Monday, December 31, 2007

Bingo With Reels

As a part of our Christmas festivities, hubby and I usually exchange a batch of lottery tickets and scratch them on Christmas morning. This year we were just too darned busy, so we decided to do the tickets on New Years. Then a Travel Channel show on Las Vegas gave me a better idea: Why not just go to the Indian casino in Tampa?

We hadn't been to a casino in years. Back in Illinois, gambling had been legal for ages so it wasn't anything unique for us. The Illinois progression of legality was an interesting one. First, the casinos had to be on riverboats that actually went out and sailed. Thus, you would board and be stuck on the boat for 2-3 hours, even if you had tapped out all your funds.

Next, the law was loosened to allow gambling while the boats stayed docked. This meant that they could let people come and go as they pleased. Not much different than a land-based casino, other than the remote possibility of sinking.

Nowadays, the boats don't even pretend to be actual riverboats. They're just barges that are virtually indistinguishable from a land-based casino.

We lived within 30-45 mins. of the boats, so we'd go every now and then when the urge to throw away a chunk of money hit. I'm not much of a gambler; I bring a set amount and view it as paying for any other entertainment. I could go to a play for $50, or I could plug it all into a slot machine. Either way, I count it as an hour or two of amusement with the money gone at the end. Any funds that are left over after a casino trip are a bonus.

Having been able to gamble at will in Illinois meant that it didn't hold any special appeal in Florida. Also, when I visit a casino, I have to count on at least one day of a running faucet nose anyway, because I am very sensitive to cigarette smoke and the air in a typical gaming facility is 1% oxygen and 99% noxious burning tobacco. Even though smoking inside buildings is banned in Florida, the casinos are run by Indians so they are exempt from the law.

Ironically, Illinois has just passed its own smoking ban and did not exempt its casinos. They are not Indian-run, so the only way they could have been exempt would have been a special provision in the law. It will be interesting to see if one is added later, but in the meantime I sort of wish I was there so I could dump a few bucks into the slots and actually be able to breath at the same time. The jitters of the severely tobacco addicted going through withdrawals, yet unable to tear themselves away from the machines that feed their secondary addiction, would provide some great entertainment.

But it had been long enough to where I decided I could sacrifice my lungs for a dance with Lady Luck. Thus hubby and I piled into the Family Truckster, dubious directions from MapQuest in hand, and tooled down I-4 to the Hard Rock Casino.

On the way, we noticed a winery sign as we approached Plant City. Always game for wine tasting, and fascinated with the concept of wines made in Florida, we decided to take a detour. We're big fans of the Lakeridge Winery in Clermont, which actually has its own vineyards, so we thought this might be another neat little find.

The winery was a few miles off the interstate, but thankfully the way was marked with frequent signs. Soon we found ourselves pulling into the parking lot of something called the Keel and Curley Winery, home of blueberry wine (yes, made totally with blueberries instead of grapes) as well as a number of fruit-infused varieties made with a traditional grape wine base.

The tasting bar was packed, so we browsed for a bit until a spot opened up. I was drooling at many of the varieties on the shelves: Blueberry semi-dry, Key Lime, Black Raspberry, and Peach Chardonny, just to name a few. They didn't sound all that different than my favorite Wild Vines Fine Wine Product (blackberry flavored) at Publix, except with a larger price tag.

The tasting itself offered a sampling of six wines of your choice for $3. Hubby and I each chose six different ones so we could end up tasting a dozen. Almost all of them were delicious, and he was especially fascinated with their red ice wine. He is a big ice wine fan (a dessert wine that tends to be very sweet because it is made from frozen grapes), but 99% of them are white. The red was so good that we ended up getting a bottle. Actually, they were all so good that we ended up getting a case of 12 bottles that we mixed and matched.

Suitably stocked up on wine, we resumed our quest for the Hard Rock Casino. I was also rather hungry, since we didn't have breakfast or lunch, but we didn't want to go to a typical chain restaurant and that's all we saw all the expressway. We did see something called a Country Market, but it turned out to be a not-so-appealing buffet so we skipped it. Hubby tried to sooth my savage stomach by pointed out that the casino would probably have some good restaurants.

As we tooled along, I was a bit worried by the fact that there wasn't one billboard. Not one. In Illinois, starting about 50 miles out, you'll see signs: "Casino, 50 miles ahead," "Casino, 49 miles ahead" and so on. The only gambling-related billboard I had spotted was one touting a toll-free helpline for addicts.

As we got closer, the absence of signs continued. I followed hubby's directions and exited I-4, but it turned out they bore utterly no relation to the actual location of the casino. After driving aimlessly on the outskirts of Tampa, he finally called the casino and they gave us real directions. This isn't the first time that MapQuest has led us astray, and the non-existent directional signs merely added to the confusion.

