A short while ago, everything I knew about Atlantic City had been absorbed by way of depressing news reports on failing casinos and lost jobs. Also, the movie Snake Eyes. Despite living only a few hours away, and the fact that my home state of New Jersey isn’t exactly known for an abundance of things to do, I’d never gone to the AC. Warnings from friends about crime in the area sounded another alarm. Also, I’m not much for gambling. (Let’s not say “cheap,” let’s say “protective of my monies.”) And save for an annual long weekend trip to Cape May, I’ve always been pretty dedicated to leaving the state when I go on vacation.
But I’m moving soon, spreading my wings and whatnot, and isn’t there a saying about “seeing Atlantic City before you die?” If there’s not, there ought to be.
I ventured down to Atlantic City to stay at The Water Club by The Borgata to sample the hotel, the casino, the food, and see a Dave Chappelle show. Initially, I wanted to justify my escape from the North Jersey doldrums by weighing the perception vs. the reality of Atlantic City. I’d assess the future prospects of the oceanside town for its residents and, secondarily, tourists. Shine a light on how things really are. Real, meaty stuff. Someone was bucking for one of those fancy internet writing awards. But doing all that in two jam-packed days (much of them spent within the walls of a well-appointed resort) and some light research wasn’t a great idea.
Atlantic City is large and complex and snapshots can easily fool an interloper. See two new casinos and feel optimistic! See the absence of foot traffic and the occasional abandoned building and feel a sense of doom! Without context for how opportunity is distributed (or not distributed) and a clearer understanding of AC’s history and spirit, what the hell did I know? So I moved off of that fool’s errand and resolved to keep things a bit more simple while trying to just experience Atlantic City and suss out the resort town’s worth as a vacation spot. Which, not for nothing, does help to push back against those negative perceptions. Especially when you read about this one meatball sub I had.
Fun Is Fun
Like most other resort casino destinations, Atlantic City’s central pitch to tourists is low key brilliant: draw people to luxe and immense but not back-breakingly expensive hotels, give them ample opportunities to inject a little excitement into their life by winning and losing a few bucks on the casino floor, and feed them all the food. (Just wheelbarrows full of shrimp and a Wyoming cattle farm’s worth of prime rib). Then, sprinkle some glitter on their memories by bringing in name talent for concerts. Some people may pass on that kind of getaway due to the preponderance of other, more exotic or adventurous endeavors. Zip lining across a clear blue lagoon seems nice and I hear the Italian countryside is lovely, but the simple pleasures of Atlantic City still have merit and are maybe a little more accessible for when the “once in a lifetime” trip isn’t in reach this time around. Does that make it sound like Atlantic City is for people ready to settle?
Perhaps, but do not despair. Fun is fun, even when it’s basic AF.
The boardwalk is a prime example of the above philosophy which I am in the process of trademarking. There’s a certain “been to one, been to them all” vibe that Jersey boardwalks kick off when it comes to the delectable trash cuisine and attractions that give them their charm, but those things are also good and fun. And there are other elements that are unique to the Atlantic City boardwalk. For instance, five minutes after I arrived, a man I was talking to pulled down a bandage and eagerly showed me what he said was a recent stab wound. Top that, Wildwood!
Despite that magical experience, the Atlantic City boardwalk seems as clean and safe as any other that I’ve been to and it’s a great way to pass an afternoon. Especially if you wipe out at the casino, need something to do while they refill the buffet, or just want to breathe in the sea air while browsing the myriad of tourist-trap gift shops or the high-end retail at the Playground Pier mall. I guess. I wasn’t there to shop, I was there to play games and eat funnel cake.
The Steel Pier is a 1,000-foot long amusement park section of the AC boardwalk that has been obliterated by fire and nature and rebuilt and transformed multiple times across its 120-year history. The current headliner at the Steel Pier is a brand new mega-Ferris Wheel that shows off the full breadth of the boardwalk from its 227-foot apex. There are also helicopter tours that launch from the tip of the pier. But heights aren’t my jam, so I mostly perused the more earthbound options.
The highlight of the Steel Pier was the three-station seemingly full-size three-point shooting contest that was positioned in such a way as to inspire onlookers to watch, cheer, and heckle. And I got to experience all of those things in about ten minutes as I watched people celebrate the 9-year-old champion who drained eight shots out of 15 before I took my turn and heard someone shout out, “get that trash outa here!” I was the trash and I deserved it. I only made one of 15 shots my first time through, sparking my wife, Michella, to tell me “you were really bad” when I asked why she hadn’t defended my honor and out-shouted my heckler. And now you’ve seen my wound.