Casino ships face long odds

South Florida’s casino boat business is sinking fast.

SeaEscape, the only day cruise operator at Port Everglades, will have its last sail today. Palm Beach Casino Line is bankrupt and trying to sell its old, wood-decked Princess.

When blackjack arrived at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in late June, cruise-to-nowhere boats lost their claim as the only venue to offer local residents one of the most popular casino card games. It’s proving to be a tough blow for these ships, especially on top of other challenges: stiffer competition for slots players, high fuel prices, a slow economy and rough weather during hurricane season.

Before SeaEscape Entertainment Inc.announced plans to sail away from Broward County last Tuesday, a ship had operated from Fort Lauderdale under the SeaEscape name for 21 years.

The ship’s departure leaves the Palm Beach Princess as the only remaining cruise-to-nowhere ship in South Florida. Princess operators say the Seminoles are making waves for their vessel, which is docked about 58 miles to the north of the tribe’s massive complex in Hollywood.

„We’ve been impacted by the Seminoles, but we expected that in the first couple of months they began operation,“ said Stephen McClintock, director of player development for the ship. „There’s going to be a turnaround where people come back and say ‚I don’t like it there.'“

A tough hand

Industry observers and frequent players say the odds of survival are stacked against the Princess and other potential South Florida casino boat operators.

„It’s over. Done. They can’t compete anymore,“ said Eric Rahn, a cruise industry consultant in Boca Raton. South Florida casino ships lost their ace when Gov. Charlie Crist approved a gaming compact allowing the Seminole tribe to offer blackjack, he and others say.

Blackjack is a card game in which players try to beat the house by having the highest hand possible without busting 21. Until recently, the game was only played in Florida aboard casino ships drifting in international waters about three miles offshore.

When the Seminole tribe became the game’s newest South Florida dealer, it drew more than 40,000 players to its doors during the first week of offering blackjack.

The Florida Supreme Court has ruled that the governor’s compact authorizing the Seminoles to offer table games isn’t legal. But that hasn’t stopped the tribe from offering the games. Spokesman Gary Bitner said the Seminoles‘ success with blackjack has been „beyond expectations.“ On weekends, players pack the casino’s 71 tables and 497 seats, he said.

The competition, combined with other economic challenges, was ultimately what prompted SeaEscape’s decision to leave Broward County, said Josephus Eggelletion, Broward County commissioner and Port Everglades liaison.

Staying afloat

South Florida has enough blackjack players and tourists for casinos of all types to be successful, Bitner said.

„From our perspective, it comes down to marketing to reach them,“ he said. The tribe has touted blackjack on billboards along Interstate 95 and across media channels.

Earlier this month, some frequent SeaEscape patrons predicted the ship soon would sail away or go under amid the land-based competition.

„It’s all birthday parties and reunions in here,“ player Gregg Kotch said before boarding the ship on a recent morning. Signs on the ticket booth that day read „Myssole Birthday,“ „Bowen Family Reunion“ and „Holiday Springs Ladies Club.“

Operators of the Princess are betting on local blackjack players like Leo Suberi to keep their ship afloat.

„They don’t deal like they want to beat you here,“ Suberi said. „They deal like they want to you to win so they can get tips.“

The North Palm Beach player has been cruising on the Princess for more than 10 years and says casino employees and crew go out of their way to be friendly to guests — an effort that’s lacking at the Seminole casino.

„There’s a comforting feeling that you have on the Princess,“ Suberi said, adding that the ship’s only 20 minutes from his home.

On a recent Friday night, the Princess drew a thin crowd of 435 passengers. Regular players such as Julie Collett, 33, of Hobe Sound, recall that months ago it was hard to move around the ship or find a seat at a blackjack table on the weekends.

„Not anymore,“ Collet said. „They’re suffering.“

Many of the ship’s longtime blackjack dealers left the Princess to work at the Hard Rock, and the more talented players have followed, she said. „If I lived closer to the Hard Rock, I’d just go to the Hard Rock.“

Land vs. sea

Land-based casinos have some advantages over day cruise ships, Collet and others say. For one, players don’t have to wait to begin wagering bets and can leave any time, so convenience is built into the playing experience. Also, the Hard Rock complex offers a variety of food and entertainment.

Operators of the Princess say they remain committed to serving blackjack players. In addition, the ship will continue to offer games not legal at Florida’s land-based gambling operations, namely craps (a dice game), roulette (a game in which players bet on outcomes on a spinning wheel) and sports betting.

„We’re a strong locals market, and we’re catering to that,“ McClintock said.

The Princess is advertising its perks — low limits, frequent-player discounts, free cocktails and all-you-can-eat buffets — as it strives to keep area residents faithful to its ship. At the same time, operators are steering the boat through rough financial times.

Owners are in bankruptcy reorganization and have been trying to sell the vessel for some time. A deal that was anticipated by Aug. 4 has not yet materialized as bidders have struggled to line up financing, McClintock said. The situation makes it difficult to plan long-term marketing efforts, he said.

Port of Palm Beach day cruise passengers dropped 21.5 percent during the January-to-June period, according to port records. The numbers also reflect that day cruise operator SunCruz pulled out in September 2007, eight months after it opened. It moved one ship to Port Canaveral and the other to Texas.

SeaEscape, meanwhile, is working to put tough times – including a 11.7 percent drop-off in passengers this year and late payments to Port Everglades – in the past. Operators are focused on finding a new home.

A SeaEscape official appeared before Port Canaveral officials in a public meeting last week, so that it may be considered for berth space, port spokeswoman Rosalind Harvey said. Staff is reviewing the proposal and will make a recommendation by the end of the month.

The company has said it hopes to restart operations by Labor Day weekend.

Patrons Carol and Jim Carlton of Pompano Beach, who mourned the loss of the „fun ship“ last week, said in an e-mail they plan to watch for news of the vessel’s relocation.

„We will go where it lands,“ they said.