At first glance, Hollywood Casino Aurora looks like a typical casino. It’s got the grand entrance and the big parking lot, and, inside, there are rows upon rows of slots and table games.
But the casino is anything but typical; it’s part of the dying breed of riverboat casinos that are moving from water to land as gambling becomes more widely accepted in the United States.
Earlier this year, Penn Entertainment, the casino’s owner won approval from the Illinois Gaming Board to move the casino from the calm waters of Fox River to the dry land of Stolp Island. The casino’s future move punctuates the final chapters of what once was a thriving industry in states where gambling was once taboo.
Riverboat casinos resolved a morality problem for gambling decades ago
While the American public widely accepts casino gambling and sports betting, it wasn’t always that way. Decades ago when society, as a whole, was more conservative, many viewed gambling as a scourge to moral society than it is now.
Consider this passage in a 1998 article from Church News about gambling:
“I suggest the following:- Don’t do it. Don’t touch it. Don’t even try it. That includes everything from the lottery to raffles to hard-core betting. Once you make the decision to never gamble, you don’t hesitate when faced with temptation. Just decide now to not ever be involved in it. “
In Mississippi, opposition from religious groups was fierce as the state considered legalizing riverboat casinos. The following passage from Resorting to Casinos: The Mississippi Gambling Industry illustrates that pushback:
“Perhaps the most serious threat to casinos in Mississippi came from efforts by Christian conservatives in 1998 and 1999 to place an initiative on the ballot that would ban all noncharitable forms of gambling from the state within two years of approval.”
With such stringent opposition to gambling, casino supporters in states such as Louisiana had to get creative.
Riverboats provided a sufficient solution to the morality problem. Moving gambling to boats that ambled their way up and down rivers would keep gambling out of sight and out of mind.
As Nola.com‘s James Gill pointed out in a 2019 article, the idea behind riverboats “was to ensure that gambling would be kept at a discreet distance to preserve the young and innocent from its corruptive influence.”
Not only did riverboats keep gambling away from the public view, but they also skirted anti-gambling laws because they took place on the water.
“The most obvious reason for riverboat casinos was that water presented a clever loophole to avoid the growing anti-gambling laws in the country,” BetMGM noted in a blog post. “These pesky laws were spurred by religious groups that were unsatisfied with the growing industry and the inevitable crime that tailed it.”
Riverboat casinos move from the river to the dock
Major riverboat casinos in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Illinois are stationary. They float in place; gone are the glory days of massive paddle wheels slowly pushing riverboats up and down the Mississippi River.
Aside from riverboat travel dying with the emergence of train and car travel, running a casino on a river cruise schedule just isn’t practical. There’s more revenue with a riverboat that stays in one place. So, as time went on, casino owners pushed lawmakers to allow riverboat casinos to dock.
The efforts worked. In the early 2000s, lawmakers in Louisana, for example, rolled back laws that limited casino gaming to boats that regularly sailed.
“The cry constantly went up for more moolah, so one by one legislators lifted all the restrictions they had imposed,” Gill wrote. “Boats would do more business if they didn’t sail, for instance, so they were allowed to quit doing it and run games without interruption.”
Illinois followed a similar timeline. Riverboat gambling was legalized in 1990, and nine years later, lawmakers changed the rules to allow gambling on docked riverboats.
Moving from docks to dry land is a matter of casino economics and safety
Over the past five years, two of the country’s three main riverboat states have all passed legislation that allows riverboat casinos to move onto dry land:
- Louisana: In 2018, new legislation let the state’s 15 riverboat casinos move onshore.
- Illinois: In 2019, a new law allowed the state’s 10 riverboat casinos to move to land.
Mississippi adjusted its laws to allow riverboat casinos to move to land in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina decimated the coastal riverboat casino industry.
The shift in those three main states, particularly in Louisana and Illinois, reflects Americans’ growing comfortability with casino gambling. Operators no longer have to relegate their gaming facilities to river excursions. Athina Zisi, a former operations coordinator at Bet365 and COO at Energy Casino said:
“The cultural acceptance of gambling has evolved, and the need for riverboat casinos as a workaround to local opposition has diminished. The shift to land reflects a broader acceptance of casino gaming in many jurisdictions, such as Louisiana, where riverboat casinos have been a significant part of the local gaming scene.”
Additionally, Zisi noted, moving to land is a matter of stability for casino economics and safety.
“Moving to land provides a more stable and secure environment for operations, allowing for more control, stability, and potential revenue generation,” she said. “Some riverboat casinos have faced challenges due to natural occurrences like hurricanes, further emphasizing the need for a stable environment.”