Atlantic City, Harrahs, Ballys and Hotwire

07/11/2013 13:51
Atlantic City: A Family Destination?   
This is a town in trouble.  For years I have read about all the struggles of the casinos and resorts.  I have noticed in the past few years they are really trying to sell AC as a family destination.   I have come to the conclusion their troubles begin and end with an identity crisis.  Is Atlantic City a playground for adults or a family vacation destination?  I think they need to decide because trying to be both is definitely not working.  
I will share with you my recent trip.  Let me preface this by telling you have been traveling most of my life.  I love to travel.  I can also be very particular about certain things when it comes to travel.  My first priorities are cleanliness and service.  Ultimately, you can decide if you are bothered by the same things that bother me.  
A good friend was going to AC with her daughters for a dance competition.  I couldn't resist the opportunity to spend some time with my girlfriend at the beach.  Plus, my kids have literally grown up with her girls so I knew it would be a lot of fun for them too.  It was win/win all around.   I went to Hotwire to book my trip.  This is where the problems began.  
If you haven't used Hotwire, you can book at regular rates or you can book at special rates.  When you book a room at the "special rate" they just don't tell you the hotel name, but they do share "comparable hotels".   My search of Atlantic City returned a 4-star hotel at a great rate.  The "comparable hotels" were properties I immediately recognized and were all on the beach.  I booked my 3 nights at their special rate 4-star hotel.  It was only after I paid that I learned my hotel was Harrahs.  Harrahs is not on the beach.  It is over in the Marina.  Obviously, being on the beach is an important aspect of Atlantic City in the summer.  I thought it was unfairly misleading of Hotwire to list all the comparable hotels as beachfront and then book me in a marina hotel.  When I contacted Hotwire, they absolutely refused to move me or cancel the reservation.  
Photo source:
We will make the best of it.  I have heard there is a shuttle from Harrahs to the beach so we won't have to pay for parking at the beach and pay again every time we leave and return to the hotel.  
I tweeted Harrah's with several questions regarding the accommodations because all the AC hotel websites seem to intentionally withhold information.  It is very strange how little they will share on their websites.   Harrah's tweeted me back with a link and asked me to email them.  I sent an email.  No response.  I tweeted them again 5 days later and emailed again, no response.  That is irritating and should have been my first clue to the level of service I could expect from them.  They won't put information on the website.  They won't answer questions on Twitter/Facebook and they don't respond to emails.  For me, that is a huge service fail.
We arrived early at Harrah's and were told we could check-in in an hour for an extra $15.  In the meantime, we were welcome to use the facilities.  First,  I wanted to get my "rewards card".  I am not well versed on the ways of AC but what I have heard is you must get a card at your resort to earn points and to get "comps".  I always hear about AC "comps" yet I have never gotten one.  So, the kids and I trek on over to the Rewards Card sign up office on the other side of the enormous property.  I wait on line to  sign up for the card.  Unfortunately, there are no special deals or comps going on.  I next stopped, with my children (my daughter is 19 and my son will be 18 in 8 weeks), to ask where the pool was located.  I was directed by an employee who saw me with my children, back to the where we started and around to the back of the property.  We made our way all the way back around again.  We finally get to the pool and it was like the Garden of Eden, you could almost hear the angels singing when you step inside.  BUT, we were swiftly turned away because you must be over 21 to enjoy the Garden of Eden.  Needless to say, my kids were both really disappointed.  I knew there had to be another pool area.  Guess where we had to go to find the family pool and hot tub?  Yes, all the way back to the other side of the property again.  (I am already annoyed that employee didn't even bother to ask how old my children were when she sent us to the adult only pool)  We make our way to the other side of the property and up the elevator to the 4th floor, we wind thru the hallways of rooms to find the Family Pool Room.   Disappointment would be an understatement.  Disgusting best describes it.  Clearly, all resources for pool areas were devoted to the Garden of Eden downstairs.  This pool was tiny and gross.  It was filled with screaming 2 year olds.  It was basically a small dirty toddler toilet.  (I wouldn't put my toddler in that pool!) The hot tub was permanently broken.  The lounge chairs were old and worn out.  It was gross and especially disappointing after having seen the Garden of Eden.  
