ATLANTIC CITY - During a weeklong family vacation in Ocean City last summer, John Wisniewski suggested an evening buffet at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.
Under one condition:
"With blinders on," the father of two sons, then 4 and 1, said, half-joking. "We literally went in and left right after we ate.
"There was concern over my boys seeing behavior appropriate for a casino, but not appropriate for a child," said the 34-year old broker from Yardley. "A casino is an adult place."
The Wisniewskis' willingness to spend their vacation dollars in nearby Shore towns, but reluctance to take their children to Atlantic City casinos and stay overnight, underscores a tension that could make Gov. Christie's plan to overhaul this gaming town into a family-friendly resort particularly challenging.
Outside Boardwalk Hall on July 21, the governor made no bones about whom he wanted to see more of on the beach, pacing the Boardwalk, sampling the restaurants. "We need to make Atlantic City into a destination resort and make it a family resort," he said.
But his plan for a transformation that seems to call for somehow melding the sexy glitter of a Las Vegas with a socially and economically revitalized New Brunswick faces an uphill fight.
The Atlantic City of today does not have the look or feel of a family-style oceanside resort such as Ocean City, Md., or the Outer Banks in North Carolina. Visitors to Atlantic City rarely bring children. The only place to stay overnight here now is at a casino hotel or seedy motel, raising several questions:
Can a decaying city dogged by a reputation for being unclean and unsafe, with an outdated transportation system, inadequate airport, and potholed streets, make such a transition?
After more than three decades in the driver's seat, what role can the city's foundering casino industry possibly play in a new Atlantic City, and will that future entail having fewer casinos?
And what, besides gambling, can support Atlantic City for the nine months between summer crowds?
Historically, casinos and families don't mix.
Las Vegas had family attractions as early as the 1950s, with places like the Last Frontier Village, modeled after an old Western town.
It rolled out a string of family-friendly attractions throughout the 1990s: the medieval Arthurian theme at Excalibur, pyramids and Egyptian motifs at Luxor, and pirates at Treasure Island. MGM Grand opened in 1993 with an extensive Wizard of Oz theme, complete with an elaborate yellow brick road. By 1996, the Oz-like casino was out, and by 2000 the theme park was shuttered.
Before the family experiment of the '90s, the proportion of visitors bringing underage (21 and younger) children to Las Vegas was 8 percent, the same as today, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
"The campaign was a failure. Why?" said William Thompson, professor of public administration and a gambling expert at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Consider that children want two things from parents - time and money. The same two things that casinos want from the parents.
"It becomes a competition," he said, "and the kids become a guilt trip."
The city remains an adult playground and unabashedly so. Hence, its slogan, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," coined in 2002, and its nickname, Sin City.
Casino operators such as Harrah's Entertainment Inc., which owns nine casinos in Las Vegas and four in Atlantic City, take seriously their adult orientation.
"Harrah's position has always been that casino gaming is appropriate only for our adults," said Jan Jones, senior vice president of government relations and communications for Harrah's. "We would never market our casinos as family vacation destinations, and [we] make certain that casino entertainment is limited to adults."
Nevertheless, Christie seems committed to seeing Atlantic City become a family playground.
"Gov. Christie has jumped head first into the pool," Tom Carver, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the state agency that uses gambling proceeds for statewide redevelopment projects, said last week. Under the governor's plan - which needs legislative approval - all revenue collected by the CRDA would remain in Atlantic City.
"It's the first concrete step coming along the lines of what everyone in Atlantic City has wanted for Atlantic City," Carver said, "but up to now there's been no vision. [The governor] has established a road map."
It's a journey where the casinos could well end up taking a backseat. Instead of being the main draw, as they have been since the first gambling palace - Resorts - opened on May 26, 1978, they will become just one of the city's attractions.
"I think the casino industry has reached that point and come to recognize that," Carver said. "Frankly, when the times were good and money was rolling in, the majority of the casino industry didn't care what Atlantic City looked like."
Suddenly, it can't be that way anymore.
"They recognize that now because of the competition that's here," Carver said. "It's had a far greater effect on Atlantic City than the [casino] operators thought."
Competition is so daunting that Christie's call to turn Atlantic City into "the Vegas of the East" seems untenable.
