“Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty. And meet me tonight in Atlantic City,” Bruce Springsteen sang. Atlantic City, that perennial damsel in distress, is putting on its makeup yet again, softer and more natural this time, to attract a new kind of customer: families.
For a natural beauty, endowed with all of nature’s gifts — miles of wide, soft, camel-hued sand hugging a spectacular stretch of the Atlantic Ocean, and the 4-mile-long boardwalk with all its attractions — Atlantic City has had its share of costume changes, reinventions and facelifts. Its first hotel was built in 1853, when the town officially got its name. The first boardwalk was built in 1870 along a portion of the beach to keep sand out of the hotel’s lobbies. (The name “boardwalk” doesn’t come from its wooden planks but from its inventor, Alexander Boardman.) A building boom in the late 19th and early 20th century saw the creation of enormous luxury hotels with the most updated amenities. The popular Parker Bros. game, Monopoly, made AC world famous; everyone knew the names of all the squares from Baltic Avenue to Boardwalk. In 1921, this proud, sun-kissed beauty became the home of the Miss America pageant.
The Rise Of Casinos
For a long time, AC was the premier vacation destination in the United States, when Orlando and Las Vegas were just sleepy backwaters. The 1920s, with tourism at its peak, are considered by many historians as Atlantic City’s golden age. Prohibition was a boon to AC where it was unenforced, attracting racketeers and assorted lowlifes. It was a good place to be bad. “During Prohibition, Atlantic City created the idea of the speakeasy, which turned into nightclubs and that extraordinary political complexity and corruption coming out of New Jersey at the time.” Martin Scorsese has said.
As air travel became easier and cheaper, people could fly to more exotic, and, in winter, warmer locations. There were some downward stumbles until 1976, when New Jersey voters legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, and the first casino, Resorts International, opened in 1978. Then, like crocuses in spring, one casino after another sprouted along the boardwalk, and AC had a new identity, look and mission.
The Showboat opened as a casino hotel in 1987 and closed in 2014 when its parent company, Caesar’s Entertainment, decided to pull the plug — even though the hotel was making a profit — to stabilize its other AC casinos. Stockton University purchased the Showboat with the idea of turning it into a full-service residential campus, but the deal got tangled up in legal issues.
AC took a beating from Hurricane Sandy, but recovered. Then, the pandemic affected business at all US resorts and, on this newly leveled playing field, opportunities arose for AC when the casinos reopened in July 2020, in reduced circumstances. In a 2021 survey from the website, DO AC, in which half of all respondents lived in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, 42% of respondents reported at least one visit to Atlantic City since the reopening of casinos. Concern about COVID-19 was the primary reason the others didn’t visit.
A Different Type Of Gaming Destination
AC got high marks for its COVID-19 safety protocols. According to ABC News, “Atlantic City’s casino earnings have surpassed where they were before the coronavirus pandemic broke out.” With the pandemic easing and people returning to AC, the time was right for some big, new developments.
Enter Bart Blatstein, a Philadelphia developer with Tower Investments. Blatstein announced in June 2016 that the Showboat would reopen as a nongaming hotel. In December 2020, the New Jersey Casino Reinvestment Development Authority approved Blatstein’s request for financial assistance to turn the space originally intended for a casino into a $100 million indoor waterpark. Blatstein also sought to have the park designated as an entertainment retail district project, allowing the park to qualify for up to $2.5 million in annual sales tax breaks for 20 years. One of his dream projects, Island Waterpark, will open in May 2023. This 103,000-square-foot park will feature water slides, pools, lazy rivers, lounges, party rooms and a family entertainment center. Its retractable glass roof will make it an all-season game changer. Showboat has opened New Jersey’s largest arcade, The Lucky Snake, with over 100 games and attractions such as video games, bowling, Skee-Ball and others. The area also includes a sports bar with large screens and a full-size boxing ring.
Another of Showboat’s family-friendly components is the recently opened The Raceway at the Lucky Snake, a custom-designed, 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, indoor, electric go-kart track. Racers of all ages will travel through the theme of “escaping Las Vegas” on high-performance, electric go-karts, custom manufactured in Italy. Racers can film their ride experience with helmets equipped with 4K cameras, which will allow them to immediately post their experience onto social media. Island Waterpark and The Raceway at the Lucky Snake will offer distinctive group packages to accommodate corporate events, bachelor and bachelorette parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and private parties.