Finally the Hard Rock was in sight. I pulled into the parking garage and headed up to the casino entrance (the complex also houses a hotel). The moment we entered the hallway, the stench of stale smoke, infused with fresh, slammed me like a noxious wall. It grew in power as we approached the gaming floor, and soon we found ourselves in the midst of slot machines of every variety. Well, at least I thought they were slot machines. They sure looked like 'em and worked like 'em, with the exception of not using tokens. Instead, you fed your money in and were paid out with an electronic slip.

I tend to like Double Diamond, Red White and Blue, and the novelty machines like Jackpot Party. Hubby and I tried a bank of machines near the poker room, but we ended up moving to a different section where I found a semi-generous Double Diamond machine. Just as hubby settled in, I noticed a section of Jackpot Party slots just beyond, so he hurried over there. I stayed with my current machine, as I had been down and it had just about gotten me even again.

When I had recouped my losses, I moved over to Jackpot Party. Hubby's machine was a dud, but mine was actually quite generous. At my highest point, I could have left with a $50 profit but I played it away and stopped once I was even.

On all of the machines, we noticed that there was a digital display having something to do with Bingo. We figured it was some sort of progressive jackpot and didn't pay it any mind, but I'd never noticed that on every machine in any other casino.

After cashing out, we sought out the restaurants and ended up eating at the first one we came to, Floyds (they also have a steakhouse, a mid-range place, and the requisite casino buffet, but we were too lazy and hungry to seek them out).

As we entered, I made it a point to ask if the restaurant was non-smoking. Being Indian owned, I knew they didn't have to follow the law. The hostess assured me that it was, so we took our seats and finally indulged in our first meal of the day. It was dinnertime so I was more than ready!

I had butternut squash and crab soup as my appetizer, group for dinner, and egg nog creme brulee for dessert. It was a lovely meal, spoiled somewhat by the horror of seeing the people right next to us (in a raised section) all lighting up their cigarettes and blowing the smoke in our direction. What the &^!*#@?!

I am not shy about confronting people directly, but I had a sneaking feeling that there was some loophole despite the hostess's assurances. Sure enough, I grabbed her as she walked by and she said, "Oh, that's the bar area. They can smoke there." Uh, the bar is in the middle of the restaurant, with tables right next to the dining tables. That is not a non-smoking restaurant. It was the old Illinois concept of the "invisible wall" all over again, and the smoke never seems to know how to stop there.

Thankfully by that time we were on dessert. After we completed our meal, we checked out the other restaurants for future reference. The moment we saw the steakhouse menu, I regretted just grabbing the first choice. They had steak tartare!!!! YUM!!! Raw steak!! It's nearly impossible to find because of the liability issues, since basically they serve you a raw, ground-up filet. I gave the hostess the third degree about the smoking policy, and she claimed that the bar was totally closed off and separate from the restaurant, so it looks like I'll be able to return.

Then we headed up to check out the buffet. I'm not normally a buffet person; I've been through too many meals at Disney World where I've watched kids taste stuff and toss it back or cough right onto the chow to ever be fully comfortable with them. But this buffet looked wonderful, and much of the food was at cook-to-order stations, eliminating the risk of child (or rude adult) contamination. There was no bar at all, thus no smoking. The snow crab legs alone were a powerful lure for me.

We decided that the steak tartare would be enough to lure us back someday, even if we didn't bother to gamble or only dropped a few bucks.

In the car, hubby was telling me about some deal the Florida governor is trying to make with the Indians. It didn't seem to make sense, since they already have gambling and the state has no say in it. My curiosity piqued, I looked it up on the internet. Part of the deal would allow the Indians to have "Vegas-style slot machines." Now I was really confused because it sure seemed like I had just been playing Vegas-style slot machines. They were all the familiar game types, and they certainly worked the same way as any other slot I'd ever played.

I did a little more research, and suddenly the little Bingo display on each machine made sense. Apparently Indian casinos can have certain kinds of games without state approval, one of which is Bingo. However, they can't have slot machines unless they make a pact with the government. The Seminoles in Florida cleverly get around this by somehow hooking up their slots into a computerized Bingo system and paying off with the slips rather than coins. I don't know the relevant law, but apparently this makes them "Bingo" rather than slots. They're limited on their gaming (only pseudo-slots and poker), but they get to keep all the profits. If the deal with the state goes through, they'll be able to have Las Vegas-style slots and expand to other games like blackjack, but they'll have to give a cut to Florida.

Either way, it doesn't matter to me as long as they have Double Diamond, Red White and Blue, and Jackpot Party. I never figured out how the Bingo part worked, but it doesn't really matter. As long as I can spin the reels and take my chances, it's a slot machine to me.


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1 comment:

Val said...

Please keep bloggin! I enjoy your blog and hearing about Celebration :-)