Mohegan Sun redefines ‘casino resort’ image

Consider this phrase: casino resort.

It is not just a place to gamble or roast in the sun. It is not anything like the gaming facilities in Wisconsin or on the Mississippi. Most Vegas strip and Atlantic City boardwalk choices don’t come close either.

To find the world’s biggest casino resorts, go to a part of Connecticut that used to be “just another sleepy country town,” as one local put it. The Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods tribal developments – less than 10 miles from each other – reel in a ton of risk takers, particularly from the massive Boston and New York City metro areas, which do not allow casino gambling.

In Wisconsin on Tuesday, Madison residents will decide whether to support the Ho-Chunk Nation’s request to turn its bingo hall into a full casino. Tribal leaders say the casino would be smaller than what they operate in Baraboo.

The Baraboo property has a 315-room hotel, five restaurants and 88,000 square feet of gaming space. It, too, was merely a bingo hall when it opened in the 1980s, and the present size still is modest, by gaming standards. The possibility for expansion is unknown.

What’s the future of successful gambling ventures – not the odds of winning, but the ticket to maximize success as a gaming operation? As the ways to test your luck increase, so do the odds that savvy casino developers – Native Americans and others – will change their way of competing for your cash.

Way ahead of the game is the Mohegan Sun, which I visited this month. When its Casino of the Earth opened in 1996 near Uncasville, Conn. – an unlikely tourist destination – it had about 180,000 square feet of gaming space, a nightclub and restaurants. Now the complex has more than 300,000 square feet for gambling, but that’s just a part of it.

The newer Casino of the Sky, explains public relations manager Savario Mancini, is designed to represent the tribe’s future, whereas the original casino – with its darker lighting and more modest features – represents the past.

Add in a 10,000-seat arena, where rock stars have sung and athletic world records have been broken. Link the casinos with a pavilion of 40-some food/beverage and retail outlets. Provide smaller venues for entertainers to perform, convention space, a prestigious spa, pool and fitness facilities. And the world’s largest planetarium dome, with changing cosmic displays.

The tributes to tribal culture are much more than totem poles. Every stunning artistic image, from floor to ceiling, represents a part of Mohegan tribal history. Walls and floors are filled with colorful mosaics.

“The tribe spent over $1 billion to celebrate its traditions,” Mancini says of the expansion. Materials include onyx, alabaster and one billion beads.

The facility’s 1,200 hotel rooms have earned four diamonds from AAA. So has one of its restaurants, acclaimed chef Todd English’s Tuscany. Basketball star Michael Jordan also makes his mark, with a steak house and a sports bar.

There is an elaborate, supervised activity area for children; parents must produce photo identification to retrieve their offspring. Weight sensors are attached to contents of in-room minibars; pick up an item, and you’re automatically charged for it.

There is an Irish pub, a Vegas-like lounge, a nightclub for VIPs, a martini bar, a brew-pub, a poker bar, smoke-free gaming areas.

The Foxwoods casino resort is even bigger, in terms of space and number of gaming devices, although not as lavishly designed or decorated. It opened about 20 years ago.

Twenty-five percent of the casinos’ slot machine revenue goes to the state; that was about $400 million for the last fiscal year.

What makes these places cutting-edge casino resorts? There is much more to do than gamble, and there is no reason to leave after you arrive. Some of the diversions can involve the whole family. Both the prices and level of pampering are high.

“We are an entertainment destination,” Mancini says.

And this isn’t the end of it. Utopia Studios, a New York developer, wants to spend $900 million nearby, to establish movie/music/tv studios, retail shops, lodging and a performing arts college.

On another land parcel, a half-hour away, another developer is proposing a $400 million NASCAR racetrack with a retractable roof – the first of its kind in the nation.

So a picturesque part of New England is changing its appearance dramatically. Could the scene be duplicated in Madison? It’s unlikely. Our population base is smaller, and neighboring states allow gaming, so the supply-demand dynamic is different.

But the casino resort concept, and the potential for other developments to escalate because of it, is worth noticing.

The Mohegan Sun is next to the Thames River, about one hour from Hartford, Conn., and Providence, R.I. For more, go to www.mohegansun.com or call (888) 226-7711. Foxwoods, run by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, is at www.foxwoods.com and (800) 369-9663.

Foxwoods plans to add a Hard Rock Café, more slots, video bingo and retail space this year. Next year, the intent is to open two golf courses designed by Rees Jones.

The two tribes are separate but have a shared heritage. The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, which opens this fall in Washington, D.C., will have an entire floor devoted to the Mohegans.