Get in the Game

Casinos from Palm Springs to Coachella have become entertainment and resort destinations.



A top the Spa Resort Casino in Palm Springs is a penthouse guest room fit for a king (or a well-known bachelor, at least, but more on that in a moment). Stretching nearly 2,500 square feet, the suite has two bedrooms, a living room, a den, a wet bar, and a patio large enough to accommodate you and about, oh, 100 of your closest friends — provided not everybody wishes to be inside the private hot tub, because that seats only half a dozen.

The view from the patio is perhaps the finest in all of Palm Springs: To the west, the craggy face of Mount San Jacinto appears only inches away; to the east, the swaying palms and twinkling illumination of Coachella Valley shine in the distance; to the north and south, diffused sunlight creates the impression you are living in a painting.

The kicker? The room is literally priceless.

“The Penthouse Suite is generally reserved for our players,” says Joanne Hallert, director of hotel operations. “It can be rented to the general public only through our sales office. The casino likes to keep it available, obviously, for its most important guests.”

And what would those most important guests hope to pay for this room? Ms. Hallert is mum on the issue, saying only that it would be a “platinum level” player, which means precisely what one thinks it might mean.

That’s not to say you haven’t seen the room in action. “An episode of The Bachelor was filmed in here,” says Darlene Hirschhorn, director of marketing. “And there was this wonderful shot of ‘Bachelor Bob’ in the hot tub with the mountains in the background. It was so elegant, and we really had a lot of fun with it.”

Elegance and fun seem to be the raison d’etre for the burgeoning local casino culture. Once little more than smoke-filled Indian bingo parlors along the fringes of the valley, casinos have become year-round entertainment and resort complexes that are attracting the kind of elite visitor on which Palm Springs had first staked its reputation. That means an increased demand for luxury hotels. What it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that our local hotel-casinos will mimic Las Vegas’ “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” hedonism.

“The image here is evolving,” Hirschhorn says, “but the guests who take advantage of all the amenities we offer — the spa, the golf [at Indian Canyons Resort], and now the new casino — expect the quality, the service, and the elegance of what traditionally and historically the Spa and Palm Springs have been about: first-class relaxation.”

They also expect privacy. The Spa’s Platinum Club, hidden in plain sight behind ornate doors on the casino floor, caters to the wealthiest gamblers. Replete with high-limit slots and top-dollar table games, a fashionable bar and buffet service, and a Platinum Club-only cashier, it trades the ringing excitement of the casino floor for soft music, nearly one-to-one service during daylight hours, and a sense of quiet sophistication. “We treat everyone here like family,” Hirschhorn says. And what a family it must be. 

The zest for heightened relaxation has spread to the other local casinos, perhaps none more noticeable than Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio. Operated by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, Fantasy Springs recently debuted its sprawling 12-story resort, replete with 240 well-appointed guest rooms, and 10 luxurious suites with flat-screen televisions in every room (including the bathroom), a retail shopping concourse; fine dining at The Bistro and Players Steakhouse; and a pool area that includes a sand volleyball court, cabanas, and the most comfortable chaise longues this side of, well, Las Vegas. Mix in the chic Sunset View Lounge sky bar, known for its panoramic setting high above the desert floor (in fact, high above everything: Fantasy Springs is the valley’s tallest building), expensive cigar selection, and ritzy high-roller clientele, and you have a veritable oasis off Interstate 10. 

Part of what drives this push toward exclusivity may be related to the long-awaited completion of the Morongo Casino Resort & Spa in Cabazon, 20 miles west of Palm Springs. Open since December 2004, Morongo is cut more clearly from the Las Vegas mold: 150,000 square feet of gaming (including nearly two dozen tables of high-stakes poker), six ultra-private casitas (which include their own lounging pool), plasma televisions in every room, more than two dozen suites, a celebrity guest list that reads like an issue of Vanity Fair, and a night club with a growing reputation as a top weekend party spot for “young” Hollywood.

Unlike The Spa and Fantasy Springs, it seems Morongo Casino must provide even more accoutrements to lure wealthy players, if only because of its location. Whereas the casinos in and around Palm Springs can bank on the experience of visiting one of the nation’s top vacation destinations, Morongo has marketed itself as an alternative to Las Vegas, a ploy that has worked to high success but that requires an emphasis on flash over sophistication.

For today’s big-money player, that simply might be a question of how far a hotel will bend for its top customers. Both Hirschhorn at the Spa and Saward at Fantasy Springs have the same answer: very far, but within reason. “Everyone is a VIP here,” Hirschhorn says, noting that it’s common for wealthy guests (or big winners) to splurge on in-room massages, lavish spreads of fine cuisine, and exclusive holiday parties. Saward, meanwhile, says, “We try to keep our top players happy. Sometimes that means golf at Landmark or limo rides to Lakers games. And sometimes it means getting someone something particular to eat.”

Dining, indeed, has become one of the top draws for the casinos that operate without the benefit of a hotel. Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage (which, like the Spa, is run by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians) features Prime 10 Steakhouse, regularly noted as one of the top steakhouses locally. Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella (formerly Trump 29) has The Rattlesnake, a five-star restaurant and truly a culinary delight. Even Augustine Casino in Coachella — which caters primarily to a more middle-class player — serves hundreds of prime rib entrées daily at its Café 54 and will soon open a fine-dining restaurant. “The area is changing so rapidly,” says Executive Chef Jaime Angarita, noting the explosion of pricey residential growth surrounding the casino. “Our players will soon demand and expect it. It’s a natural evolution.”

Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of casino culture is that the craving for luxury is often satisfied in a moment. It’s precisely that opportunity that Joanne Hallert sees as the coming wave. “To be able to provide that escape without ever leaving is extremely important,” she says.

It certainly helps — local casinos seem to have learned, to have a room on top of the world — a fabulous restaurant or two, world-class spa treatments, championship golf, and, best of all, retreat.

If luck has its way, one can have all that, and more — for a couple quarters and a slot pull.

Palm Springs Life

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