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Expansion puts Seminole Hard Rock Casino in top tier of gaming halls

TAMPA

Forget Vegas. Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa is now the fourth largest casino in the nation, larger than gambling halls that line the iconic strip.

After a recently completed $75 million expansion, the Hard Rock claims a casino floor bigger than five football fields, with more than 5,000 slot machines, 110 table games and 50 poker tables.

Natural light streams in from floor-to-ceiling windows.

"The old days of hide the clock, old-school Vegas mentality doesn't work any more, at least not for us," said Doug Hoppe, vice president of sales and marketing. "The weather in Florida is gorgeous. Why hide that?"

The expansion includes a non-smoking slot machine room, more parking and the Rise Kitchen & Bakery.

The casino is decked out with new memorabilia from the Hard Rock International Collection, Hoppe said. Signed guitars from Hootie & the Blowfish and Sugar Ray adorn one wall. Visitors who ride the moving walkway from the new Winner's Way Parking Garage pass generations of music, including quotes from Eric Clapton and Lady Gaga and a mauve shirt Neil Diamond wore on tour in 1979.

It's still too early to know which new machines have become crowd favorites, Hoppe said, but the largest reported single payout in Seminole gaming history occurred Friday when a visitor won $3,649,611 on Millionaire Sevens, a new machine added during the expansion. The winner's name was not released.

"I like having more of the new penny machines," said Jeff Cortese, 40, of Orange City, who visits the casino every couple months. "Sometimes it gets really crowded on the weekends, so the extra space was definitely necessary."

The casino has seen a noticeable increase in visitors, Hoppe said. On average, the casino has about 20,000 visitors, with 30,000 coming through on bigger days, such as Memorial Day weekend.

"A lot of casinos in Vegas on a Friday night would be happy to have the kind of vibe and business we have now on a Monday afternoon," Hoppe said.

The casino hired 400 new workers to help with the new territory, raising the employee count to 3,300.

Bartender Lindsay Oij, 21, a December hire who now works at the new poolside bar, said the guest feedback has been great.

"It's been getting busier and busier," she said. "People especially seem to like the non-smoking room."

The room has about 70 slot machines and is insulated from the smoky haze of cigarettes and cigars that permeates the main floor.

"I usually don't like to come because of the smoke," said Ivette Wilger, 68, of Inverness, as she played a slot machine called Zeus. "I wish this room was bigger. Hopefully, the more people that come, they'll expand it."

Wilger has visited the casino about every couple of months since it first opened. Back then, she said she could play for hours and not hear a single bell indicating a big win.

"No one was winning, and I thought, 'What a waste,' " she said. "But now, there's so much to do. Even if you don't win, you're fully entertained."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or 813-225-3111.

Expansion puts Seminole Hard Rock Casino in top tier of gaming halls 07/02/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 12:21am]
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