Island Breeze executives hope the gambling winds blow favorably. Owners of the refurbished ship, which sails out of the Port of Palm Beach, launched a soft opening March 15 but are now ready to go full-sail.
No other Palm Beach County venue offers slots, and because the ship goes into international waters to gamble, the Island Breeze also can offer live craps, roulette and a sports book. Land-based casinos in Florida can't.
Before the Seminole Tribe of Florida built its gambling empire, and back when horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons depended on pari-mutuels as their core business, single-day cruises were the quickest portal to casino gambling. Since the Seminoles and racinos arrived, one-day cruises have sunk, including the SunCruz (2007), the SeaEscape (2008), the Palm Beach Princess (early 2010), the Discovery (2011) and the ship that became the Island Breeze, the Black Diamond (2013).
The only other gambling cruise ship operating in South Florida is Genting's Bimini SuperFast, which sails to Bimini and back. The SuperFast, which launched last year, has full gambling on the ship and while at Bimini.
CEO Bradley T. Prader's group bought the Black Diamond and spent more than $3 million renovating it with brighter lights, an enclosed third floor and more vibrant decor. The process took about a year.
"We said, 'We could get it up and running quickly,' but we didn't cut a single corner," Prader said.
The team is a collection of professionals from the gambling industry, Prader said. Chief Operating Officer Sean McManimon was a manager at Resorts International in Atlantic City, and other senior staffers have experiences in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
The staff enclosed the third floor to create a poker room and party room that could hold charity events. He said the ship often will have $5 blackjack tables running, but during busier cruises, the minimum could go up.
The first floor is non-smoking; the second floor allows smoking. Both floors have slots and table games and a bar. Gamblers get free drinks, which racinos aren't allowed to offer and the Seminoles do only for high rollers.
"We're willing to give things to get people here," Prader said. "The people here are very discerning, and we need to offer a product in line with the market."
Jamie Gold, the 2006 World Series of Poker Champion, will appear regularly in the poker room, and sit at the table and play with passengers.
"Jamie is an attraction and he does have a following," he said. "He's a great addition to our team." Gold ran a poker room at the Las Vegas Tropicana that closed in 2012.
Ruth and Frank Smith of Jupiter enjoyed playing roulette during a recent trip and say they'll be back again. The two, who have been married 54 years, said they cruised on the Palm Beach Princess and the Black Diamond when they were here.
"They did a fantastic job," Ruth Smith said. "You would never know it was the same boat."
The ship holds 550 patrons. The Island Breeze sails under the U.S. flag, and employs a staff of 260, which will grow to 300 or 350 when they hit their targeted passenger load, Prader said. Bus companies from the north and south will bring patrons to the port.
The cruise costs $10 and sails from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 6:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. A buffet lunch bought in advance is $10 and dinner is $15; onboard it's $5 more. Go to iBreezeCasino.com.