit in a small corner of the MGM Grand. Thus, it could be argued the best California casino may not be in the same league as the Strip mega resorts.
But let’s give tribal casinos their due. Over the past couple of years, they’ve added hotel towers, golf courses, gourmet restaurants, spas, swimming pools, top-name entertainment and other destination-style resort amenities to their thriving casinos.
The operative word is "resort." Tribes have upgraded their gambling halls to full-blown resorts, designed to attract tourists, rather than gamblers.
A good example of the new wave of resort casinos is Chukchansi Gold Resort and Casino in Madera County.
For starters, the hotel is like an airy, alpine lodge with Indian rugs, stone pillars, overstuffed chairs and rich African mahogany.
The casino has nowhere near the electricity of a Strip casino, but it has a spark, a vibe that is more closely attuned to a South Lake Tahoe casino. The steak house is probably pricier than a Station or Coast steak house, but on par with the upscale Strip restaurants.
Casino entertainment features the mandatory generic blues band in the dark brew pub, and "headliner" acts in the Half Dome Theater. Earlier this year, the theater featured Air Supply and other ”˜70s and ”˜80s acts.
One travel writer who visited Chukchansi pointed out, "Although you can get a good gambling fix, the experience is no match for the adrenaline rush of Las Vegas," adding that the casino simply didn’t have enough options.
Indeed, that seems to be the issue that continues to separate California from Las Vegas casinos, at least from a gambling standpoint.
The California casino floors may be lavish and well-stocked with slot machines, but they don’t have roulette, craps and a few other bank table games. Moreover, there are no sports books, although many casinos have satellite horse betting (for which they charge an entry fee).
Some casinos allow smoking and some allow alcohol, though not one California casino can serve alcohol free to gamblers.
But perhaps the biggest difference that distinguishes Las Vegas casinos from their California counterparts is that fact that they’re in Las Vegas.
"A resort within your own community is not much of a getaway," says Steve Trounday, vice president of marketing for the Reno Hilton. "It would be like me going to the Eldorado down the street."
Indeed, tourists who come from California (and who may live close to a tribal casino), say they often feel a need to get away from their community, their jobs, their neighbors and all the familiar settings.
"Thunder Valley Casino is right around the corner from where I live," says Mike Pinola of Roseville. "But why would I go there? My kids might find me."
Even some of the best California casinos acknowledge it is tough to buck the exotic image of Las Vegas.
"We realize that Las Vegas is always going to be the Mecca for the gambler," says Jim Metzger, general manager of the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs. "But we want those travelers who go there four or five times a year to swing by here on at least one of those trips."