What they wanted was Monte Carlo. They didn’t want Las Vegas. What they got was Las Vegas. We always knew that they would get Las Vegas.
- Stuart Mendelson, Philadelphia Journal
Atlantic City, on Absecon Island just off the midpoint of the Jersey shoreline, has been a tourist magnet since 1854, when Philadelphia speculators created it as a rail terminal resort. In 1909, at the peak of the seaside town’s popularity, Baedeker wrote “there is something colossal about its vulgarity” – a glitzy, slightly monstrous quality that it sustains today. The real-life model for the modern version of the board game Monopoly, it has an impressive popular history, boasting the nation’s first boardwalk (1870), the world’s first Ferris wheel (1892), the first colour postcards (1893) and the first Miss America Beauty Pageant (1921 – it only moved to Las Vegas in 2006). During Prohibition and the Depression, Atlantic City was a centre for rum-running, packed with speakeasies and illegal gambling dens. Thereafter, in the face of increasing competition from Florida, it slipped into a steep decline, until desperate city officials decided in 1976 to open up the decrepit resort to legal gambling, now its mainstay. The city also has a huge Latino population.
Each of Atlantic City’s dozen casinos, which also act as luxury hotels, conference centres and concert halls, has a slightly different image, though you might not guess it among the apparent uniformity of vast, richly ornamented halls, slot machines, relentless flashing lights, incessant noise, chandeliers, mirrors and a disorienting absence of clocks or windows. The casinos are divided into four areas: uptown, midtown and downtown occupy the north, central and south sections of the boardwalk respectively, while the marina enclave towers over a spit of land in the northwest of the city.
The most outwardly ostentatious, unsurprisingly, is Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal. Occupying nearly twenty acres and more than forty storeys high, dotted with glittering minarets and onion domes, this gigantic but oddly anticlimactic piece of Far Eastern kitsch stands uptown, opposite the arcade-packed Steel Pier. Bally’s charmingly garish midtown Wild West Casino is much more outlandish and fun, and also offers complete access to the games and memberships of adjacent Roman-themed Caesars, the smaller Showboat uptown and Hilton downtown, although flashy Tropicana is the more amusing of the two casinos down at that end. All casinos are open 24 hours, including holidays, and have a strict minimum age requirement, so be prepared to show ID that proves you’re 21 or older. Oddly, the slot machines now only take notes (minimum $5).