Frequent guest on ECG, JMP, took a trip a little south and off the coast to the Hollywood Casino in Charles Town, West Viginia and shares his thoughts on the casino, food and gambling.
JMP Went to a Casino in West Virginia and All You Get is a Trip Report!
Okay, lest you readers think ol’ JMP has a) developed a major gambling problem and b) has been 86ed from every casino in PA and NJ which would lead him to seek out gambling in the hills of WV, let me explain: I spent the better part of last weekend supporting the graveyard shift at work in their Herndon VA office. I had my mornings and afternoons free and, prior to departing PA, didn’t even consider the possibility of visiting a casino. Then, I saw the signs for Hollywood Casino in WV on the way down (via 15 South, not 95). I still didn’t seriously consider it because, quite frankly, it’s been a long time since grade school and US geography class, so I had no idea that there are parts of WV that’s about 1 hour away from Northern VA.
Charles Town WV (not to be confused with the State Capitol of CharlesTON) is in one of those parts and, like I already said, they have the most recently minted ‘Hollywood Casino’ in the Penn National Gaming portfolio. Prior to Fourth of July weekend and live table games, it was merely “Charles Town Races and Slots”, but the arrival of table games also brought the Hollywood addition, both in name and in space.
Since I don’t have nearly the history in WV that I’ve had in SE PA, I’ll have to go to Wikipedia for some background (hope you don’t mind!): the race track has been there since 1933 and slots (VLTs) came in the late 90s. There’s also a 150 room inn, although it’s not attached to the casino.
Armed with the knowledge that, yes, it was ‘close’, that table games had arrived and brought renovations with it and that their ‘Epic Buffet’ was much better than average (more on that later), I decided that a journey to WV was a good way to kill an afternoon. I began my journey around noon, taking 267 West to 7 West. Soon, however, the luxury of these 4 lane highways gave way to the rural-ity of VA 9, which was one lane in each direction and rather curvy in parts. I strongly recommend only taking this particular route during the day; if you want to go to the casino at night, try and find a route that incorporates more of 15 and 340. If you choose to go during the day, though, you will be rewarded with some stunning views as valleys and such open up before you. It reminded me in many ways of driving in Ireland, minus the sheep. Oh, and if you’re listening to the rock station DC 101, be prepared to have it turn into a Christian rock station immediately upon crossing the border into WV. Spooky, right? Not quite ‘Dueling Banjos’, but jarring nonetheless. Luckily, DC 101 returned a few minutes later. But I digress…
Hollywood Casino was about 10-15 minutes from the border and was like an oasis in the middle of ‘not much else’. I drove in through the main entrance, passed ‘The Inn’ on my right and made my way to the west parking garage (all parking is free, btw). This turned out to be a good choice as it clearly was just built as part of the recent renovations and you end up in the newly-opened ‘Hollywood’ part of the casino. All I can say about this space is ‘WOW!’ They really did an excellent job replicating the art deco style of 1930s/40s Hollywood. As I explored, I found self-service soft-drink stations and the small subset of table games that was actually open. Since these games were new and it was a Saturday, I was not surprised the minimums for blackjack and craps were either 25 or 50. There was also roulette (couldn’t see the mins) and also a few 3CP and Pai Gow Poker tables off to the side. I saw a Baccarat pit that may have also contained some other Asian games like Pai Gow Tiles (I didn’t venture in to confirm/deny). I think the final goal is for 85 tables (not counting the poker room), but they’re not quite there yet.
I then made my way through an entranceway and that’s how I discovered that this complex has been around for some time and had gone through numerous earlier additions. My first stop was also a Hollywood-themed space, however it was more like an homage to different film genres; there was a little sci-fi area, a little area with fake palm trees, and so on. Moving on, I found a Western-themed space and what was either a ‘Manhattan financial district’ or an “early Washington DC” space; I still haven’t decided. Somewhere in there I signed up for their slot club and got nothing in the way of coupons or offers; boo! As I continued my self-guided tour, I saw some advertisements for $10 in slot play if you gave them your email, so I found another slot club booth but learned that they email you the voucher and you can use it on your next trip. Again, boo! Also note that, up to this point, I had seen ZERO video poker machines. Triple boo!
Still, there was one thing that could make all this negativity go away and that was if the Epic Buffet lived up to the reviews I had read on yelp.com. To cut to the chase, it did. This is a magnificent buffet; if it was in AC, it would rank just behind the Borgata and Harrah’s; that’s how good it is. I paid just under $16 for lunch (plus a $3 tip) and just about everything I tried was a winner (fried chicken, BBQ spare ribs, mashed potatoes, onion rings, tortellini Alfredo, hot dogs, grilled yellow and green squash and assorted other veggies). Since it was lunch, the carving station featured turkey or ham (no beef) and I didn’t try either; I’m guessing beef only shows up for dinner. The only ‘bad’ thing I had was their attempt at General Tso’s chicken, which was drenched in soy sauce. I’ll chalk that up to the supposition that most West Virginians think Chinese food is nothing but chunks of meat and veggies drenched in soy sauce; in short, they just don’t know any better. But everything else was great! Seriously, if I lived just over the border in ‘plain old’ Virginia, I would probably eat at this buffet at least once every two weeks.
My belly full and my desire to get back to my hotel well ahead of my shift approaching, I made my way back through the newest part of the property and FINALLY found a bank of 8-10 Game King VP machines. Now, I don’t condone VLTs in any way shape or form, but I did plan on running a twenty through some JoB just to see what happened. However, between the fact that some of the machines were out of order and the rest required you play TWENTY CREDITS at the 25 cent level (in other words, $5 a pull) to have a shot at the jackpot, I decided that Mr. Jackson was just fine where he was and left. Yes, I realize that merely just turns a ‘quarter machine’ into a ‘dollar machine’ but I still didn’t appreciate the bait and switch.
Other items of note; the casino is smoke free and the waitresses are easy on the eyes. I didn’t drink anything, so I’m not sure if drinks are comp’d.
All in all, it was a pretty good way to spend an afternoon. Every employee I encountered was super-friendly (especially the guy who thought my Green Lantern t-shirt was classy!) and the property was very nice. For those of you wondering why I didn’t accuse them of “overbuilding for the neighborhood” like I did Parx, let me retort. Building a very nice themed casino in the middle of ‘nowhere’ is not overbuilding precisely because you have a theme. If they had gone only with ‘luxury’ as the theme, as Parx did, I’d have the same gripe. Instead, though, they’ve got this Hollywood thing going on, which is a little bit luxury, a little bit kitschy and a whole lot of fun. I’d say once they get all their tables up and running and the hype dies down (which will bring the table minimums down with it), it’s worth a look from those of you within a 1.5 hour radius.