The Seminole Tribe of Florida already lays claim to profitable casinos at each end of the state and now it’s creating a gambling (and more) getaway out in the middle of nowhere.
But it’ll take time.
On Thursday, tribal officials at their Big Cypress reservation about 30 miles south of Clewiston unveiled a 36-machine slot room, part of a greater plan to expand their Billie Swamp Safari attraction.
“We’re going to start out small and hopefully we’ll get big someday,” Tribal councilman Mondo Tiger said.
The Seminoles opened Billie Swamp Safari in 1993, offering airboat rides, swamp buggy tours and Indian folklore, and draw about 100,000 visitors a year, they said. In 2007, they added about 50 slot machines in a tent that was known to have its share of snakes and other critters meandering through.
Now, the Seminoles have slots next to the Swamp Water Café, a wooden structure similar to the dining hall in any summer camp movie you’ve ever seen. They plan to break ground by the end of the year on a larger casino at Billie Swamp Safari, with an entertainment lounge and maybe a poker room.
Seminole Gaming CEO James Allen said the tribe has a database of 3 million casino patrons, and a quick survey indicated that visitors to the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood would be open to a day excursion into the Everglades via Alligator Alley to Mile Marker 49 and then 16 miles north. They'd take in Native American culture, food and maybe a few pulls on the slots.
“We were shocked at how many people were interested,” Allen said. “We think we could give them a gaming experience combined with an authentic Seminole meal, storytelling and nature walks, for example."
Allen added: "We're 100 percent committed to seeing this happen. But the first thing we had to do was get out of that tent."
Big Cypress is easily the smallest of the seven casinos the tribe operates. (The 36 slots are about 1.5 percent of what’s in the Hard Rocks in Tampa and Hollywood.) The reservation is home to about 500 of the tribe’s 3,700 members and has a school, police station, sports fields, senior center, churches and a cemetery. Profits from Big Cypress are pooled in with all the Seminoles' other casinos, which are shared across the tribe, as per federal guidelines.
On Thursday, a couple from Poland was among those visiting Billie Swamp Safari, taking an airboat ride, swamp buggy tour and checking out Native American gifts such as plastic alligator heads, headdresses and handmade crafts.
“It’s different and it’s fantastic,” said Michael Hoppe, who saw a flyer in his Miami hotel and talked his wife, Anna, into stopping on their way to Orlando.
Said Anna: “I like that they try to keep their traditions, and they teach it to their children.”
The tribe also thinks gamblers from South Bay, Belle Glade and other towns near Lake Okeechobee could make Big Cypress their local casino. The machines had a variety of offerings, including Stinkin' Rich, Deal or No Deal and two video poker machines. Most of the machines were penny, nickel or quarter minimums.
More info: 800-949-6101 or SwampSafari.com.
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