Fast Ferry Foxwoods trip worth the gamble
The New England Fast Ferry Company (NEFFC) recently took a gamble in offering a day trip to Foxwoods Casino and Resort, and Vineyarders ended up the winners. For $69, $11 over the price of a round-trip fare from the Island to New Bedford, the casino package includes the ferry ride, bus transportation to Foxwoods, three Keno tickets to get you started, and an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch.
The casino package is a new addition to New England Fast Ferry's trip lineup, which has included holiday shopping and concert trips in the past. "This is just another way New England Fast Ferry is reaching out to the Island to let them know we're not just trying to get the tourist dollars, but also offering fun activities for Islanders along with service year-round," said John Tiernan, Island Terminal Manager.
One of the main buildings in the Foxwoods Casino and Resort complex, visited by an estimated 871,000 Massachusetts residents last year. Photo by Janet Hefler
The idea for the casino trip came from James Barker, one of the company's investors, Mr. Tiernan said. NEFFC worked out a deal with Foxwoods for the buffet and Keno package and Tremblay's Bus Company to provide transportation, running the trip on several Tuesdays and Saturdays since May.
When my editor offered me the Foxwoods assignment, I told him I would even drag my husband Pete with me in the interest of better reporting.
Mention the word "casino" and many people feel compelled to tell you, "Oh, I don't gamble." However, some of them sure do. According to the "New England Casino Gaming Update 2006," published by the Center for Policy Analysis at UMass Dartmouth, about 20 percent of all adults in Massachusetts went to a casino in Connecticut last year.
Connecticut must love those Bay State day-trippers, as the same report shows they indirectly contributed approximately $122.9 million to the Connecticut state treasury in 2005, and helped boost Foxwoods's revenues to $1.16 billion last year.
When it came time for our trip a few weekends ago, our 23-year-old son Brien, who has never forgiven us for going to Las Vegas several years ago without him, happened to be in town. We sprang for another trip ticket and made it a family affair, figuring you have to bond when you can. I also rationalized that a picture of the family sitting at slot machines might provide the only group photo opportunity for this year's Christmas card.
Inside one of the casinos, gamblers try their luck at some of Foxwoods' 7,400 slot machines. Photo courtesy of Foxwoods Casino and Resort
Saturday morning we had to roust Brien (no easy feat for a nocturnal 23-year-old) in time to catch the fast ferry leaving Vineyard Haven at 7:45 am. On board, the spacious cabin, which holds up to 200, offered us and about 40 other passengers plenty of comfortable seating.
The hour-long trip passed quickly. Arriving in New Bedford, we found the Tremblay's charter bus and driver Orlando Mendes with no problem. We hoped a gregarious group of Island gamblers would be joining us on the bus, and were surprised to find we were it.
After we crossed into Connecticut and exited onto Route 184, we had no clue that the surprisingly rural, two-lane country road headed to the giant casino complex, until we saw the first sign for Foxwoods at a rotary seven miles away.
The distinctive sign caught my eye, with its white fox standing beneath the black silhouette of a tree against a blue background. Foxwoods is owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation (MPTN), known as "the fox people."
After a few more miles of rolling countryside, suddenly, at the crest of a hill, the casino complex loomed up on the horizon like a castle in a fairy tale, with its cream-colored buildings and turquoise rooftops.
The bus trip took one hour and 15 minutes. The minute we arrived, Irene, one of Foxwoods' almost 11,000 employees, hopped on the bus and gave us our buffet and Keno tickets, along with a quick orientation.
Advertising itself as the largest resort casino in the world, Foxwoods offers 7,400 slot machines, including 1,200 in a self-contained, smoke-free casino. The complex also features 400 table games spread throughout 6 casinos, and of course, Keno. Off-track betting is available, as well, and high-stakes bingo in a hall that seats 3,200. Hotel accommodations include 1,400 rooms and suites.
Foxwoods opened in 1992, with plans to operate 16 to 18 hours daily. "At midnight on the opening day, there were so many people, we couldn't close if we wanted to," said Bruce MacDonald, media relations manager. "We just held one shift over, called the other one in early, and we have never closed since."
When our family wandered into one of the casinos on Saturday morning, there were plenty of seats available at the slots. We snaked our way past the high-rent dollar-slots district to reach the nickel slots, a good place for conservative (a.k.a. cheap) players.
We then realized we had no clue how they worked - the slot machine window displayed five symbols across on three lines, and you had to pick the number of lines and the number of bets. Pete and I each stuck $5 in a machine and started pushing buttons. I was happy to discover my machine was a true "one-armed bandit," hoping the extra seconds it took me to pull the lever might slow my losses.
In the meantime, a man standing near Pete took pity on him and offered him a few tips. Pete promptly won $9.70 and true to his New England thriftiness, declared he was done for the day. However, it was only 11 am and I realized I had 5 hours to go with my fun date.
Brien decided to spread his wings and moved on to the 25-cent slots, so I bribed Pete into playing longer by giving him some money (which also works at home with chores). A half hour later, we managed to break away, despite the sense of timelessness that surrounds gamblers in a place without windows or clocks - a trick no doubt learned from Las Vegas.
A stroll through a cavernous hallway takes gamblers to a shopping area where they can spend their winnings in 24 stores and over 29 food and beverage places that offer everything from a hot dog to a $40 steak.
We met up with Brien for our free buffet lunch in a restaurant area that made me feel as though I had wandered onto a land-locked cruise ship.
After lunch Brien headed back to the slots. Pete and I took a post-buffet waddle instead, and discovered an MPTN exhibit room set up to entice visitors to an 85,000 square-foot museum a mile and a half away. Curator Pat Miller recommended we take the casino's free shuttle bus service to the museum to see a new exhibit on ice age mammals, but we did not have enough time.
Heading back to the slots around 3 pm, we found most of the machines occupied and the pace picking up. I sat down for one last $5 run, next to a woman gambling vicariously for the three friends who surrounded her, cheering and clapping with every pull of the lever. I would have bet my last nickel they were all former cheerleaders.
Fortunately, our departure time forced me to quit while I was ahead. On the way to the bus, Brien, Pete and compared our fortunes. I won $20 from my free Keno tickets, Pete $5 and Brien $10. Between wins and losses, I came out $5 ahead and Brien $20 ahead. Pete, of course, was the big winner, walking out $35 richer. Win or lose, though, we all agreed we had had fun.
Mr. Mendes expertly drove us back in time to catch the 6:30 pm ferry. Arriving in Oak Bluffs at 7:30, we waited less than 10 minutes for a Vineyard Transit Authority bus back to our car in Vineyard Haven.
Mr. Tiernan said he hopes more Vineyarders will try out the Foxwoods trip and get the numbers up so NEFFC will continue to offer it. Round up a group of gregarious Island gamblers, and call 1-866-683-3779 for more information.
Looking to the future, Foxwoods plans to get bigger and better. In an alliance with MGM Mirage in Las Vegas, Foxwoods recently launched a $700 million development project to include a new 825-room hotel tower, another casino with 1,500 slot machines and 45 table games, meeting and convention space, and a 4,000 seat performing arts center, scheduled for completion by spring of 2008.