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Dockside Gambling at Illinois Riverboat Casinos

5 July 2000

By John G. Brokopp

It was a strange feeling indeed. After being subjected to the constraints of cruise schedules and boarding times since riverboat casinos first opened on Illinois waters eight years ago, the freedom to come and go as we pleased was tough for my wife and me to get used to when we visited the Hollywood Casino Aurora for the first time after dockside gambling was approved.

On our previous drives to the casino, time was always of the essence. Would we get there on time before the doors closed? Would we have to sit in the pavilion and wait for the next boarding time? Those concerns were of no consequence now.

Illinois riverboat casino destinations had a little over a month to make preparations for the new order of things. That's about how long it took Gov. Ryan to sign the bill during a ceremony in Rock Island, Ill., after the Illinois State Legislature passed the controversial gambling package late in the evening of Friday, May 21, 1999.

No sooner was the ink of the governor's signature dry than the Illinois riverboats dropped anchor at dockside and opened the doors of their vessels for what amounts to "come and go as you please" gambling nearly 24 hours a day.

Hollywood Casino Aurora and Empress Joliet Casino are both 2-vessel locations with separate entry and exit facilities for each of the riverboats. Preparing for dockside gambling at those destinations posed little problems. Instead of maintaining cruise schedules, boarding, and departure times for each of their vessels, both the Hollywood and Empress Joliet now give gamblers a choice of either boat anytime.

It was more of a challenge for the folks at Harrah's Joliet Casino, which has a single entry and exit ramp that is shared by its two vessels. It was the only location where each vessel HAD to depart the deck for every gaming session to make room for its sister boat to move in, even if it just meant moving out into open water a hundred feet.

Harrah's Joliet solved their problem by situating their two vessels side-by-side in their inlet. Patrons use the existing boarding facility to enter the Southern Star II, then have the option of going through a door and crossing a ramp that brings you right next door to the Northern Star.

The gaming schedule at the Hollywood Casino Aurora begins each day at 8:30 a.m. aboard the City of Lights I and continues uninterrupted until 6:30 a.m. The City of Lights II will open daily as needed at 10:30 a.m. and close Sunday through Thursday at 12:30 a.m. and Friday and Saturday at 2:30 a.m. Plans are already underway to bring a brand new $40 million "barge" to Aurora sometime next year to replace the two boats.

At Empress Joliet Casino, the Empress II is open every day of the week from 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 a.m. The Empress I will be open Sunday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. until 1:00 a.m., and Friday and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. until 7:00 a.m.

Since Illinois riverboat casinos must abide by U.S. Coast Guard regulations, each facility must carefully monitor how many people are on board their vessels at any given time and make the necessary plans to control crowds if too many people come at one time, especially during peak operating hours.

The Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. Ill., one of the most successful riverboat casino operations in the country and THE most popular one in Illinois, is a single vessel location. On opening weekend of dockside gambling, there was up to a 3-hour wait to get on board due to the crunch of gamblers and the capacity of the boat.

Dockside gambling came as a welcome reprieve for Jumer's Casino in Rock Island, Ill., which had to compete with its cross-river rivals in Iowa, The President in Davenport and the Lady Luck in Bettendorf, both of which have had dockside gambling for years.

The question remains how long Indiana will force its riverboat casinos to adhere to a cruise schedule. The locations in northwest Indiana, which put a major hit on Illinois riverboat gambling when they opened in the summer of 1996, will now know what it feels like, at least for a little while.

Finally, an observation: Isn't it amazing how far riverboat casino gambling has come in Illinois in just seven years? When the boats first opened in 1992, reservations were required, admission was charged (I recall paying $18 apiece for me and my wife for a weekend cruise at Empress Casino Joliet), you had to pay for general parking, and there were long lines waiting to board for all evening sessions. Reservations and admission charges are long gone. Now dockside gambling is almost like having land-based casinos.

John G. Brokopp
John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

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