Yes, the walls were a fresh bright red, and long-awaited slot machines covered two floors at Dania Casino and Jai-Alai. But there was something else unique at the 61-year-old fronton.
A crowd of about 300 lined up 30 minutes before Thursday night's VIP opening (there were a lot, a lot of people on that A List). Many of the men wore suits and the women wore cocktail dresses and were greeted by a smooth-sounding singer and keyboardist downstairs and a dance-music group upstairs. (Fusion and Cachet.)
Argentinian media surrounded talk show host and actress Susana Giménez, who even found time to sit down for some poker. Some of their coverage is here and more is here. (Air time of three minutes in one and five minutes in another; that's significant coverage.)
And there was also an old Dania feel going on, enhanced by a lot of people who had frequented the venue back when attendance approached 5,000 and the sign outside proclaimed it as "Dania Jai-Alai Palace." Those people all said they like what is just the start of a renovation, and the opening of just one-fourth of the casino. Some have waited more than a decade.
"I wanted to see what they did to my place," said Barbara Lewis, who worked at the fronton as a bet runner in 1961-62. "And I have to say I am pleased."
Others also remember the glory days of jai-alai, when fans flocked to watch and bet on such players as Joey Cornblit. Lisa Esdale was a cocktail server from 1986-88, when she caught the eye of a patron named Steve -- who is now her husband.
"Joey came to our wedding," she said.
Steve noted that he won five amateur tournaments when Dania had such a program.
And Dania Beach Mayor Walter Duke noted that his HOLLYWOOD HILLS class of 1978 (I had it wrong earlier) held its graduation at the fronton auditorium. He and others congregated near the Cesta Lounge, the renamed bar anchored in the corner of the old poker room. The supersized TV and smaller TVs remain.
Prices have gone up: it's $9 or $10 for a burger or chicken sandwich with fries. Fried calamari is $7, loaded nachos $10, draft beer is $4.50 and specialty drinks $11.
Officials said the existing casino is more of a stopgap move to get slots operating and some cash flowing into the property. Four Argentine businessmen, who own 26(?!) casinos in South America, own 75 percent of Dania Casino, and employees say the three-quarters of the building that is being refurbished will be much nicer. The first phase, which officials called ‘Phase 0,’ cost $20 million; the work that will take at least a year will be another $80 million.
That said, the 550 slot machines and 12 poker tables could be plenty busy, if Thursday night was an indication. The poker tables drew plenty of Dania regulars -- guys in casual clothes who frequented the poker room the past few years even as the building rotted -- and even the Sun-Sentinel's metro columnist and Dania devotee Michael Mayo took a seat. The poker room is offering $500 high hands every 15 minutes from 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday. More promos will be announced later.
The slots have most of the usual titles, including a nice row of Diamond Lotto machines on the first floor. Electronic roulette and blackjack also are worked in nicely.
Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming bought the fronton for $152 million in 2006, when Broward County voters approved slots. But Boyd officials chose not to renovate, citing a 50 percent tax on slots and nearby competition from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. (The state lowered that tax to 35 percent in 2010.) Boyd eventually took a massive loss on the purchase, selling it for $65.5 million in May 2013. The Argentine businessmen are partners with four locals who own 25 percent.
Dania becomes the eighth horse track, dog track or jai-alai fronton in Broward or Miami-Dade counties to offer slots since state voters approved a referendum via a 50.8 percent vote in 2004. The pari-mutuels then led countywide referendums for approval, with Broward's passing on the first try and Miami-Dade requiring two shots.