Perhaps one day Central Florida will take a page from Vegas' playbook, ditch the family-friendly schmaltz, and start catering to people who've graduated from middle school and are looking for some serious fun that has nothing to do with talking rodentia.
Now, you may say we're dreamers, but we're not the only ones. Look around you, people; there are actual places to gamble in our midst. And we all know that gambling is a sin; we're not sure if it's a mortal or a venial sin, but it's almost as fun as sex, which we all know is a horrible, horrible sin (unless you are married to someone of the opposite gender, then it's apparently OK to get your freak on in the most perverted way imaginable, go figure). So we can only conclude that Central Florida is already snow-tubing down the slippery slope of immorality, and may one day soon be as fun as Vegas.
Until then, you're basically stuck with three options if you wish to do a little wagering: a casino, a dog track and a jai-alai fronton. If you want to get your freak on, you've got lots of options, but we aren't going to cover that topic here.
SEMINOLE HARD ROCK HOTEL & CASINO
On the outskirts of Tampa, out on I-4, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino lights up the otherwise lifeless stretch of night sky. For those with an affinity for gambling or late-night drink, this is an oasis in a desert of morality, just outside the reach of the Bible Belt blue-hairs because it's on an Indian reservation. The soaring hotel, and the casino that sits on its bottom floor, is the closest you can get to Vegas in Central Florida.
So I drove over on a recent Thursday night, damn near giddy at the thought of a night in a casino. Once there I found all the accoutrements: the inviting lights of slot machines, the mix of old and new rock blaring not too loudly from the speakers, a spiraling array of television screens at the center bar, bells and whistles, the feeling that I was about to have a really fucking good time even if it meant coming up short on next month's rent.
Twenty minutes in, however, it dawned on me that this place was in fact really, really dull. Let me rephrase that: If you're not a good poker player, this place is really, really dull.
A friend the type who watches the World Series of Poker on television and takes all my cash at weekly games mentioned with a wide smile how he spent 14 hours at one of the Hard Rock's many Texas Hold 'Em tables and ended up $150 in the hole. So, if that's your idea of a good time, then the casino is the place to be.
I wanted a more rounded experience, and that's where the disappointment set in. I started at the Green Room, the sit-down restaurant that was the only source of food at 11:30 p.m. And right away there's the first big difference from Vegas.
See, in Sin City, food is cheap, usually buffet-style, plentiful and edible. The food at the Green Room is, on the other hand, overpriced and bad. A burger, a basket of fries, some French onion soup and three (non-alcoholic) drinks set me back $35, a very minimal tip included.
Why a minimal tip? The service was atrocious. And by atrocious we mean absolutely ridiculously slow and inattentive.
But I didn't come to eat; I came to party. Onward and upward.
I stopped at the poker room, figuring I could drop a $20 buy-in on the $2 tables the $1-$2 tables had a wait of maybe 15 minutes. My first clue that I was outclassed was the guy one of 10 at the table with $500 in chips in front of him. Every deal, Mr. Chips would instantly raise to the max, meaning it would cost $8 just to see the flop (poker term there, look it up). Having a $20 stake meant, essentially, that I was screwed. I left 15 minutes and $13 later, intending to hit the club.
Only it was closed. The live/dance music only happens on Friday and Saturday nights, and I was an evening too early for that. So I wandered through the maze of slot machines and tried my luck here and there. The Hard Rock is a Class II casino, meaning no craps or blackjack tables; the Bingo room was empty, not that we were going to play it anyway.
By 2 a.m. it was time to take advantage of the area in which the Hard Rock really shines: all-night boozing. Several Adios Motherfuckers later, clutching my wallet a little more loosely, the slot machines beckoned again.
After an hour it was back to the bar one of three on the casino floor where I learned that at 4 a.m., the bars stopped serving. To get drinks you had to be positioned in front of a machine or poker table, spending money.
It was a new rule, and it didn't please the bartender, who was stuck on overnights. Apparently the policy change came because club kids were using the casino as an after-hours club, and not gambling.
So I played along, sitting at the slot machines, pretending to play when the waitresses came around and then stumbling outside to see the sun rising in the east.
Maybe it wasn't such a bad night after all.
SANFORD-ORLANDO KENNEL CLUB
It starts with the broken, cracked, cratered asphalt in the parking lot off Dog Track Road in Longwood, where you park for free. It continues in your choice of seating. Feeling like a high roller there, big guy? Splurge for the $2 entry fee and enjoy the spanking-new clubhouse, all plate-glass windows way high above the track. Feeling common? Continue right on down to the main grandstands, pay your $1 at the window, get your token, drop it in the turnstile (kids 12 and under are free) and you're in.
