In the olden days – you know, back before iPhones – if you were a Philadelphia resident and you wanted to gamble you had two main options: Drive the hour to Atlantic City or head to the airport and hop a flight to Las Vegas. Today, however, the gambling landscape in Philly is remarkably different. In the last seven years, the city has established itself as one of the fastest-growing gambling areas in the entire country, adding three casinos within a short drive of the city limits, and two other facilities just outside.
Currently, there are three casinos within a 30-minute drive of the Liberty Bell: Sugarhouse, which is downtown; Parx Casino in Bensalem (just north); and Harrah’s Philadelphia in Cheste (just south). Farther afield are Valley Forge Resort Casino in King of Prussia, and the expansive Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem.
Taken as a whole, not only are these facilities close to the urban center, but they’re raking in the cash. David Schwartz, a buddy and director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said casino operators in Pennsylvania cleared $3.5 billion in gambling revenue in 2011 – making them No. 2 in the nation behind Nevada (which cleared $10.7 billion). While Schwartz didn’t break down his Pennsylvania data by city, he noted that Philadelphia represented a “healthy portion” of this money.
Horses race at Parx Casino near Philadelphia (photos courtesy of Parx Casino)
The three facilities closest to downtown Philly – Sugarhouse, Parx, and Harrah’s – are swanky but they lack hotels. For this reason, these properties are popular daytrip destinations, the kind of places where gamblers might come, play for a few hours, then head back to their hotel. Because I’m a poker player, my favorite of the bunch is Parx. The poker room here hosts a variety of big-time tournaments that attract professionals from all over the East Coast. The place also has a race track, or rather racino (Harrah’s has one, too). Also, I like its bars; a nightclub dubbed 360 brings in live deejays on weekends and packs in party-hungry twenty-somethings, while Chickie’s & Pete’s is an upscale spin on a traditional sports bar (that serves fresh crab).
Other facilities in the region have different amenities. Sands, which is owned and operated by the Las Vegas-based company with the same name (they own Palazzo and the Venetian), has a hotel and extensive shopping mall. History buffs love it because it also sits on the former site of Bethlehem Steel. Valley Forge, the newest of the bunch, has a swanky 486-room hotel on site and a 325-room Radisson tower next door. The destination also has three high-end restaurants and four more casual eateries.
Viewfinder Tip: If you’re staying downtown, use the free shuttles when visiting casinos outside Philadelphia city limits.
Sugarhouse has tried to differentiate itself in different ways. For starters, from dim lighting to chandeliers and old-school wall sconces, the place is dripping with style. The casino also offers table games that few others in the area do, including midi baccarat, single-zero roulette, and more. Finally, the “House” prides itself on a free daily shuttle, dubbed the “Sugar Express,” which collects people from various spots around the area. Having taken this shuttle, I can attest to the fact that it truly eliminates the need for a car. If you’re planning to go out and have a good time with some friends, it’s a nice option to have.
Where is your favorite place to take a casino vacation?