Atlantic City’s history as a resort town goes back far before it became the East Coast gambling Mecca that it is today. In spite of struggles in recent years, Atlantic City is still a huge attraction, getting about 27 million visitors a year now, although this is less than the city’s peak in 2005 when it attracted 35 million visitors.
Las Vegas is up to 40 million visitors a year these days, the top tourist attraction in the United States, and Atlantic City was never quite as big as Vegas is but at one time they did come very close, and still aren’t that far off in second place.
Tourists have been coming to Atlantic City for over 150 years though, and its history is much richer than that of Las Vegas. Atlantic City is a tourist destination by itself, without the gambling, where Las Vegas wouldn’t be much if not for the gambling it offers, although it does offer a whole lot of that, in addition to its world class resorts.
Las Vegas though has evolved much more than Atlantic City has, which explains the discrepancy in success at least in part, and this is indicated by the fact that Las Vegas gets two thirds of its revenue these days from non gambling sources, the hotels, the nightclubs, the restaurants, and so on.
Atlantic City casinos are in the opposite situation, getting only about a third of its revenue from non gambling activities, which means that for every gambling dollar spent, Las Vegas resorts earn $2 in non gambling revenue, and Atlantic City casinos only earn 33 cents, which works out to 1/6 as much.
This would suggest that there may be some real opportunity lost here on Atlantic City’s part, but it’s not as if they aren’t trying, although they would probably be more well served to pay even more attention to providing experiences less centered upon gambling and more centered upon making the city more of an overall tourist destination rather than primarily a gambling one.
Doing this is probably the main reason why Las Vegas has been able to prosper so well in the face of all of the increased competition on the casino side, and they have managed to up their game here. Other casinos around the country, and particularly in Southern California where a lot of their tourists have historically come from, still offer mostly casino action, while Las Vegas offers a unique experience that still has people come from all over the country and even from all over the world to experience and enjoy.
Atlantic City Sees Great Success As A Resort Town
Atlantic City does have some advantages that Las Vegas doesn’t have, and that’s the fact that this is a resort city, and a major one, all on its own. By the time Atlantic City was incorporated into a city back in 1854, its first resort hotel was already built and running. Around this time the city got a railroad connection with Philadelphia, which is also only 62 miles away.
Philadelphia wasn’t anywhere near as big back then as it is today, with its metro population of 4.6 million, but its urban area did have about a half a million people back then, an impressive number to be sure, and a lot of these folks liked to vacation at the seaside, and Atlantic City was pretty close by.
By 1874, the popularity of Atlantic City as a resort town had grown to the point where they were getting half a million visitors a year by rail. Around this time the building of the city’s famous boardwalk was completed, in an effort to keep sand out of their seaside hotels.
At this time, the logical place to build a hotel was right on the ocean, and as the city grew the boardwalk became expanded over the years to accommodate more hotels. In 1878, the demand for rail travel to Atlantic City grew so much that the existing railroad could not handle them all, and a second railroad was built to help out.
Atlantic City’s Boom and Decline
The early 20th century saw even more expansion, known as the city’s boom period, and the hotels along the boardwalk became both larger and more numerous. 1930 saw the building of the Claridge, a 400 room, 24 story structure that became known as “The Skyscraper by the Sea.”
The period between 1930 and 1960 became known as the Nightclub Era for the city, with the building of several large and successful nightclubs who helped bring in even more tourists to the city. Although they didn’t have gambling yet, like Las Vegas did, they looked to emulate the entertainment end of things in a similar fashion, although they didn’t quite attract the big names that Vegas did, they had a pretty vibrant scene nonetheless.
In 1964, Atlantic City hosted the Democratic National Convention, nominating Lyndon Johnson, who would become elected as president, but all of the extra press coverage ended up exposing the city’s darker side, its poverty and corruption in particular, and this cast a dim light on Atlantic City for many years.
