Casino slots add more interactive elements

When Potawatomi Bingo Casino tripled its size in 2008, the Milwaukee gaming emporium added 1,300 slot machines, so the total exceeds 3,100.

What began as a bingo parlor in 1991 today attracts upwards of 4 million visitors annually – the biggest in Wisconsin and among the biggest in the Midwest.

Replacing visions of gray-haired widows catching nickels in plastic buckets is “ticket in, ticket out technology” that typically involves vouchers and loyalty cards.

Jim O’Kimosh, slots director at Potawatomi, says the gaming demographic also is changing.

“We’re drawing a younger, Internet-savvy crowd,” says the former math and computer teacher, “so slots are becoming more of an entertainment device” whose amusement value isn’t confined to money won or lost.

He refers to the advent of sophisticated sound systems, seating that moves and games with “some level of skill involved – it’s not just about pulling a handle or putting money in.”

So the slots player might pilot a “Star Wars” battleship, out to destroy other planets. “You’re on an adventure, and you’re a part of what’s going on,” Jim explains. “Along the way, you collect things, build up bonuses” such as free spins or extra game credits.

Players also might compete with or against other casino customers, he says, or be rewarded for their intelligence when asked to name a song on an “American Idol” slot or choose a letter on the new generation of “Wheel of Fortune” games.

The new slot machines, Jim says, “are all about the lighting, sounds and themes.” So if you’re a “Lion King” fan, you may want to park it at a slot that plays the movie’s music.

“We still cater to our traditional players, but we’re also all so connected these days – we live our lives in a very interactive way,” says Kate Reil of International Game Technology. “So a lot of slots are being developed with this in mind.”

Reno-based IGT is the world’s largest international manufacturer of slot machines, producing 40-60 percent of what the average casino uses.

The company’s products include the “Wheel of Fortune” progressive slot machine, around since 1996 and billed as the most popular gaming machine of all time. But Kate predicts a new generation of slots – ones that add unusual ways to participate during game play – will rival the much-loved game show theme.

A new “Sex and the City” slot, a spin-off from the HBO television series, arrives at Potawatomi, Menominee (Keshena) and Oneida (Green Bay) casinos before mid-April. Slots that use “The Amazing Race” TV reality show as a springboard will be operating in May.

“It’s all about interactivity,” Kate says.

So expect “Sex and the City” TV clips to appear during play, with character Mr. Big providing voice-overs. Players earn bonuses by matching character outfits, or opening the right virtual diamond ring box.

“The Amazing Race” slot machine introduces competition between banks of casino slot players. So bonus play might go to the player who is first to dig through a virtual pile of sand and uncover a treasure or ticket.

Hundreds of other slot machine concepts remain in development, a process that typically takes two years. Kate says more will incorporate multi-layer displays, which “create a 3-D effect without needing to wear the glasses.”

Imagine butterflies in flight, instead of spinning wheels of cherries and lemons. “The entertainment factor is high,” Kate promises.

She expects the devices to continue to be called slot machines, even though new models no longer have slots for coins.

Jim O’Kimosh insists the stakes don’t have to be high: “You can came with $20 or $30 and make it last as long as you want. We have more one-cent and two-cent games than any others on the floor.”

It’s just that you’re not likely to hear the clink and clatter of all that change filling plastic buckets anymore.

For more about Potawatomi Bingo Casino, 1721 W. Canal St., Milwaukee: www.paysbig.com, 800-PAYSBIG.

Daily transportation to Potawatomi is arranged through Badger Bus, with instate pick-up as far away as Beloit, Manitowoc and Madison. The bus service also arranges transport between the casino and Chicago metro area. For more: 877-894-6287. (An offshoot, Badger Tour and Travel, organizes occasional gambling trips to other parts of the state and country; call 800-442-8259.)

Besides gambling, Potawatomi houses five dining options, including the high-end Dream Dance Steak, which ranks among Milwaukee’s best restaurants. Upcoming special events include a $50 buffet-style meal with comedian Louie Anderson on April 2 and a $50 three-course Sommelier Showdown on April 19-20 (guests decide which of two wines, per course, go best with what is served). For reservations: 414-847-7883.

Nationally known acts perform at the casino’s 500-seat Northern Lights Theater. In the lineup: country artists Ray Price and Roy Clark, April 1; comedian Louie Anderson, April 2; pop-rockers Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, April 16; pop-rocker Rick Springfield, May 5-8; and comedian Tim Conway, May 20-21.