Whether you spent Thursday with a T-shirt-wearing Mark Wahlberg for a chilled-out ribbon cutting outside Ocean Resort Casino (he’s got a Wahlburgers eatery there), or inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino’s Etess Arena for that company’s excitable, spangled, confetti-strewn opening guitar smash festivities, you were part of Atlantic City history. And, that was only the beginning, as Friday and Saturday saw acts debuting on the live music-centric Hard Rock’s stages (Carrie Underwood and Pitbull at Etess, Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg at the Café), and renowned mix-masters (Diplo, Kaskade, Jermaine Dupri) to the DJ-focused HQ2 at Ocean Resorts. By Sunday, country crooner Sam Hunt commenced 2018’s Beach Concert series, to an estimated 60,000-plus crowd.
From city officials to rumormongering locals, between 700,000 and one million visitors hit AC during this comeback weekend. However, it all started Thursday with private and public walkthroughs through the vastly differing hotel-casino spaces.
When it came to Ocean Resorts — Colorado-based real estate developer Bruce Deifik’s $200 million takeover of the Revel property — the arcuated, circular space looked familiar to one-time Revel visitors, but simply wasn’t as confusing or foreboding to gamblers. Rather than deal with burlesque entertainers on a clinical, but overly complicated casino floor (true in Revel’s past), Ocean Resorts casino — 131,000 square feet of gaming space — was roomy, uncluttered, warm and welcoming with plenty of new slots and gaming tables. While many of the stores on Ocean Resorts’ retail row weren’t yet open, and its tony Topgolf game spot faced delays, most of its restaurants (including Jose Garces’ Amada, which hosted one of the opening VIP events) were ready for fine dining services. The main thing, however — for the hundreds on Thursday standing in line to sign up for player’s cards — was the sportsbook operation at Ocean Resorts, run by British bookmaking company, William Hill.
As Atlantic City’s second sports betting operation to open (The Borgata’s popped day on one, June 14), ORC’s sportsbook parlor wasn’t completely ready — the finished spot opens in August. Yet, on Thursday, five tellers were ready for action, posting odds on baseball games, the Super Bowl, soccer matches, the WNBA and more. Though there was a mix-up with not being able to watch the Phillies as the bar’s sportsbook viewing package didn’t include NBC Sports Philadelphia (chalk that up to opening day jitters), Wahlberg managed to throw down $100 on the Eagles (8-1) and Patriots (6-1) to win the Super Bowl, and $200 on the Cleveland Browns to claim victory in five games next season. Despite minor glitches, all was well at Ocean Resorts.
Though its sportsbook was quietly unfurling, Ocean Resorts was a sea of calm in comparison to the in-your-face (and ears) Hard Rock. From its guitar smash initiation to its oversized guitars hovering within entryway and above its escalators, Hard Rock Casino’s opening (the former Trump Taj) was set to "11" on the volume meter. Much of that noise came from its clanging, bonging 2,100 slot machines (and no sportsbook as yet, as HRC is developing its 300 live events first year program). Beyond that, it was Hard Rock’s signature loud music – a tangle of Billy Joel karaoke coming from one bar, Jerry Blavat spinning '50s and '60s R&B faves outside the Café while various live rock bands came roaring through its indoor portion – that roared beyond a casino’s usual din.
To complement the insistent screech, Hard Rock’s every wall, sconce and crevice is filled with oversized photos of rock royalty in live settings, to say nothing of its renowned museum-like dedication to memorabilia. Prince’s “Lovesexy” stage suit, Michael Jackson’s fedora and Swarovski crystal-encrusted glove, Elvis Presley's 1963 Rolls Royce, Stevie Nicks’ gauzy witchy dress, high-top and low-top footwear from Ed Sheeran and Nicki Minaj, Dean Martin’s bow tie, John Lennon’s handwritten lyrics to “Imagine,” James Brown’s crown, Jimi Hendrix’s phonebook — all are displayed like a DaVinci or a Pollock. Special attention is paid to New Jersey with a brightly-lit alcove dedicated to Jon Bon Jovi’s vest, Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” tour clothes, Frank Sinatra tchotchkes and other totems from Debbie Harry and Lauryn Hill. There’s also a Wentworth Gallery featuring paintings and photos from rock-out greats such as Paul Stanley (KISS) and Ric Okasek (The Cars). That all of this glittering stuff comes at you without too much context, beyond the whiff and sight of gaudy rock/R&B history in all of its finest and freakiest, is the whole point of everything good that is the Hard Rock aesthetic. If it rocks hard, it’s worth putting up on a wall of a spa, into a cocktail, or within one’s sightlines.
Separately and together equally, Ocean Resorts and Hard Rock Casino have a long road ahead of them in their quest for entertaining and enticing Atlantic City’s gambling, watching, listening minion. And that’s the point: to keep crowds coming, this town’s casinos, new and old, will need to work as one. Thursday was a great start.
Opening night celebrity gossip
On Thursday evening, Mark Wahlberg was heard to have met up with fellow actor Jamie Foxx at Ocean Resorts’ HQ2, both as invited guests of the casino. After sharing a dance with Wahlberg, the mega-sociable Foxx entertained the packed club’s throng with free Dom Pérignon and a line dancing free-for-all. After that, Foxx headed to the Scores gentlemen’s club inside Hard Rock where he ran into “Creed II” star Michael B. Jordan (who also spent time as an invited guest at Hard Rock’s DAER night spot) and reality-turned-porn star Farah Abraham, before strolling onto the Boardwalk at 6 a.m.
The historical overview
Forty years after New Jersey legalized casinos, opened its first hot spot (Resorts) and commenced its reign as a betting East Coast mecca with beachfront amenities; several years after said dream crumbled with five casinos (including Trump Taj Mahal and the $2.4 billion boner Revel) shuttered, leaving seven casinos standing on shaky legs; considering the shore town’s recession woes, notions of bankruptcy, the hard competition of casinos in neighboring states, and even a recent slow-building rebound –– Atlantic City, on Thursday, was back, and, maybe better than ever, due to the advantage of newly legalized sports betting, and provocative live entertainment programs.