I’ll never forget the first time I went to Atlantic City. Secluded at the far end in a (RIP) gorgeous beach view room at Revel, there was a severe chill in the air. The first night a storm pounded the city with brutal winds and rain. The next day, not much better save no rain. And that allowed me to finally do what I had come that far to do. Explore the boardwalk…and maybe get some taffy.
The Boardwalk in Atlantic City is something like all of Vegas’s tourist attractions wrapped into one. Indeed, the sea and planks along the beach strand have, I’m guessing, influenced Steve Wynn a number of times post his Atlantic Club days. (I’m looking at you Paradise Park.) Even though I arrived after Sandy ravaged the city, the boardwalk still was a bustling place even on a cold day, and I couldn’t help but think of what all of this was like back in the glory days of empires of men. The opulence that Atlantic City was in the early 20th century is what has keep the loyal coming back. There’s something special in the air, and with each new grand hotel that went up way back then, more people became obsessed with the the city of sin by the sea.
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One of the grandest of palaces was located at the crossroads of the world (look at any Monopoly game) at Boardwalk and Park Place. Known as the Marlborough-Blenheim Hotel, the building was a combination of two grand hotels. The hotel was a marvel, a combination of an existing grand hotel and an all new fireproof concrete hotel in the Queen Anne style. The hotel was so grandiose in design and comfort that it was guested by royalty, celebrities, and politicians alike all coming to enjoy the city’s offerings.
But with time, things change. Grand hotels lost favor, and ownership passed hands until Reese Palley and Martin Blatt bought the hotel with plans to preserve the old Blenheim portion of the hotel and an adjacent hotel, the Dennis, with a grand plan to redevelop an enlarged boardwalk property into the Park Place Casino. An ambitious plan proved too much however for them alone, and for assistance, the pair teamed up with Bally Manufacturing, who with their controlling interest, would help make their dream come true.
The plans for Bally’s Park Place originally called for demolition of all properties and construction of a new modern casino. However, Atlantic City placed strict guidelines on building, requiring any new casino to have at least 500 rooms in order to open and properly house guests. Having torn down the Marlborough-Blenheim, Bally’s was left with no choice but to keep the Dennis. Plans were made to build the casino and refurbish the historic tower in 1978 to serve as a temporary hotel while operations built capital for a new more modern hotel to replace it. With the refurbishment of the Dennis complete, and the construction of the casino finished, Bally’s Park Place Casino and Hotel opened its doors on December 30, 1979.
The casino itself was something new and transformational, bringing the old Atlantic City feel to a new age with a gleaming and glamorous boardwalk casino. Unlike older hotels which had smaller cramped gaming, or added smaller low-rise buildings keeping existing and un-updated hotels paired with them, Bally’s signaled a change that would be followed suit along the Boardwalk and eventually lead to such opulent properties as Caesars, the Tropicana, the Atlantic Club, Wynn’s aforementioned Golden Nugget, and many others. Bally’s helped to redefine the city’s Boardwalk and show the new way at the time that other’s could push the envelope and thrive.
With its opening, Bally’s proved to be extremely successful. With profits coming in steadily and customer demand not swayed by the Dennis Tower’s age but by the charm the historic property exudes, the Dennis continued to receive upgrades as Bally’s continued to invest and expand its property, including redevelopment and continual improvement. To cater to the needs of the property, it was decided that despite charm alone, the Dennis wasn’t sufficient to handle demand for rooms on the property. But the charm saved the Dennis, and Bally’s decided to add a new modern tower in 1989, a sleek glass tower clad in light-pink glass more than doubling the hotel footprint of the property. With the additional rooms, the casino was able to generate even more business, and carried the hotel through the 1990s with financial and name success. This culminated in yet another expansion in 1997, when Bally’s opened a new second casino themed after all things western, The Wild Wild West Casino at Bally’s.
Now armed with over 220,000 square foot of combined gambling space, Bally’s continued to serve as a place for gamblers of all tiers to gather, find their game and room of choice, and enjoy all that Atlantic City has to offer sitting directly on the famed boardwalk. Business was so successful that the company, by 2000 rebranded Bally’s Atlantic City, bought the adjacent Claridge Hotel, another grand dame of the golden era adjacent to the property. The hotel was renovated and a high end casino catering to exclusive gamblers in 2003, although ultimately the casino was not successful. After Bally’s acquisition by Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) yet more work was done to keep the property in prime shape. The Dennis saw more renovations in 2009, and its plaza was opened up to the boardwalk with the removal of several smaller shops that were deemed unnecessary. By 2010, Bally’s had become one of the mainstays of the city, a large scale casino resort that had any option that any gambler could want all under one roof and at the foot of the Atlantic.
In my time in Atlantic City, I feel I haven’t spent quite enough time exploring. And in preparing for my upcoming trip to ZorkFest, researching the host hotel as evidenced brings back all the reasons why the city will always have a different meaning to me than the easier visited Las Vegas. There’s something magical about a place where past meets present, and where you’re made to feel like a VIP in a property that has housed the likes of Winston Churchill throughout its storied past. Bally’s is a testament to doing things right the Atlantic City way, and its success should inspire every operator to pay a bit more attention and consider that when you’re on that strand of sand and wooden planks, you don’t need to go too far over the top. I’ll feel it in person again in December, right at the corner of Boardwalk and Park Place.
PS…I’ve missed you guys.
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