On one recent night, the Puerto Rico Convention Center District was deceptively quiet with a few party buses idling by and a girl taking selfies beside the massive pillars of the iconic shell-like structure. At the luxurious Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel lobby, a few couples were lost in their conversation over drinks, while others lined the bar to partake of liquid spirits and the latest entertainment emanating from screen above.
But inside the casino, it was a different story. The room buzzed with the sounds of people and pleasure, the bright lights of giant slot machines, and the music of a band that was equally as adept at local and U.S. rhythms. Animated conversation punctuated the music at the packed bar that dazzled under the light of a resplendent chandelier.
Suddenly, the band broke into a lively rhythm and a singer intoned a familiar tune: Happy Birthday to You.
A casino may not seem likeliest spot to celebrate a birthday but that just shows how Puerto Rico casinos are no longer just a place to pursue jackpots. Island casinos have transformed into one of Puerto Rico’s newest entertainment alternative where the public can seek diversion and visitors to the island can get a taste of the local color, not to mention try out their salsa moves.
“Casinos have reinvented themselves,” said Ismael Vega, general manager of the Casino Metro. “They’re a place where you can have a drink, enjoy music, where there is safety and Wi-Fi. It’s no longer where you go play.”
That’s not to say that casino play and games of chance have taken a back seat. Casinos still have a solid clientele of aficionados and you’ll find serious play at the roulette and black jack tables and the feature latest evolutions in gaming. Visitors who like to play will love that local casinos’ enticing promotions and special drawings tied to play and featuring trips, cars and cash. But by expanding casino offerings to include different kinds of live entertainment and a dance floor for the nimble, casinos have boosted their appeal and are a draw for anyone looking for some fun and entertainment. Not only do casinos have their own bar, but they often sport their own restaurant or deliver from other restaurants within hotel premises.
Live musical entertainment and broadcasting major sporting events are by now a staple at island casinos and can be enjoyed primarily on weekends, with some hotels bringing in local or outside groups for special occasions.
Casino Metro at the Sheraton Puerto Rico, the largest casino on the island and that is celebrating its ninth anniversary, offers live music at night from Thursday through Sunday but, at least once a month Metro Stage Live presents a special show. Past acts have included a magic show, a troubadours’ competition, and performances by the likes of Pedro Capo, El Gran Combo and Grupo Mania. The casino, that has 27 table games and 474 slots, has a video wall as its focal point where boxing matches, movies and promotions are showcased.
At the Costa Caribe Casino, at the Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino, you’re likely to hear groups playing salsa and merengue on Fridays and Saturdays but on Sundays things get mellow and the trio groups that perform take listeners back to the good old days with Bohemia music. One popular entertainer who gets invited several times a year to perform at Costa Caribe is troubadour Julio Cesar Sanabria. He is an admired performer of decimas, jibaro country music rooted in medieval Spain and traditionally played with a cuatro, guitar and güiro, or scratch gourd. According to Casino Director Samuel Alicea, Sanabria has no trouble, if asked, turning the first name and last name of a casino client into a rhyme for a decima.
Miguel Vega, president of HI Development PR Corp., which runs Tropical Casinos at the Hyatt Place in Bayamon and Holiday Inn in Ponce and Mayaguez, said all three casinos hold special events on holidays like Christmas or observances like Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. Entertainment at the Tropical casinos includes live music and stand-up comedy. They even celebrate the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian, the traditional four-day festival honoring Saint Sebastian that is held every year in old San Juan around mid-January. The Fiestas, which draw hundreds of thousands of people to the cobbled streets of the old city, feature musical events, art shows, and a parade of characters representing the folklore of Puerto Rico, including the Cabezudos, large papier mache faces of famous folks.
Another casino whose entertainment calendar celebrates the local culture is Oasis Casino at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Isla Verde. The casino, which has 180 slots and seven casino tables, considers itself one of the best on the island for its multi-level progressive jackpots and computerized player tracking system. Every summer the casino holds a month-long Fiesta Patronal patterned after the patron saint feasts held by Puerto Rican towns island-wide. To make the activity more realistic and colorful, artisans are invited to sell their crafts and carts are set up to sell local delights such as piraguas (syrup covered snow cones), ice cream, and chicharrones (fried pork rinds).
The hotel also holds its version of the Fiestas de San Sebastian except that it calls them Las Fiestas de la Calle Oasis. As part of the event, which also takes place in January, t-shirts are sold and are quite a collectible item. When not playing at the casino, a person is likely to go there to watch a sports game on one of the casino’s giant screens, eat dinner at El Patio restaurant then step to the bar area to listen to music and dance. Live music is played on week-ends and leans towards merengue, salsa and Bohemia.
Starting in January, Oasis will begin a renovation of its 7,000-square-foot space to be carried out in sections so as not to disrupt normal operations. Cosmetic improvements will include the ceiling, rugs and new tablecloths for the gaming tables.
The San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in Condado has music on week-ends not inside the casino but in the nearby lobby area. The hotel hires bands to play varied types of music and every two months there are private concerts for casino members. The Ballroom brings in international artists and famous local talents like Francisco Cespedes, Danny Rivera, and the Sanabria Family. Other shows booked by the hotel include comedy and impressionist acts and pay-per-view boxing events.
At the Hyatt Place in Manati, a short distance from Puerto Rico’s stunning Mar Chiquita Beach, the Casino Atlantico offers a changing program of entertainment at its popular Blu Bar. There is live music on week-ends and performances by the likes of Tully Diaz, Rafael Jose, and Son Ardiente. With 8,800-square-feet of space and 303 slot machines in addition to six gaming tables, Casino Atlantico is the newest casino on the island, having opened five years ago.
Puerto Rico currently has 16 casinos. Some casinos open all night, others have shorter hours of operation. One thing they have in common, though, is holding regular promotions designed to encourage players to visit more often and increase their wagering. In September, for example, one lucky player won a $20,000 Corolla in one of many promotions the Oasis carried out throughout the year. Another popular prize is cruises and Oasis has gifted cabins on cruises sailing to the Bahamas, Cuba, the Caribbean and Mexico. At the Ponce Hilton, the casino celebrated its 25th anniversary this year by disbursing some $25,000 in cash prizes, including a grand prize of $10,000.
Of course, if you are a regular player you might consider becoming a casino member, which confers any number of benefits and privileges. But even without a membership card, players get courtesy drinks and snacks while they play. At Marriott’s Stellaris, players get courtesy refreshments, beers, liquor, coffee, chocolate, and piña coladas. For a snack, they are served hot dogs, hamburgers, sandwiches, soup, or oatmeal. On special days, ice cream, and complete meals. They also have a Chinese restaurant inside the casino – fresh food at a moment’s notice. Players can accumulate points which they can exchange for food, cash or hotel stays.