Seminole Hard Rock Tampa launches amped-up casino with flair

Nicole Kidman and Christie Brinkley walked the red carpet, and two members of the Wallenda family walked a high wire strung between the casino’s two hotel towers.
Bigger. Taller. Glitzier. A $720 million expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa has added a 14-story hotel, right, next to the casino's original hotel on the left.
Bigger. Taller. Glitzier. A $720 million expansion of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa has added a 14-story hotel, right, next to the casino's original hotel on the left. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Oct. 3, 2019|Updated Oct. 3, 2019

TAMPA — Forget the ribbon-cutting.

Thursday the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa went for the spectacle.

First, smash a bunch of guitars to put an exclamation point on a $720 million expansion.

Then watch a couple of daredevils walk a high wire 160 feet above a new pool deck the size of a football field.

Then, on Friday night, host a sold-out concert by country music superstar Keith Urban, who walked a red carpet into Thursday’s celebration with his wife, A-list actor Nicole Kidman. The scale, cost and glitz of the party stood in sharp contrast with the modest origins of the Seminole reservation in Tampa.

“We started off with a chickee and one alligator in a pen,” Seminole Tribe vice chairman Mitchell Cypress said, “and look where we’re at.”

Today the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa is the flagship of Hard Rock International, generating $1 billion a year in revenue for a corporation with total revenues of nearly $6 billion annually, said Jim Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International and president of Seminole Gaming.

Hard Rock has more than 45,000 employees and 254 properties, many of them cafes and stores, along with what will soon be a dozen casinos, in 75 countries. From a profitability standpoint, the Tampa casino is the most successful casino in North America, Allen said, and ranks fourth or fifth in the world. Alone among casino companies, Allen said, Hard Rock’s debt is rated investment-grade by the three leading credit rating agencies.

The Tampa expansion took 2½ years to complete and created 2,000 construction jobs. Along the way, the Tampa casino and hotel added 2,000 permanent jobs, bringing its total payroll up to about 4,800 positions.

The tribe, which now has 4,263 members, started in the early 1980s by building a 20,000-square-foot metal-sided warehouse for bingo games on its Tampa reservation, then a small village with a softball diamond near Interstate 4. The building had 1,302 seats. When general manager Jim Fontana came home from work, his wife made him take off his business suit in the garage because it reeked of cigarette smoke.

But as pioneers in high-stakes bingo, the tribe cleared the way for the creation of a Native American gaming industry that now brings in an estimated $31 billion a year. In Tampa, the tribe added poker and video slot machines, and tore down the warehouse to make way for a series of expansions.

In 2000, the tribe struck a partnership with Hard Rock International, which, at the time, was struggling and had an uncertain future, Allen said. In 2006, the tribe, flush with cash, bought Hard Rock for $965 million, creating an entertainment and gaming powerhouse that since has grown rapidly and thought big.

“The design criteria from the start was that we could pick this building up and put it in the middle of the Las Vegas strip or Atlantic City or Macao, and it would be as nice as anything that’s currently out there,” Allen said. “We certainly think we have achieved that particular goal.”

That’s a big contrast to the early days of the partnership, when Allen once just shook his head at a promotion where the casino gave away a lawnmower, lawn chairs and plastic bird bath bought at a home improvement store.

The Tampa casino now has 245,000 square feet devoted to nearly 5,000 slots and about 200 tables for poker, blackjack, baccarat and more. The expansion also includes a new 14-story, 562-room hotel, a remade pool deck with three pools, a salon and spa, new restaurants, more shopping, fancier architecture, more glitzy memorabilia — like a gold-plated piano once owned by Elvis Presley — and a 1,800-seat concert hall where Urban will perform.

RELATED STORY: We went inside Seminole Hard Rock’s $720 million Tampa expansion

Thursday’s event had an over-the-top quality to it, with celebrity appearances (along with Urban and Kidman, model Christie Brinkley), a Vegas-style show featuring the Ukranian neon and LED dance troupe Light Balance and two members of the Great Wallendas circus family walking a high wire strung between the casino’s two hotel towers.

“It was magical," said Nik Wallenda, 40, who walked a wire smaller in diameter than a nickel with his mother, Delilah, 66. They had only done a couple of tandem walks before, but in a sense, Thursday’s outing wasn’t exactly new.

“My mom was six months pregnant with me walking the wire still," he said, "so I’ve been walking with her longer than I’ve been alive.”

Organizers had said Delilah Wallenda planned to retire after Thursday’s walk.

Back on the ground, she said “maybe not.” Another walk by the time she turns 70 "looks good to me.”

“Just like the Who,” Nik Wallenda said of his family, “there’s always more in them.”

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa expansion by the numbers

$720 million cost

2,000 construction workers

4,800 permanent casino and hotel jobs

$1 billion annual revenues