Casino-goers flock to TV-themed slot machines

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Staff Writer

This is how powerful a hold television has on America: Even when people are gambling at a casino, the pull of favorite TV shows is irresistible.

Slot machines traditionally have paid off on cherries, oranges, plums and bars, and had names such as Double Diamonds, Red Hot 7s, and Red, White and Blue. They have been joined and, in many instances, surpassed in popularity by slots with TV tie-ins: Deal or No Deal, Jeopardy, The Price Is Right, Miami Vice, I Dream of Jeannie and the all-time champion, Wheel of Fortune.

Without a sign of Pat and Vanna, Wheel of Fortune has spun its way into gambling history.

“It’s the most popular slot machine ever,” says Steve Calabro, vice president of gaming for Magna Entertainment, parent company of Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., where slots and poker now compete with horseracing for gamblers’ attention.


One gambler, Pam, said on a recent afternoon at Mardi Gras Gaming that she and her husband are regulars. He heads for the poker room, and she looks for a Wheel of Fortune machine. “I love it and I hate it,” Pam said. “I hate losing money, but I love playing the game.”

The affection for the game stems in large part from the opportunity to hit big with a bonus spin of the wheel, which looks just like the one on TV. Those who get lucky are rewarded with multiples from 15-to-1 to 1,000-to-1 on their wager.

A tourist from Montreal, Gaetane, said she watches the TV show regularly and looks for Wheel of Fortune machines whether she’s vacationing in South Florida or Las Vegas. It’s all about getting to spin the wheel. “That’s why I play the game.”

Calabro, who has been in the gambling business for more than a quarter century, remembers introducing Wheel to the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City when he worked for Donald Trump. “It was an immediate home run,” he said.

More than a decade later, Wheel is still circling the bases around the clock, an unprecedented achievement. “Traditionally slots have a lifecycle of 18 months to three years. Most last about two years. Wheel of Fortune has completely bucked that trend,” Calabro said. “Ten years from now, it will still be hot. The customers demand it.”

“Wheel is without question the most successful slot game there is,” said Dan Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras Gaming. “If I could buy Wheel of Fortune machines,” said Mardi Gras director of slots Mike DeLucca Jr., “I would buy all of them.”


Unfortunately for casino owners, this isn’t possible.

“About 70 to 80 percent of slot machines you buy,” Adkins says. “Wheel of Fortune, you have to lease.”

The additional recurring expense is worth it, according to DeLucca. “Most of the time, every Wheel machine is taken. You have to wait to get a seat at one.”

The same is true at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., according to Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the casino. “It’s hard to find a seat at a Wheel machine when it’s busy.”

Familiarity is an asset, Bitner said. “People know the title. Also, it’s tall and colorful.” Wheel’s profile in a casino also is elevated by a choruslike “Wheel … of … Fortune” chant heard when someone qualifies for the bonus spin.

“It’s really noisy,” said Gaetane, hoping to hear those magic words herself.

A fairly new jumbo-size Wheel of Fortune carousel, at which multiple gamblers can play simultaneously, has made the game even more of a presence on casino floors. The bonus spin is probably the biggest factor in Wheel’s popularity because it fosters a perception that it pays better than other slots. Wheel was a pioneer in offering a secondary element to traditional slots, which pay off solely on matching symbols. Wheel does this, too, but adds a bonus spin if certain icons stop in the right places.

Bonus rounds are now commonplace on the latest generation of slots, but none has the cachet or instant recognition of Wheel of Fortune.

Steve Bourie, the author of the American Casino Guide, concurs that Wheel is “the most popular slot machine ever made.” However, he wonders whether the bonus round isn’t calibrated to pay out a certain percentage over time just as the more traditional slot machines are. “I believe it’s predetermined, but there are people in the industry who will tell you both sides,” Bourie said.

No longer dreaming of Vice

It is a fact of life in all casinos that the greater the wager, the higher percentage the return. Dollar machines pay back a greater percentage than quarter machines, which pay more than nickel machines, which pay more than penny machines.

The latter are misnomers of a sort. Although it’s possible to play a single cent, a typical wager is a dollar or more to cover all the potential winning lines.

Other slots with TV tie-ins, such as Deal or No Deal, might be exceptions to the rule of predetermined paybacks because of the way the bonus round is designed, Bourie said. Just as on the TV show, the player has an opportunity to take a deal tendered by the machine or to continue in pursuit of a greater payoff.

I Dream of Jeannie operates in a similar manner. The bonus round challenges the player to pick genie bottles, each with a number that increases the payoff by that multiple. Mixed in are several game-ending bottles, which abruptly kill the bonus round. How quickly this happens depends on the player’s choice of bottles.

Like the TV show, Jeannie has fallen out of vogue and is difficult to find these days. So is another TV-themed slot, which you would think would have endless appeal in South Florida. The space on the Mardi Gras slots floor now occupied by Deal or No Deal used to be filled by Miami Vice. Crockett and Tubbs have been canceled again.