DOVER, Del. -- At first glance, the exterior of Dover Downs doesn't exactly conjure more famous gambling venues such as Las Vegas or .
You won't find long stretches of glittering casinos, hotels and nightclubs. No excessive bright neon lights and blaring signage. The resort is off a busy highway and commercial corridor, with no boardwalk, beach or desert in sight.
Yet Dover Downs has its own brand of low-key appeal, one that draws thousands of visitors annually.
"Our amenities stack up extremely well with Vegas and , but the attitude is 100 miles south," says Edward J. Sutor, executive vice president/chief operating officer of Dover Downs Gaming & Entertainment Inc. "It's easygoing, and our employees have Southern hospitality. It's slower in a very nice way."
Named best "racino" by Strictly Slots magazine, the 840-acre Dover Downs complex boasts an array of attractions, courtesy of some $150 million in property improvements over the past eight years.
Among them is a $60 million, 232-room luxury hotel built in 2002; expanded casino space; an 1,800-seat performance center/sports pavilion; bars and lounges; an exercise room and indoor pool; a gift shop and on-site conference facilities.
Guests can try one of seven dining outlets, such as the Garden Cafe; the gourmet restaurant Michele's; or the 400-seat Festival buffet where the bounty includes pizza, a potato bar and steamed shrimp.
Dover Downs' offerings also include seasonal harness racing, complete with a simulcast area, an enclosed grandstand and dining room, plus theme parties for events such as the Preakness and Kentucky Derby.
Finally, the resort is home to Dover International Speedway, which is operated by a separate sister company and holds NASCAR racing each June and September. The track seats 140,000 people.
The motorsports track ties in with Dover Downs' early history, which dates back to 1969.
Back then, the farmers who still populate parts of this area brought their horses down for harness racing; the tracks doubled for stock car racing.
For decades, horse racing thrived in Delaware, but by the early '90s, the industry was struggling financially, forced to compete with the lottery and other gambling options.
In 1994, state lawmakers passed the Horse Racing Redevelopment Act, aimed at saving the industry with slots revenue. The bill spurred economic development through the limited expansion of gaming and legalized slots gaming.
According to Sutor, the plan has proven a boon to the local and state economy, providing financial support to horse owners and farmers, infusing money into state coffers and creating more than 1,000 jobs.
Wild about slots
Despite all that's available at Dover Downs, the name of the game here is slots.
Because Dover Downs doesn't have gambling tables, slot machines reign -- colorful, clanging and emblazoned with catchy names: 5 Time Gold, Deep Pockets, Double Diamond Haywire and Rich Girl.
"We have 2,500 slot machines," says Sutor. "You can play $100 on down to a penny."
During a recent weekday visit, the casino floors were a hotbed of visual and auditory stimulation -- music, the sound of quarters plopping into plastic cups, and even ceiling decorations (one mural is a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel).
Security guards patrol the area, and waiters serve cocktails to a diverse roster of guests.
Casino officials place the median age of visitors between 40 and 60 (an estimated 60 percent are women), though a fair share of 20- and 30-somethings come, too.
What draws 'em? In many cases, the promise of mega-jackpots.
"Before slots, the total paid out in purses was around $8,000 in one night," says Sutor. "Now that number is around $180,000."
There's a concerted effort to attract and maintain serious gamblers -- high-rollers -- while providing incentives to more casual players.
For instance, patrons can earn cash or gambling points for giveaways, such as weekend stays at the hotel (which primarily serves casino customers, but has blocks of rooms available for leisure travelers).
Jan and Tom Bowman from Laurel earned a free hotel weekend -- and used it recently to celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary.
"We come every six months," says Jan. "It's our first time staying at the hotel, and the accommodations are excellent."
Dover Downs also is beginning to adapt high-tech methods used by many other casinos across the country.
For instance, as a courtesy for patrons who don't want to carry cash, the facility offers front money deposits and slot credit. They're also in the process of implementing a ticket in, ticket out (TITO) system, which has gained popularity in some Las Vegas casinos. Players would receive all or a portion of their payment in a ticket form.
Still, the team at Dover Downs knows that not everyone wants to gamble.
The Rollins Center entertainment pavilion offers an alternative. The 1,800-square-foot ballroom hosts one performance event a month, with top acts from Bill Cosby and Johnny Mathis to casino king Wayne Newton.
The site also doubles as a boxing hall and has held bouts for Baltimore's Hasim Rahman and other contenders.
Having recently welcomed tens of thousands of NASCAR fans, Dover Downs is now gearing up for its next major event, an outdoor summer concert Aug. 15.
Some 20,000 fans are expected for Crosby, Stills & Nash, Credence Clearwater Revisited and Peter Frampton. Also scheduled to appear are David Clayton Thomas, Blood Sweat and Tears and Bo Diddley.
"Some are calling it the Delaware Woodstock," says a chuckling Sutor.
Dover Downs Slots is at 1131 North DuPont Highway, Dover, Del. 19901. Call 800-711-5882 or 302-674-4600 or visit www.doverdowns.com. Take U.S. 50/301 across the Bay Bridge. Follow U.S. 301 North to Maryland Route 302, making a right turn at mile marker 102. Turn right on Maryland Route 454 at Templeville. Route 454 becomes Route 8 at the Delaware state line. In Dover, turn left on U.S. 13 North. Dover Downs is approximately two miles on the right. Dover is about 50 miles from the Bay Bridge.
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