I also learned that the shuttle from Harrahs to the beach was only good for 1 adult and 1 guest.  This meant I couldn't take both my kids to the beach on the shuttle!  This was not a good situation.  If you are going to be a 4-star family resort and you are not located ON the beach, you really HAVE to have a great pool situation for ALL your guests.  
Bottomline: Harrah's is not a place for families.  Hotwire is not a reliable option for booking hotels.  
Now I had a problem.  What were we going to do?  Stay at Harrahs with nothing for the kids to do for three days or spend a fortune driving back and forth to my friends hotel and imposing on her to use her room for changing, bathroom, etc...?  What would we do if it rains?  No beach, no boardwalk, no pool, nothing for kids.  This is not what I had in mind. I had to think quick.  How could I salvage this vacation? 
I went back to the front desk (I swear by now we must have walked at least 5 miles)  The lobby was now PACKED with people checking in and checking out.  These resorts are enormous and it seems everyone checks in and checks out at the same time. Luckily, I just happened to find the front desk supervisor.  I explained my frustration and asked if it might be possible to switch my reservation to one of their other properties with a pool and working hot tub (I recalled Harrah's is part of group of resorts in AC)  He made some calls and told us we could move to Ballys.  It would cost us $3 more a night but they had a pool with a working hot tub.  It is also on the beach.  GREAT.  Now to get my money refunded from Hotwire which has an ironclad no refund policy.  I had to call Hotwire and wait for them to call Harrah's and speak to this supervisor so he could tell Hotwire he would approve the refund.  It didn't help that the supervisor wasn't answering his phone when I was able to get a real person on the phone at Hotwire.  It took about a half hour to track him down again and coordinate Hotwire with him.  I was assured I will be refunded (they said it will take at least a few days, I will keep you posted) 
We had to get our luggage back from bell hop and car back from valet.  About 2 hours later we were at Bally's.  Their lobby was completely swamped as well.  Ok, we decided will check our bags and use the pool and hot tub.  We could check in later.   My back was killing me by now and I could really use a hot tub.  We make our way to the southern tower and up to the 8th floor and over to the pool area.  It was then that we were informed that guest had to pay $10 per person to use the pool.  I have never heard of charging guests a separate fee to use a pool.  This meant I would have to shell out $30 a day to swim?  I peeked inside, the pool was full of little kids again.  I don't have a problem with little kids, I really don't.  But you know there isn't going to be any swimming when a pool is that crowded.    I decided we could try to check out the beach but first we should check-in since all our beach gear was with our luggage.  I was already exhausted.  By now I am pretty sure we walked over 10 miles and climbed as many stairs.  We again have to walk over to southside and up escalators to get to our elevators.  The elevators require a room key to work.  Sadly, like everything else, the elevators are wornout and it was hit or miss if the keys would work.  (It wasn't just us, it became a joke with other guests too.  When we got in the elevator we all would wait  to see if anyone's key would work and how many extra floors we would travel before we could get to the correct floor)  
Finally, we got to our room which was in the Northern most tower (aka the old Claridge Hotel).   The room had two double beds, not queen size beds, double beds.  I didn't even know double beds still existed!  Great.   I was going to be sharing a little double bed with my daughter.  (The weird thing is the room could definitely fit queen beds, why the double beds?)   There was a space intended for a chair or sofa, but nothing was there.  There was a narrow vanity in the room, but no lamp or outlet near the vanity area.  Who puts on makeup without a light????   You can't dry your hair there without an outlet.  What was the point?   The furniture in the room was cheap looking, a white veneer.  There was a fridge and coffee maker which was great.  I made our reservations for 4 people thinking one of my kids would insist on a friend joining us, but no one brought a friend.  Despite having a reservation for 4, we had towels, pillows and coffee for 2.  
The bathroom was small and dated in design which doesn't bother me that much. BUT it  had that black mold in the grout.  The tub drain was slow which meant you were standing in a couple inches of water by the end of your shower.  The lock on the bathroom door didn't work.  They give you shampoo but no conditioner.   There were also little black flies I think were "drain flies".  Kinda gross.  
