Even as scores of day-trippers boarded Sterling’s hulking casino cruise ship, the party had already begun. The ship’s dimly lit lounge was swinging with a live band fronted by a Big Bopper impersonator. There was a dazzling array of tacky Hawaiian shirts and a sprinkling of trend-busting fanny packs, many of them accompanying the retirees who dominated the demographic. Old Florida, indeed.
Standing on deck, the background of live steel drum music makes you wonder if you’re headed to Tahiti instead of on a ship where the anchors drop three miles out, signaling the slots to pop on and card tables to open.
At the center of attention in the lounge was a woman that the wannabe Big Bopper affectionately called his “dancing girl,” who was flailing her arms and gyrating to the beat. On occasion BB was joined by a 70-something grandma who had caught a strain of one of her golden oldies and dashed up to him like a love-struck 17-year-old.
This must be the typical crowd for one of Sterling’s free daytime gambling cruises that departs from Port Canaveral every day at 11 a.m.; nighttime cruises are another option. (Neighboring casino rival SunCruz does the same thing.) With free alcohol and a free “deli-style buffet” served alongside dozens of nickel slots, where else would you want to be if you have a blank day on your schedule? The resident retirees onboard must have a multitude. The Ambassador II, the company’s only ship (proclaimed to be “the largest, most luxurious casino ship in the world”) first sailed in 1999. Complete with bright gaudy lights, eight escalators and waitresses in tuxedo tails, it’s got all the trappings of a typical Las Vegas casino with the bonus of a nonstop swaying motion.
Check the ocean report before you go. On this night, the waves were choppy as hell and an EMT finally came to check on me, only to proclaim he could do nothing about my seasickness, even after I’d whiled away $40 on a leprechaun-themed nickel slot machine.
There was a fabulous array of slot machines on show, more than 1,000 of them, from nickel slots on up to dollar-suckers – five floors full of them, to be precise. I tried my luck at a Cleopatra slot machine for a while (and was actually up $40!), but then I crapped it all away at Jackpot Party and Slotto before again being rewarded by the Leprechaun albatross. The cruise is five hours long, so you could spend hours gambling without spending much – unless you’re a big roller like me, ready to play the card games. Blackjack seemed like a good idea at the time.
I joined the Dancing Girl at a card table; with a thousand or so passengers on a ship that holds 1,800, expect to see the same faces over and over again. She was doling out $50 and $100 bets a hand. I stuck with $5 bets, and the $40 that I started with turned into $70, thanks to her advice – “Double down” or “Split,” she’d whisper in her thick Jamaican accent. Eventually my risk-taking spirit got the better of me, and I gave up when I’d lost all my chips. All the while the Dancing Girl shook her head and asked me, “Now, what’d you go and do that?”
If blackjack’s not your bag, there are plenty of other games, ranging from roulette and baccarat to craps. And passengers often opt to sun on the open deck, watching the view, smoking cigarettes and listening to the steel drum band while munching on sandwiches, muffins and potato salad.
With all of the regulations in Florida, this is the only place you’re going to find a true casino, not bingo poker machines – plus a plethora of the retirees who grounded Florida’s evolution. It’s a slice of something different – not that you should set sail every day, unless you have a surplus of disposable income or are just a sucker for the nickel slots. Far away from shore, sitting queasily on a boat that resembled a Vegas cast-off was enough to take me away from reality.
As for the Dancing Girl? She was still shelling out hundreds at the blackjack table the last time I saw her and dazzling her elders.