There will also be an educational component to the track, where schools and summer camps can be trained on the mechanics of the go-karts by licensed professionals. Additionally, The Raceway at the Lucky Snake will host its own go-kart racing league, where racers can join and win prizes to the Lucky Snake Arcade, as well as vacation packages to the Showboat Hotel.
‘An Investment In The Future’
On a chilly morning, Jan. 12, at an empty lot next to Showboat, Blatstein, the mayor of Atlantic City, Marty Small, and a host of others broke ground on Island Waterpark. The silver-haired Blatstein has a showman’s charisma, and a dimpled, megawatt smile. At one point in the ceremony, someone ironically called out, “Smile!”
“I always knew we had to diversify our offers, and this is doing it in a big way,” the mayor said that day. “Investing in our community through growth will bring jobs and economic recovery to our area. We have lacked family entertainment, and this waterpark is the catalyst to draw more families to our great city and give families who live here something great and fun to do!”
Bart Blatstein is not a 21st century Barnum selling hokum, but a savvy businessperson with the chops, the capital and track record to back up this bold venture. The Showboat’s enormous arcade, The Lucky Snake Entertainment Center and Sports Bar, has been a smashing success. Blatstein spent many happy times in AC growing up and is passionate about the city. When I talked to him, he had the same missionary zeal that he had at the press conference.
“I’m looking to plug in the pieces and create things that AC needs and has never seen before,” he said. “This city is 168 years old, and it’s had its ups and downs. Its population was once 65,000, now it’s 39,000. Eighty percent of the homes were built before 1970. Twenty percent of the land is vacant. Still, it draws 25 million visitors a year.” One of Blatstein’s missions is to connect the dots and change the equation with bold new ideas.
“This shows me that there’s a hunger out there for nongaming amenities,” Blatstein said at the Island Waterpark groundbreaking. “This will be the first year-round, family-friendly resort,” he added. Why this push toward family friendliness? It’s good business, an investment in the future.
“People keep having kids,” Blatstein, a proud grandfather, said.
A True Family Road Trip Contender
I was with Blue Man Group in 2000 when they were invited to Las Vegas in one of its waves of family friendliness. Vegas was playing it both ways: Sin City’s “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” campaign was immensely popular then.
On my first day in a cab from the airport, the cabdriver was a grizzled guy in his 50s who looked like an extra in a bar-room scene in Tombstone. He loved Vegas, where he moved 20 years before from Wisconsin.
“I like smoking, drinking, hookers and gambling,” he said. “This town is perfect for me.” It was his own Wild West. High rollers are few and far between, and Vegas’ take from that cabdriver was minimal. AC’s version of the cabdriver are the busloads ($21 round trip from northern New Jersey) of day-tripping seniors with their quarters or vouchers, hugging their favorite slot machines. It’s not big business, but it is a reason to keep the lights on during the day.
You compare that to a family of four and that’s four more seats, T-shirts and souvenirs to sell, mouths to feed — and the profit margin rises exponentially.
Orlando, Fla. is still the premier family destination, and Las Vegas is in the mix as well, but classic, indestructible, shapeshifting Atlantic City is hot on their heels, thanks to Blatstein and his team. The Lucky Snake Arcade, The Raceway, Island Waterpark and that retractable roof, make Atlantic City a contender in the “where can we go as a family” sweepstakes. A family that lives in the Northeast can pile into their Subaru Outback for a beach-bound, Island Waterpark, Raceway road trip and save on all that airfare and hassle.
Putting His Money Where His Mouth Is
Back at the Jan. 12 press conference, Blatstein buoyantly asked, “How do I know it’s going to happen? It’s my money going into this place. I promise you; it’s going to happen.” This was a great day for Blatstein and AC, and he couldn’t stop smiling. “Atlantic City has a long and rich history as a premier tourist destination. Showboat is committed to bringing nongaming, family-friendly entertainment back to Atlantic City, and the waterpark is one more piece to that puzzle.”
Atlantic City has taken Bruce Springsteen’s advice, fixed up its hair pretty and is ready to welcome a whole new, younger, crowd of friends.
Manuel Igrejas has worked in the theater as a playwright and a publicist on and off-Broadway. He was the publicist for Blue Man Group for 15 years, and his other clients included Richard Foreman, John Leguizamo, Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding, STREB, Julie Harris and Peak Performances.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.
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