The other problems with the room were:  There was only one small dirty window.  The carpeting had stains on it.  The safe didn't work.  AND the most irritating thing about the room was there was NO OUTLET NEAR THE BED!  I always sleep with my phone on the nightstand.  I like to use it as my alarm clock, I like to check my messages if I wake during the night, I like to charge it over night.  The outlet was intentionally obscured by being built into a panel in the wall so that only their light and alarm clock could be plugged in.  This absolutely drove me nuts.   They also charged an outrageous rate for internet.  The internet charge wasn't for the room but for each device.  It would have cost me almost as much to have internet for the 3 of us as it did for the room each day!  
Welcome to AC.  They will nickel and dime you for EVERYTHING.  It is incredibly annoying.  
I did receive an email the next morning saying our pool fees would be waived.  (This was a nice gesture considering how disappointing everything has been since my initial tweet. )  I had purchased a 4-star hotel from Hotwire but I was now clearly staying in a 2.5-3 star hotel at best.  I should think the pool would be included (especially considering the pool was nothing special). 
The hotel advertises their beautiful in-pool lights that are spectacular at night.  The problem is the pool closes at 6pm (and it is adult only from 5-6pm)  Why advertise this wonderful feature if it is not an option?   The pool area boasts 8 hot tubs, unfortunately only 4 actually worked.  Included in your entry fee is one towel and one bottle of water.  The first day there, they had no water.  (How does a huge resort have no water for the entire day? If I had paid to get into a pool, I would want my water!)  I ended up buying overpriced frozen drinks at the outdoor bar.   The outdoor bar and sundeck is a  nice feature but the lounge chairs were dirty and old.  (As I laid on my chair I couldn't help but notice all the chairs in front of me.  The backs were all covered with dirt and mold!  yuck)  The pool area in general was definitely in need of an upgrade.  (The weather wasn't great, so the pool was definitely a necessity some mornings.) 
** Thank you to my reader Eddie, I should have mentioned, the pool price I mentioned is WITH a Rewards Card.  If you do not have the rewards card and/or you aren't a guest of the hotel, the pool is $30.  
Outside of the hotel,  the beach was great.  There are no beach fees which is nice if you have a big family.  There are plenty of beach bars along the beach which is fun for all because we could enjoy the music on the beach!  The water and sand was lovely and the beaches are guarded.  They also rent chairs and umbrellas for a reasonable fee.  (I brought my own chair, because I didn't know if they had chairs because no one answers emails).  
The boardwalk is the longest boardwalk in the country (according to my kid's research).  I believe it.  There are lots of restaurants and cheap beach shops with tee shirts and beach toys.   I noticed there aren't very many boardwalk games though.  There are a few overpriced amusements like Ripley's Believe It Or Not.  There is great people watching too!  Every night AC has a free light show on the boardwalk which is fun.  I am guessing it lasts about 10 minutes and repeats all evening long.  It is always fun to just enjoy the evening walking with friends on the boardwalk and enjoying an ice cream or funnel cake.   When you get tired, you can always jump in one of the push carts!  It is so relaxing to ride along the boardwalk with the ocean breeze gently blowing as someone pushes you along in a push cart!  I highly recommend it!  You absolutely should haggle with the cart operator!  My son is an expert at it.  Of course I always end up tipping them extra because it is so much fun!  The folks pushing the cart are usually very engaging and add to the experience.    Steel Pier is located at the Northern end of the boardwalk.  This is a pier with rides.  I was told by several people that the rides are mostly for little children so we didn't even bother going.  
Just to try something different, one afternoon we decided to try the Atlantic City Jitney.  This is a small bus that stops at all the hotels and resorts with one fixed rate of $2.25 per person.  It's a great way to get around.  We rode the Jitney from our hotel to the very Northern end of the boardwalk so we could visit the new Revel hotel.  It is very, very nice.  I tried out the slot machines and as usual quickly lost my money.  It is a big beautiful and empty casino.  We had a late lunch in "Relish" at Revel  which is described as an upscale diner.  The food was great and surprisingly cheaper than the mediocre food at other locations.   After lunch we walked along the boardwalk for a little while and then caught the Jitney back to our hotel.  It was very convenient!  Even if you don't stay at Revel, it is worth the trip up to visit! 
We  went to Tropicana Hotel one night to have dinner inside "The Quarter" with our friends.  The Quarter is a shopping mall inside the Tropicana Hotel. We enjoyed a "family style" dinner at Carmine's.  Carmine's is a famous New York City Italian restaurant and was just as much fun here in Atlantic City.  I wouldn't say it is the BEST Italian food I have ever eaten, but it was good and VERY plentiful.  There is something very fun about eating "family style" with friends.  I definitely recommend it.  
