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A Comparison of Chicago-Area Casinos - Part 1: Hotels4 November 2003
For the last several months, I've been making the rounds of Chicago-area casinos, staying in the hotels, eating in the restaurants and checking out the games.
Now it's time for a comparison.
For the next few weeks, I'll be writing about where to find the best blackjack game, the best buffet, the slot variety, and payoffs and other casino "bests."
Usually, when I do the grand tour, I include casinos a little farther afield--Blue Chip in Michigan City, Ind., Potawatomi in Milwaukee and Par-A-Dice in East Peoria. This time, the focus is tighter, on the eight casinos closest to Chicago--Harrah's and Empress in Joliet, Hollywood in Aurora, Grand Victoria in Elgin, Trump and Majestic Star in Gary, Harrah's in East Chicago and Horseshoe in Hammond. I'll get to the outlying casinos separately early next year.
For the start of this casino journey, the focus is a little tighter yet, on the four local casinos that have hotels. I did overnight stays at Trump, Empress, Harrah's Joliet and Harrah's East Chicago.
I had stayed at both Joliet hotels before, but until this tour began I'd not spent the night at the two northwest Indiana casino hotels. One big difference will be apparent to anyone else who tries this itinerary. Indiana permits its casinos to remain open 24 hours a day. If you're an early riser, you can walk right into the casino, and if you're a night owl, you can play as late as you want before heading to your room.
But in Illinois, a 6 a.m. riser such as myself needs to find something else to do. During my visits, the Illinois casinos were closed from 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. The difference is even greater now with the earlier closings and later openings requested by casinos and recently approved by the Illinois Gaming Board.
I'll not get bogged down much in describing rooms. Like many casino players, I look at the hotel room as mostly a place to sleep between sessions at the blackjack table or video poker machine. I will say that both Harrah's hotels have a luxury feel that would stand up against a good Las Vegas casino hotel. So did Trump--but then, Trump knew I was coming and put me in a three-room suite that has almost as much living space as my house. Should I settle on the sofa in front of the big-screen TV, or retire to a bedroom and one of the smaller sets? Decisions, decisions.
Empress has a plainer feel. I wouldn't call it Spartan by any means, but it's not on the luxury-hotel level. Jack Binion had said a hotel upgrade was a priority during his brief tenure as Empress owner. After Argosy bought the property, and faced two large tax hikes in two years, upgrade plans went by the wayside. It did renovate the hotel, and it is clean, comfortable and a pleasant place for a night's sleep.
But rather than worry too much about which is and which isn't a luxury hotel, let's zone in on comparing a few things that will matter to casino players:
**The two Harrah's properties have by far the easiest access from hotel to casino and to pavilion restaurants. Get off the elevator in the hotel lobby and you're on the same level as the casino entrance. A short walk indoors through the lobby and pavilion, and you're ready to play.
Empress, on the other hand, is across a large, open-air parking lot from the casino pavilion. It's a pretty good hike, but one I don't mind in nice weather. In heat, cold or rain, or if you just don't want the walk, take the hotel shuttle to the casino. Likewise, Trump will shuttle hotel guests to the casino. The walk from Trump's hotel to the casino is lengthy, mostly under a covered walkway, and involves going up and down escalators from walkway to pavilion, and up another escalator to casino level.
**Trump's hotel has its own restaurants, Chops: An American Steak House for dinner and the Lakeside Cafe for breakfast and lunch. That's a big plus. The Buffington Harbor casinos have struggled with pavilion food service over the years, and Chops and Lakeside represent a major upgrade.
Empress has limited food service at the hotel, with continental breakfast.
**Harrah's East Chicago has an extensive room-service menu. So did Harrah's Joliet until recently, but it was dropped as one of the cutbacks in the wake of the most recent Illinois gaming tax hike. Other than the East Chicago room service, the Harrah's hotels have no food service of their own--but that's no big deal, considering they are under the same roof as the pavilion restaurants.
**Empress has an indoor pool with a whirlpool and sun deck. That makes Empress unique among Chicago-area casino hotels. Trump used to have a pool but found usage levels were low. The pool was filled in and the space used for other hotel amenities.
**Bottom line: If I had to pick one based on the hotel experience, it would be Harrah's East Chicago because of its proximity to the casino, 24-hour gaming and room service. But wherever you prefer to play, it's also a pleasant place to stay
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