On a recent Friday night, Hollywood Casino in Perryville whooped, shrieked and fluttered with the shrill din of thousands of slot machines at full blast. Crowds flitted from shiny penny slots to $1 machines, hoping to hit it big, or simply spend a night away from the couch.
The cavernous complex in the middle of rural Cecil County felt like the inside of a pinball machine. Walking around this casino, Maryland's largest, and the Casino at Ocean Downs, the state's second, can be a dizzying, trippy experience. Sputtering lights and kaleidoscopic effects bombard visitors at every step.
Open for more than five months each, Maryland's only gambling options have already established themselves as destinations — they've raked in a combined $77 million in revenue since September, according to the Maryland Lottery.
The Hollywood Casino in Perryville and the Casino at Ocean Downs (a few miles outside Ocean City) both offer indoor bars and computerized gaming galore, including blackjack arcades and hundreds of slot machines. Earlier this month, harness racing resumed at Ocean Downs after a two-year hiatus.
But after I spent nights at both, it was clear they still need more time to compete with the glitzier casinos in Delaware. Right now, it's slots and little else at both Maryland spots.
Hollywood opened nine months ago, the first of the two slots casinos, and is by far the largest, with 1,500 machines to Ocean Downs' 750.
It is almost as big as a 20-screen movie theater — and looks it from the outside. The building is a square tan box with little flair outside other than a valet and a marquee with "Hollywood" in red.
Perhaps in a nod to its name, the interior is decorated with images from the movies. But while the wallpaper features the faces of Cary Grant, Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor, the casino's idea of modern Hollywood is less imaginative. The posters of such "classics" as "Little Fockers" and Liam Neeson's "Unknown" hang from the unembellished, warehouselike ceilings.
A casino, whatever criticisms one may lodge, should at least offer some grandeur for those who've schlepped there for a night of entertainment. But from the outset, Hollywood's decor suggests a night at home watching "Meet the Parents 3" would be just as exciting. (The movie is now out on Blu-ray and DVD, as one of the posters inside helpfully tells us.)
Except for a bar, a cafe and an affordable buffet restaurant (food prices range from $9 to $18), the floor is blanketed with slot machines. In keeping with the Hollywood theme, there are "Sex and the City" branded slots as well as some named after "I Love Lucy." There are also more profitable electronic blackjack and roulette arcades on the building's fringes.
Penn National Gaming, which runs the casino, wants to keep visitors playing at all times. Even the sole bar has arcades in front of each stool.
The bar, called Sunset, carries four drafts, including Blue Moon, sold at $4 and five domestic bottles, a menu so dull it's not unsurprising patrons would want to play the games in front of them. Mixed drinks sell for $6. There are several TVs showing ESPN and news channels. Domestic beer cans and Heineken are also sold at the buffet and grill cafe.
Before I left, I sat down at a penny machine, Reels O'Dublin. With absolutely no hope of winning, I pushed buttons as mindlessly as a toddler playing Hungry Hungry Hippos. Five minutes and 15 spins later, I had, incredibly, $280.
After I cashed out, I thought, "What the heck? Why not give it another shot?" I put in $5, but it was gone in seconds.
Ocean Downs revolves around its handsome, circular bar. Like Hollywood Casino, each barstool is outfitted with its own computerized poker station. Again, the beer selection is simple and repetitive: Heineken, Corona, Blue Moon, Budweiser and Coors Light are served by the bottle, and six others — including Blue Moon, Coors Light and Budweiser — are on tap.
The bar, the lone one in the casino, only has plasma TVs besides the liquor and beer. There's also a cafe that sells pizza, sandwiches and bottled beer.
On a Friday night in early June, service at the bar was sluggish. The bartender took some 20 minutes to swipe my credit card. He later explained there was a tech glitch with the cash register. Still, he didn't offer a complimentary drink or a sincere apology for the delay.
At a place where timing is everything, I could have easily been wandering around trying out the slots. Instead I was sheepishly staring at the people behind me playing the electronic blackjack table, who seemed to be raking it in. Later, I tried my luck again at one of the penny slots, but I lost my modest $9 investment after just a few minutes.
In contrast to Hollywood, the casino, open since January, is better-looking and less frantic. Both the ceilings and carpets are elegant, and the room — also, a large, open space — doesn't echo with the ear-piercing sound of the slots.
Sitting at the bar, I could actually hear the background music coming from the speakers, which was a welcome auditory reprieve from the barrage of beeps and buzzers.
While its smart layout makes Ocean Downs look like less of a Sam's Club than Hollywood, it was quieter and less crowded than its Perryville counterpart.
The casino felt idyllic, but for the gamblers who like the excitement of being around other people winning money, Ocean Downs still needs some time to develop a crowd. In that sense, Perryville is the more entertaining alternative.
Ocean Downs does have one advantage over Perryville: Once you're finished playing in Cecil County, there's little to do nearby except check out the historical buildings or maybe some roadside bars. But at Ocean Downs, the beach is just a short drive away.
The problem with the two casinos is variety. Most casinos these days aren't just a place to play cards or slots. They are entertainment complexes that offer live music, comedy, boxing fights or at least broadcasts of sporting events. The idea is to keep gamblers, amateur and professional, inside, lounging at a concert by Little Richard or Tom Jones or enjoying a comedy set once they've won — or more likely lost — a few coins at the slots.
Critics say that by just offering slots, the casinos aren't just skimping on entertainment, but also inadvertently encouraging a dangerously addictive habit — one that state officials are certainly keeping an eye on. Last week, they reported one in 30 residents has a gambling problem.
While the perils of gambling are just as likely in Delaware, both Dover Downs and the Harrington Racetrack and Casino have hosted musicians and comedians that could play Vegas. Both also offer boxing on a weekly basis, and host several restaurants and bars. And they're not much farther afield.
These kinds of concerts may be in the works at Maryland's casinos — Hollywood has at least one concert coming up, country trio Eden's Edge on June 25 — but, in the long term, they're going to have to step up their amenities if they're seeking to offer patrons a night's worth of entertainment and not just a couple of hours at the slots.
If you go
The casino is at 1201 Chesapeake Overlook Parkway, Perryville, about 40 miles, and a 50-minute drive from Baltimore. It is open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. five days a week, and until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Gamblers must be at least 21 years old.
Info: Call 410-378-8500 or go to hollywoodcasinoperryville.com.
Lodging: Ramada Inn, 61 Heather Lane, Perryville. 410-642-2866.
Casino at Ocean Downs
The casino is at 10218 Racetrack Road in Berlin, about 130 miles, and a three-hour drive from Baltimore. It is open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. five days a week, and until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Gamblers must be at least 21 years old.
Info: Call 410-641-0600 or go to oceandowns.com.
Lodging: Several options nearby, among them, the Hilton Suites Ocean City Oceanfront at 32nd Street, Ocean City, 866-729-3200.