The nineties will be remembered in casino history as the Grass Hut Years. Steve Wynn started the whole deal in 1989 when he opened the Mirage in Vegas and put enough live jungle inside to replant the Amazon rainforest.
Pretty soon everybody wanted palm trees, waterfalls, animal habitats, tangled vines, and pools of steaming mist to envelop the gamblers like some kind of humid Rousseau sweat fantasy.
Polynesian restaurants--considered corny ever since the decline of Trader Vic's in the seventies--became hip again. Animal-print bikinis and fur-lined mini-skirts returned, even on bodies that fell considerably short of Jane Russell's. You were nobody unless you had at least one tiger or lion or dolphin to frolic in a prefab jungle paradise. Mango, anyone?
Reno does everything Vegas does, but on a little smaller scale, and without Siegfried and Roy. And Reno's version of the Mirage is Atlantis Casino, one of the great local success stories in a city that's been pretty much bashed into the ground by declining tourism, hot competition from California Indian casinos, and the general downtown skank factor.
Atlantis faces the famous and historic Virginia Street, where it all started in Nevada gambling, but it's a full three miles south of downtown. For a while, in the mid-eighties, there were rumors that this area would become Reno's version of the Vegas Strip, with Atlantis and the nearby Peppermill Casino anchoring what was to be a slightly toned-down version of Las Vegas Boulevard. That never happened, mainly because of the powerful political influence of the entrenched downtown casinos, but it didn't stop the ambitious Farahi family from building, expanding, rebuilding and expanding again as they turned Atlantis into Mirage North.
What they added to Wynn's original concept was light--lots of light--so much, in fact, that their design flies directly in the face of traditional casino marketing, which says interiors should be dark, crowded and full of blind corners. Atlantis has instead a sort of California juice-bar feel to it--and in fact most of their out-of-towners come from that state. They haven't gone non-smoking yet--the more Californians you have, the more pressure you get to do that--but they have installed a state-of- the-art ventilation system that pretty much amounts to the same thing. (Diehard smoke-haters don't believe it works, though.)
In most cities a street overpass would be considered an eyesore, but Reno's Farahi family decided that giant Hellenic columns with flames on top and a glass-enclosed gaming and dining area would disguise the fact that it was just a walkway to the parking lot. It not only worked, but Atlantis Casino swept the architectural awards for the year. The result is the kind of casino that's likely to become the standard nationwide. This month Atlantis celebrates its ten-year anniversary since becoming a full resort casino. It has all the basics--a little entertainment (headliners like Gary Puckett twice a month), a lot of food (seven restaurants, heavy on the steak, seafood and Italian), the health spa, the pool, the arcade, a few high roller suites, and gazillions of slots promotions. Atlantis has developed into a locals casino, helped by the real estate boom that's going on in South Reno, and the main thing a locals casino has to be is comfortable. And that it is. Poker Digest even calls its poker room one of the three best in the country, and poker players, above all other gamblers, want comfort and convenience, because they're sitting there for days at a time.
The Atlantis is a family success story, one of the few major resorts not owned by a huge Wall Street corporation. John Farahi, the Chief Executive Officer, and his brothers Bob and Ben were immigrants from Iran in the late sixties who settled in the San Francisco area. They quickly discovered Reno and Tahoe, as all San Franciscans do, and in 1972 they bought the Golden Road Motor Inn, a 142-room motel surrounded by undeveloped farmland. Part of the property also included the Copper Kettle coffee shop, which remains today as the Purple Parrot.
For years the property was a Travelodge, then a Quality Inn, then, when they became a full resort, a Clarion. In 1993 the Farahis broke away from franchising and went their own way, building three towers in stages and beefing up the tropical Polynesian theme. High seasons are the dead of winter, when they offer ski packages that start as low as $99, and summer, when they offer similar vacation packages for golfers. But the big draw is that, despite its emulation of the Mirage, it's remained dirt cheap. On a slow weekday, you can sometimes book an Atlantis room for as little as $19. And the hotel's grandest luxury suite, with a view of the Sierra Nevadas and 24-hour concierge service, is only around $475.
In many ways the hotel is a throwback to the simpler days of Vegas. It's famous for its buffet, Toucan Charlie's, and the 2,000-gallon fresh-water aquarium in its Atlantic Seafood Steakhouse. (A 2,000-gallon aquarium in Vegas would hardly be noticed. Mandalay Bay, for example, has a shark habitat larger than some municipal aquariums.) Its biggest "name" entertainer is a singer/comic named Danny Marona. And the show that sells out every year is an Australian all-male revue called "Thunder From Down Under." "You don't normally find things like that in Reno," says Ciara Coyle, the hotel's understated publicist.
Add in a healthy convention business--the Reno/Sparks Convention Center is right next door--and you have one of the city's finest corporate citizens. Far from fighting them, the downtown establishment now applauds their every move. Needing room for expansion three years ago, they sought access to a parking area on the other side of Virginia Street. They applied for permission to build a "skywalk" over the famous street, and it was not only granted, but the result--a glass-enclosed gaming and dining area that contains the best seats in town for watching the city's "Cruise of Champions" exotic car show in August--looks like it's been there forever. It's even won architectural awards for its beautiful archway, not to mention the Hellenic columns on each end, topped with powerful gas jets that shoot giant flames into the air every 15 minutes (but not during the energy crisis).
A periodic outdoor fire show. Hmmm, wonder where they could have gotten that idea?
Yes, it's that Iranian ingenuity.
ATLANTIS CASINO RESORT
3800 S. Virginia St. Reno, NV
Theme: Polynesian Lite
Total Investment: $150 million
Known For: The giant Greek torches that can be seen for miles around at night.
Marketing niche: Locals, drive-ins from the I-80 corridor
(Sacramento, Vacaville, Auburn).
Gambler's Intensity: Low
Cocktail speed: Medium
Surrounding area: Next door to the convention center in a busy residential and shopping area, with the competing Peppermill
Casino just five minutes away
Overall rating: 80
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $35 after an hour of low-limit blackjack: Total to date: -$134