Many of the city’s great hotels suffered embarrassing and painful high vacancy rates during this time, and the city went through a significant economic decline. Many hotels were converted over to apartments which ended up further tarnishing the luster that the city had built over the past 100 years.
Only three of these hotels survived all of this, with two becoming part of the later Bally’s Atlantic City and one being used in the building of Resorts Atlantic City, two of the seven casinos that currently operate here.
Gambling Comes To The Rescue
In an effort to look to rebuild Atlantic City to its former success as a great resort town, as well as boost tax revenue for the State of New Jersey, efforts to legalize and license gambling in Atlantic City began in the early 1970’s.
A referendum was took place in 1974 to receive the support of the electorate to permit the state to legalize gambling in Atlantic City, but it failed to pass. Another attempt was made in 1976 and this time it got enough support from the public.
Resorts International became the first legal casino on the East Coast in 1978, and before too long, the number of casinos on the boardwalk grew. They even got the attention of Las Vegas mega resort builder Steve Wynn, and the city even spent $330 million on a tunnel in the Marina District to help attract him, which was to be the location of Wynn’s planned new casino.
Even though Wynn pulled out of the project at the last minute, this did benefit this district and allowed for the building of the Borgata, regarded as Atlantic City’s most impressive casinos by many.
This would be a distinction that would probably be held by the 57 story Revel, if it were still operating, as it cost $2.4 billion to build and still stands as the tallest casino tower in the city and the second tallest in the United States.
By this time the casino market had started on a major decline, and the Revel suffered some serious difficulties in getting open, although it finally did, but its life was short lived. In 2014, the market here had really taken a hit, with the closure of several major casinos in the city, including the Revel.
As a testimony to the hard times the Revel is under, it was recently sold to Florida developer Glenn Straub for just $82 million, after another bid of $110 million fell through. Straub chose to have the power shut off to it, as this was costing him $3 million a month due to an existing contract, and it ended up being restored by way of court order. Straub has renamed it the TEN Atlantic City, and does have plans on re-opening it sometime in 2017.
Atlantic City Gambling Today
There is a total of 7 surviving casinos in Atlantic City, including Bally’s, Borgada, Caesar’s, Golden Nugget, Harrah’s, Resorts, Tropicana, and Wild Wild West. Wild Wild West is actually part of the Bally’s complex, but is operated as a separate casino and is considered by much of the public to be separate as well.
President Trump once owned three casinos here, the Trump Plaza, the Trump Taj Mahal, and the Trump Castle, later known as the Trump Marina. He got out of the market at the right time, before the stiff competition from all the new casinos in the region were built and took away a lot of business from the casino market here.
Make no mistake though, there are some very impressive resort casinos still standing in Atlantic City and they still do a good amount of business. The total gaming win, not the revenue but the profit, stood at over $189 million in 2016, led by Borgata’s $57 million alone. $131 million of this was from slot machines, $56 million was from table games, and poker came in at a little over $2 million.
Atlantic City does deliver the total resort experience much better than its competition, even the mega casinos that are many times the size of anything they have in Atlantic City such as the Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun, these are nice casinos but Atlantic City delivers more of an overall experience, as well as having the advantage of being a beach resort.
Atlantic City also hosts the largest regulated online gambling market in the United States, where are residents of New Jersey are permitted to play on, and they have the only regulated online casino action in the country, as well as online poker.
Although online gambling has performed below some people’s initial expectations, this is bringing in about $18 million a month these days, with $16 million from casino and $2 million from poker.
Atlantic City’s resort casinos also offer some amazing deals on rooms and also boast some of the finest restaurants in the country, as well as an impressive lineup of entertainment, and other resort features, so even though less casino players come here now, the quality is still there, and in fact it’s even improved as the current casinos look to fight harder to promote their success.
Gambling is perfectly legal here of course, both at the land based casino hotels and online, and in spite of taking a hit lately, the fun and excitement of everything Atlantic City has to offer is very likely not going anywhere anytime soon.