All things considered, I have to be honest and say this wouldn't be my destination of choice for a family vacation.  There are limited activities for children of any age.  Doing anything takes a concerted effort and costs much more than it should.   It is also not a great destination for adults.  We couldn't help but notice the lack of "A list" performers.  Actually, the only show in town last week was the "Legends in Concert" show which features celebrity impersonators.  (yes, overpriced)   If I were planning a vacation with a significant other, I would look to go somewhere a little more upscale with better nightlife.   I suppose AC is still a town primarily for gamblers.  There are no shortage of casinos that is for sure.  Although from what I saw, most of the casinos were empty.  There were a few gray-haired patrons scattered through out, but that was about it.  And remember, this should be peak season for a beach town resort.   Hotwire is also not a service for families.  Traveling with a family requires certain amenities.  Booking through Hotwire doesn't give you the information you need if you take advantage of one of their "special rates".  As far as booking with their regular rates, I have consistently done better going to the hotel itself instead of using Hotwire.  If you are traveling on your own,  Hotwire special deals can be great.  You have to be very flexible with regard to location and amenities. 
In fairness, the special rate I was offered initially was good, not great, but good for a 4 star resort that I was mislead to believe was on the beach.   It was better than the rate you would get if you booked directly with the hotel.  BUT I think I should still get what was advertised to me.  I was offered a great rate for a 4-star resort, with 4-star amenities and comparable to the beach side resorts listed.  I did not get that.   If I was offered that rate for Harrah's on the Marina and knew the shuttle wouldn't accommodate a single mother with TWO children and would have no pool or hot tub for us to use,  I would not have taken it.   And let's face it, there is a supply and demand factor involved here.  Atlantic City has an abundance of rooms.  There is a far greater supply than there is demand.  They have to make concessions.  
If AC really wants to be a destination for families, high rollers or couples, they have to step up their game.  From my perspective, everything is run down, overpriced and limited.    I was particularly disappointed in Harrahs, Ballys and Hotwire.  There is so much room for improvement,  most of which wouldn't cost them a dime starting with better customer service.  They should provide more information on their website, answer emails and make the "family" amenities more appealing if they want the "family" customer.  If they want the upscale couples, they need to have a lot more nightlight to offer and again, upgrade the facilities.   If they want to continue to cater to the degenerate gamblers, they are all set and should change nothing.  
Fun Facts About Atlantic City: 
June 26, 1870 - First US Boardwalk opens!
March 15, 1915 - Jitney line established
September 7, 1921 - First Miss America, Margaret Gorman, crowned
May 26, 1978 - First casino, Resorts International, opens
BOARDWALK: Atlantic City was the first Boardwalk constructed in the United States, and opened on Sunday, June 26, 1870.  The current Atlantic City Boardwalk is a little over four miles long.  The combined length of the Atlantic City and Ventnor Boardwalks is approximately 5.75 miles.  The historic length of the Boardwalk, before the 1944 hurricane, was about 7 miles and it extended from Atlantic City, through Ventnor and Margate, into Longport. 
BEACHES: Four miles of sandy beach gently sloping into the surf.
SALT WATER TAFFY:  According to local legend, the name originated on the Boardwalk in the 1880s, after seawater flooded a candy store.
MISS AMERICA PAGEANT:  Held each year in the historic Atlantic City Convention Hall, it originated as the “Floral Parade” in 1902 and became the “Miss America” Pageant in 1921.
FIRST POSTCARDS: First picture postcards in the United States were color views of Atlantic City (1893).
ATLANTIC CITY CONVENTION HALL: Now called Boardwalk Hall, when it opened in 1929 it was the largest auditorium ever built without interior roof posts or pillars and housed the world’s largest pipe organ.
ROLLING CHAIRS:  Famous attraction on the Boardwalk from the late 1800s to the present day.
MONOPOLY: One of the most popular board games of all time, the design using Atlantic City street names was sold by Charles Darrow to Parker Brothers in 1935.
STEEL PIER:  First opened in 1898, it was a premier entertainment spot and the most widely advertised amusement pier in the world.
FIRST “AIRPORT”:  The term was coined in Atlantic City, in reference to its flying field (1919). 
Facts are from