By Nick Sortal
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 11, 2009
Line up for the $5.99 steak-and-egg special and you can inhale the spirit of a bingo hall.
There stands Edith Green, of New Port Richey, who took up slots only because the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa dropped bingo three years ago.
"It seems like I would leave this place with a lot more money back then," says Green, who's been coming here for 20 years.
Now, zip to the other end of the Hard Rock complex, past the Council Oak restaurant, up an escalator and near a waterfall.
There stands Bill Childers, 33, of Jacksonville, waiting for the $30 Sunday champagne brunch.
"The next bet we make will be our first," Childers says.
Unlike the 4-year-old Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, which became an international tourist destination almost overnight, the 27-year-old Tampa casino is still evolving from its bingo-hall roots.
A recent upgrade of restaurants and shops, and the quiet addition of blackjack two months ago, has turned the casino into more than just a spot for locals. Now, it attracts adults fleeing from the Orlando theme parks or vacationers going to the west coast of Florida just to chill out.
The Tampa complex, on 37 acres, isn't as grandiose as Hollywood's, on 110 acres. Music, movie stars and pro athletes don't just drop in for a getaway. And there's no adjacent Seminole Paradise, although there is a Body Rock Spa, a Hard Rock souvenir store and a shop called Rainmaker, with original items handmade by the tribe.
But it's come a long way.
"No envy," Tampa Hard Rock President John Fontana says. "This place has a different feeling, a little more intimate. You feel like you know the people."
The bingo hall started as a 20,000-square-foot warehouse-type building. Then the Seminoles tacked on two additions and finally a makeshift five-trailer unit for non-smokers to exhale. A Sheraton hotel and private homes for some tribe members took up the rest of the grounds.
"I've been working at this place for 26 years, and my wife still tells people I work at a bingo hall," says Fontana, who started as an accountant at the tribe's original bingo hall in Hollywood.
In 2002, the Seminoles tore it all down. The hotel opened in 2004 with 250 rooms, and there have been two additions in the past 14 months: 50,000 square feet of casino, a VIP lounge and three restaurants in November 2007, and even more casino space this past November when blackjack — and a bigger-spending clientele — arrived.
Plans include 750 more rooms, five new restaurants, including a Hard Rock Cafe, and a 2,000-seat concert hall. (The Hollywood Hard Rock Live holds 5,500.)
And, of course, more space for gambling.
"It's the first time I've played here, but I've been waiting on this for years," says blackjack player Earl Stephens, 37, of Orlando, who says he frequents casinos in Tunica, Miss., or Atlantic City, N.J.
The casino has the decor you'd expect from a Hard Rock, including an Eric Clapton guitar and a Jimi Hendrix suede jacket. The memorabilia now goes beyond just display: Push a button and video clips, music and more photos provide historical context.
And people come to spend a day, so the Hard Rock built a bus terminal, with a 100-seat waiting area that looks like a clean Greyhound station.
Ty Eldien, of Tampa, who stands in line for the champagne brunch at Fresh Harvest with friends from Jacksonville, says the casino has emerged into something beyond a place to bet. His group hit Tampa bars until 6 a.m., with the Hard Rock the final stop.
"This is a great place for people-watching, and a place to see everything and do everything," Eldien says. "No other place around here really compares."
He and his friends advance to the front of the buffet line, which includes sushi, Italian food and a dessert bar featuring "the Kitchen Sink."
Behind them is a line of 100, maybe more.
At the casino, Larry Lizanich directs cash operations, the window area where players come to cash in. He started at the bingo hall snack bar 25 years ago.
He knows who's been sick, and who's been away to visit their grandchildren. He also knows who likes to keep their casino lives private.
"Some guests prefer to just take care of business," he says.
When he started, the casino had 107 employees.
"Now there are more than 3,000," he says. "When I think about that, it just amazes me."
Nick Sortal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4725.
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