The city faces not only intense competition from Pennsylvania casinos, but also from the continual buildup of two Connecticut casino powerhouses, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun; the ramp-up to table games in Delaware and Pennsylvania; and the opening of the first slots parlor in Maryland and SugarHouse Casino on the Philadelphia waterfront, both coming at the end of next month.
"Even with Gov. Christie's backing, New Jersey casinos face an uphill climb to come back," Moody's Investors gaming analyst Peggy Holloway wrote last week. "Conveniently located, state-of-the-art facilities superior in quality to New Jersey's aging casinos have recently begun operating in neighboring states."
When California Indian casinos came on the scene in 2000, Las Vegas had already begun a radical makeover to compete. Led by moguls such as Steve Wynn, Vegas introduced the Super Casino, starting in 1989 with the Mirage, which was fronted by an erupting volcano and had everything under one roof, including an elegant hotel, a shopping mall, and restaurants. The Bellagio, Venetian, and Mandalay Bay of the late '90s took it to the next level.
Then came the celebrity chefs, elaborate shows such as Cirque du Soleil's, and big-name acts - Siegfried and Roy, and later Cher and Celine Dion, to name a few - that drew visitors from Europe and Asia.
Nongambling attractions now make up 54 percent of Las Vegas' revenue. In Atlantic City, the comparable figure is 10 percent. International travelers account for 14 percent of visitation to Vegas, and less than 5 percent to Atlantic City.
"I think Atlantic City can definitely be more things to more people, just like Las Vegas is," said David G. Schwartz, a gambling historian and director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV. "When Atlantic City can attract the same percentages of convention guests and international travelers to supplement the day-tripping slots players and weekend gamblers, the city will be in much better shape."
Under Christie's plan, the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority, the resort's chief marketing arm, will be folded into a larger, state-controlled entity, called the Atlantic City Tourism District. The plan estimates that the casino industry potentially save $15 million to $25 million from streamlined regulations, and that the savings should be put back into the proposed district.
It calls for improving marketing of "Atlantic City" as a brand, increasing the use of Boardwalk Hall, and going after a larger share of the meetings and conventions business - reaching at least 30 percent per year for the next five years.
Carver at the CRDA knows much work lies ahead for that to happen. There are 17,100 hotel rooms in Atlantic City's 11 casinos, far short of the 25,000-room minimum to be considered a serious convention town. Las Vegas, where conventions make up 15 percent of business, has just over 148,000 rooms.
In addition, Atlantic City International Airport needs to be expanded for conventioneers and international tourists to get here. City streets need to be widened. Dilapidated homes gutted. The list goes on and on.
"We've got to redefine the Boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue, our front door," Carver said, "and the perception people have when they come to the city."
Soon, he said, one of the first things to greet visitors will be an entertainment district - a full square block of outdoor stages, nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, called AC Live! - as part of an expanded Walk, the outlet mall in the heart of downtown. The CRDA is also in discussions to develop other nongaming attractions along the Boardwalk.
"The main event should be, 'I'm going to Atlantic City,' and not, 'I'm going to the Borgata, Caesars, or Showboat,' " Carver said. "The city has to be the destination."
But there's that underlying tension.
Wisniewski, the father of two, said he would go to Atlantic City with his wife, Nancy, in two weeks for a show at Harrah's Resort. But his sons will stay home with a babysitter.
"Quite frankly, I think the only way they can pull out of this is to not make it a family-friendly place," he said. "They should really try to step up their adult business, like Vegas, and bring in the big acts, the A-listers, the top clubs - if they want the big money coming from New York.
"Let Ocean City, Cape May, and Sea Isle City take care of the families," Wisniewski said. "Atlantic City needs to establish its niche in the adult market."
With that, Wisniewski and family plan to board a plane Sunday from Philadelphia to Orlando for a 10-day stay at Disney World.
Gov. Christie's advisory commission named these goals for reviving Atlantic City:
Make the city "clean and safe."
Create a plan to entice "both gaming and nongaming attractions."
Attract "world class operators" for existing and new casinos.
Increase meeting and convention business at least 30 percent annually.
Reduce gaming regulation "while maintaining strict integrity."
Market the city "on par with other national destination resorts."
Increase air, rail, and ferry options for travel to Atlantic City.