The state's only Las Vegas-style slots outside South Florida could flash and spin as soon as next week at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
A public debut for 725 new machines is set for May 1. But the first few will go live a week to 10 days earlier, said casino president John Fontana. "It's exciting to not have to hold anything back and have all the tools in the tool box," he said.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida won the right to operate slots at its seven Florida casinos under a deal signed by Gov. Charlie Crist and approved by federal officials in January.
Tampa's casino is the largest in Florida with 3,200 Class II gaming machines. They look like slots but are actually electronic bingo games where players compete against each other. Gamblers play against the house on Vegas-style slots, called Class III devices, the same type used in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and other gambling meccas.
Crews will swap out 75 to 100 of the old machines a day once work begins. Fontana expects to have 1,675 slots, just over half the casino's total, by the end of May.
The tribe's first Vegas-style slots appeared in Broward County at the Hollywood Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in January, followed by its Coconut Creek casino. Three Broward race tracks already had slot machines that county voters approved in a 2005 referendum.
The agreement with the state also allows the tribe to operate the state's first legal games of blackjack, baccarat and other "banked'' card games where players bet against the house.
Seminole officials are in the process of hiring 3,650 dealers for their Florida casinos. The new card games should start at the Hollywood casino in June and reach Tampa by late summer or fall, according to Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen.
Florida is guaranteed at least $100-million in gaming revenue from the tribe this year. But the deal is being challenged at the Florida Supreme Court by House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. They claim Crist overstepped his authority by signing the agreement without legislative approval.
"I oppose expanded gambling generally,'' Rubio said Monday in response to a question from the Times. "But I'm especially opposed to high-stakes gambling that's never been approved by the voters'' as is the case in Hillsborough County.
Business picked up at the Seminole casinos in Broward after a marketing blitz and news coverage on the Vegas-style machines, said Gary Bitner, a tribe spokesman. The old bingo-based machines still have a loyal following, he said. But the new slots attracted more veteran gamblers.
"No question there are educated players who were waiting for Las Vegas-style slots and (otherwise) wouldn't make a return visit or regular visits,'' said Bitner.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.