A woman is dancing inside a clear globe floating on the water underneath a 95-foot-high glass dome while guests lounge at socially distanced tables during the new Vibe Dining at the Pool After Dark. Outside as the sun sets, diners are eating alfresco on the Baywalk, where tables line the waterfront. Nearby, massage therapists are working their magic with aromatherapy oils at The Spa, a peaceful new sanctuary with fireplaces and Jacuzzis.
Is it a scene from Miami Beach? No. Ibiza? Guess again. Welcome to the new Atlantic City. The scenes described above come from Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City, a hotel that has been witnessing a transformation that is as exciting and dramatic as the destination itself. Tripadvisor recently named Atlantic City one of the top-trending beach destinations in the United States. Revenues for Atlantic City’s casinos soared in the first quarter of this year, hitting more than $95 million in gross operating profit—triple what it was during the first quarter of 2020, pre-pandemic. Hotel companies are also betting big time: Caesars Entertainment recently announced that it is pouring a staggering $400 million into its three AC resorts (Tropicana, Caesars and Harrah’s), while other properties are also investing millions in updates.
This beachfront city has certainly had its ups and downs over the years. When Atlantic City was developed in the late 1800s, it was created to be a health retreat where urban dwellers could escape and breath in the fresh sea air. Its legendary Boardwalk, built in 1870 to keep sand out of the fancy beachfront hotels, was the world’s first boardwalk. Ever played Monopoly? Atlantic City was the inspiration for the iconic board game’s street names—Park Place, Tennessee Avenue and so on. In the roaring 20s, AC was so popular that it was nicknamed “the world’s playground.” In the 1970s, gambling came to AC with the aim of propelling the place to Vegas-style heights—but that was never quite realized. The new millennium was crushing, with a series of high-profile bankruptcies that turned the city into a ghost town.
In recent years, things were starting to look up, buoyed by hotel openings and a renewed optimism for this seaside resort town. Enter a global pandemic. By all accounts, Covid could have killed this place and local leaders were even predicting that it would be “Armageddon.” Instead, AC took the last year and a half to reinvent itself yet again. Suddenly, the place is thriving with buzzing hotels, a growing culinary scene and a prolific arts community.
One of the AC innovators driving change is developer Pat Fasano, whose favorite childhood board game was Monopoly. A few years ago, Fasano started buying real estate in The Orange Loop—named after Monopoly’s orange streets—and began opening bars and restaurants like Bourre, a New Orleans-themed spot. “Atlantic City’s got a great location, but a perception problem,” says Fasano. “But there’s so much to offer—so much excitement, so much fun.”
Another person who shares that enthusiasm is Ralph E. Hunter, the founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, which is part of Atlantic City’s cutting-edge new cultural community. “There’s something that happens to you when you come into Atlantic City,” says Hunter, whose museum displays his personal collection of over 12,000 pieces of African American art and artifacts. “Coming down the expressway, you can smell the marsh, you can smell the salt air. It has healing properties. And when you get here, it just opens your lungs up like you would not believe.”
Yet, despite the seaside location, AC’s resorts used to focus on experiences that kept you indoors at the casino tables. That all changed during Covid, when many resorts started offering outdoor experiences as a way to keep business alive. “The only good thing that came out of Covid was that we realized that our customers like the outdoors and the beautiful views of the bay that had never been used before,” says Gregg Klein, general manager of Harrah’s, which set up an outdoors pop-up of Gordon Ramsay Steak and a new bayside dining concept. The steakhouse—which serves dishes like the coveted Japanese A5 Wagyu—has come back indoors, but overall, the idea of dining al fresco was such a hit that the hotel decided to double down. “So we came up with a permanent bar and restaurant outside at the Baywalk and opened up a brand new crab house called Rum Point overlooking the water,” says Klein.
Another recent trailblazing move in Atlantic City: Many of the casino resorts started putting woman in power positions, including Jacqueline Grace, who was named senior vice president and general manager at Tropicana and is the second Black woman in charge of an Atlantic City casino, and Melonie Johnson, president and COO of Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. “I see my sense of purpose as really being able to help others, folks who look like me, helping them to ascend to these types of roles and really see that it’s possible,” Grace told the New Jersey News Network.
Another result of the pandemic was a rethinking of entertainment, with new concepts like the Vibe Dining at the Pool After Dark, a highly Instagrammable experience that’s the first of its kind in Atlantic City. “We had to get creative during the pandemic about how to throw a party with six feet of distance, so we created a party where people stay at their tables,” says Kyle Richardson, manager for the Pool After Dark, which developed an immersive and experiential nighttime event complete with entertainment (fire throwers, aerialists, live musicians), over-the-top food (truffle mac-and-cheese stuffed lobster, 40-ounce Tomahawk steak) and impressive cocktails (Chandon Garden Spritz served with edible glitter). “There’s always a Phoenix rising from the ashes story that comes from things like this,” says Richardson.
Other AC entrepreneurs moving the needle forward include Sean Towers and Amanda Cardinali, whose The Seed: A Living Beer Project was named the best new brewery in the U.S. and uses fermentation and mixed cultures to create complex farmhouse ales. At Little Water Distillery, brothers Mark and Eric Ganter produce vodka, whiskey, gin and tequila at Atlantic City’s first and only distillery, which is also home to a hand-crafted cocktail bar.
Another big development: As part of its $400 million investment in the city, Caesars Entertainment is overhauling hotel rooms and also created the Caesars Sportsbook, with locations at Tropicana, Harrah’s and Caesars’ Wild Wild West, which is the largest sportsbook in the city. “Particularly in Atlantic City, our sportsbooks were designed to be entertainment-driven and experiential,” says spokesperson Noel Stevenson. “It is really an extension of the resort experience, with private fan caves, food and beverage offering that you can order on your phone and have delivered right to your seat, a self-serve beer wall and in certain locations live music, so these guests can have a great getaway experience, much closer to home—without the flight.”
Best of all, there’s that location. “Why do people come to Atlantic city? We have a thing called an ocean,” says Hunter. “If I were a real estate investor, I would invest very, very heavily in Atlantic City because I think its future is going to be incredible. You only get one Boardwalk and you only get one ocean.”