Ah, the dog track. Fluorescent lights, bare concrete ceilings, race slips littering the floor, knots of people gathered around TVs simulcasting races from all over the country. Guys (and they are predominantly guys) in shorts and deck shoes, scribbling things in their $1.25 programs, stepping outside for a smoke, putting away $2.50 draft Buds.
I love the dog track. I love the instant, easy camaraderie born of quick wins and stinging losses. I love the feeling of desperation that drives people here, and the intense scrutiny of canine statistics that results. I love the smell of cigarette smoke in the crisp night air under the sodium lights, and I love how you can be six feet away from the animals you're betting on, examining them as though you know shit about what makes one faster than the next. Most of all, I love the faded glory of the sport itself, the feeling that people once thought it novel and exotic. Just like Florida. If horse racing is the sport of kings, dog racing is the sport of commoners.
A sign in the atrium says the mezzanine is open via the elevator, so I follow the arrows and ride to the third floor. Forty-five seconds later the door opens to bright lights and a blaring TV. There's a huge panel-glass overhang overlooking the track, but not a soul up here except me. The Naugahyde swivel chairs are empty, as are the tables. The snack bar is closed. Ceiling tiles litter the mossy-looking carpet, probably the result of roof damage from the recent hurricanes. The whole level smells of mildew, and evokes the same nostalgic pathos as one of those hyperreal statues of a fat guy you sometimes see at airports. All it needs is a title "The Heyday of Greyhound Racing in Florida" to make it perfect.
Trackside, I put $2 bets each on HD I Lovemyself, Irish Omen and Rapido Hera, all to win in the ninth. For $6 I'm pretty sure I've got things covered, and one of my dogs will prevail. As if to set the dog-track hook deeper in my soul, Rapido Hera, a 60-pound black female prone to "advancing late and constantly gaining," according to the program, pulls steadily from midpack to win in a photo finish. That's worth $47.20, thank you very much.
I take my winning ticket to the counter. The clerk counts out $47, but is too grouchy to be bothered with leaning over and grabbing the 20 cents. But I don't complain, because I love the dog track. firstname.lastname@example.org
The same aura of faded glory surrounds the game of jai-alai, which, despite being billed as "the world's fastest game," is a complete mystery to 98 percent of Americans. Happily, I no longer count myself among the uninformed. Those guys running around the giant, netless tennis court with wicker baskets on their arms? I know what they're doing. (Think racquetball played with a rubber-covered stone, and you're as close as you need to be.)
There are some very cool things to know about jai-alai. For instance, the ball (called a pelota) is the densest in all of sport, harder than a golf ball, and travels at up to 180 mph. Helmets for players were not required until 1968 when a player named Orbea got clocked in the cabeza with a pelota, thus ending his career on the fronton. The covering of a pelota, made of goatskin, is only good for about 15 minutes of play before it is worn out. Pelotas are made by hand, because there is no machine yet invented to do the task.
And here's a cool fact about our local jai-alai joint, the Orlando-Seminole Fronton: It opened in 1962, and the linoleum in the lobby looks original. In that lobby is a trophy case with pictures of the players who spend the season (which begins in December) here, all identified by a single name: Erkiaga, Carvalho, Muguerza, Aldazabal, etc., a reflection of the proud Basque heritage of the sport. Jai-alai may have come from Spain, where it was first played against church walls, but there are more frontons in Florida than anywhere else in the world.
Betting on jai-alai is as simple as the game itself: You pick a player (or team) to win, place or show. You can bet trifectas, quinellas and all the other schemes that apply at the dog track. And there is money to be won. A guy next to me won $720 on a single game the night I went.
If you go to Orlando-Seminole out of season, as I did, you'll be reduced to watching games simulcast from Dania and Miami in the cavernous racebook on the third floor. Not bad you can still get a beer but not ideal. I'm intrigued enough to go back to see some live play, though the fronton took a hit during the hurricanes and part of the roof was ripped off, perhaps delaying the start of the season.
And here's another cool fact: If the world's fastest game isn't exciting enough for you, Club Juana is right across the street.
Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
5223 N. Orient Road, Tampa,
Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club
301 Dog Track Road, Longwood,
6405 S. Highway 17-92, Fern Park,