If you walked into a Southern California casino 20 years ago, you probably experienced a smoky tent, not a luxury resort. Now, many of Southern California’s Native American tribes have built full-fledged complexes resembling those in Las Vegas, complete with all the amenities that draw throngs of people to Sin City. And those who don’t have plans yet.
Sure, there are a lot of people who love trying their hand at Lady Luck, but there’s also a large number of people who go to casinos to enjoy luxury pools, well-known entertainers and a wide variety of restaurants, from casual cafes, to utilize at high-end steakhouses.
“A casino can be an anchor, but that’s not the only attraction,” Christopher Thornberg, director of the UC Riverside School of Business’s Center for Economic Forecasting and Development, said in a phone interview. “Las Vegas is really about pools, beautiful hotels and entertainment, and I think California follows that model.”
In recent years there has been a boom in Southern California casino expansion and inland resort construction as properties added hotel towers, luxurious pool complexes, more restaurants and upscale entertainment venues featuring a variety of A-list acts.
“For us, it wasn’t the gaming experience that we needed to expand,” said Jared Munoa, President of Pechanga Development Corporation. “We saw a greater need for a complete resort experience because we’re not just a casino.”
In the last year, Pechanga Resort & Casino completed a $300 million expansion; San Manuel Casino has broken ground on a $550 million expansion and Soboba Casino’s new property is under construction and is scheduled to open in Q1 2019 with completion in 2020.
Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa announced plans for a major expansion in January, but in the meantime the current casino is being transformed with new gaming rooms, restaurants and casino floor updates.
“The economy is part of the equation,” said Saverio Scheri, chief operating officer of Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, of the area’s surge in casino expansion. “There’s a level of comfort and people are using the disposable income for entertainment.”
Pala Casino Spa & Resort unveiled its new pool complex in May and updated the casino floor design. A new car park has opened and the restaurants have been refurbished along with a new bar and an improved smoke free area. However, Pala has also put on hold construction of a new hotel tower and plans to remodel hotel rooms. Casino officials have said they will announce later this year what they intend to do with the new and existing hotel rooms.
Casinos and their resorts are an increasing part of tourism in Southern California. (Cover design by SCNG)
“We want to see how the market will hold up,” said Bill Bembenek, Pala’s chief operating officer, referring to the other Southern California casinos adding accommodations. “We’re not in a situation where we feel like we’re lagging behind in the market, we can see where we are.”
But officials at properties like Highland’s San Manuel Casino see an opportunity to grow beyond gaming and dining.
“We saw a great need for a hotel and guests were asking why we didn’t have a hotel,” Loren Gill, general manager of San Manuel Casino, said in a phone interview. “We want to build a full-fledged entertainment destination.”
Take a look at our 2018 Southern California Casinos Guide to find out where to eat, what to do and how to relax, and get a glimpse of what’s in store for the area in the recent housing boom: