At last count, there were at least 140 cruise ships around the world offering casino gambling. The cruise ship industry uses casino gaming as an added amenity for their customers, but casinos are not designed as the primary reason for a cruise.
Although shipboard casinos are similar to land-based ones, there are differences. In Las Vegas or Atlantic City, the hotels, restaurants and shops are all there to serve the casino customer. On cruise ships, just the opposite is true. The casinos on cruise ships are considered a bonus for customers rather than the main attraction. On the other hand, the so-called cruises-to-nowhere ships, whose primary purpose is gambling, offer little else except a couple of hours of sailing and lots of gambling. These boats simply go outside territorial waters and cruise around for six hours while their passengers gamble.
On cruise ships, the first thing you’ll notice is the casino hours of operation. They will vary somewhat, but while at sea they usually open around noon and continue to operate into the early morning. While in port, almost all countries require shipboard casinos to be closed. Many cruise lines are also starting to offer Players Club programs similar to their land-based competitors. These club programs include a cash-back system allowing for on board purchases, points for future cruise discounts, and other special player incentives.
The games, rules and limits are similar to those found on land-based casinos. Blackjack, craps, Caribbean Stud poker, American roulette, video poker and slots are the standard games found on most ships. Poker is popular with many players, and you can even find many cruises that offer a large poker tournament program.
Remembering that ship casinos are different from land-based ones, cruise lines don’t want you to experience big losses while on a cruise; therefore, they do enforce some restrictions. Betting limits ranging from $3 to $300 are common on most ships. Slots with denominations ranging from five cents to five dollars can be found on all ships, with a few offering $25 slot machines. Free gaming lessons and lower minimums are commonly offered during the afternoon periods.
Through the years, Florida voters have consistently disapproved ballot measures to allow land-based casinos to operate in their state. (There are now many Native American casinos opened that offer full Las Vegas type games.) This led Florida to acquire the most cruises-to-nowhere ships of any state in the country.
However, New York, Georgia, Massachusetts and South Carolina also have gambling cruises to nowhere, but with a very limited fleets. Most of the gambling ships are small in size by Las Vegas standards, but all offer the standard casino games such as blackjack, roulette, craps, Caribbean stud poker, video poker and slot machines. Some ships that sail into the Atlantic can accommodate 1,400 to 1,800 players, but most are designed to operate with 200 to 400 players a day. Cost for a cruise ranges from free to $30 and many include a buffet. (I’ve met some patrons who just enjoy the cruise and choose not to gamble at all while on board.) Going on a cruise and doing some gaming while on board can add a new experience to your gaming know-how.
Bet – You Didn’t Know
• Under U.S. law, gambling ships must be outside the three-mile limit on the Atlantic and Pacific coast. However, they must be beyond the nine-mile limit in the Gulf of Mexico.
• The gambling ship Johanna Smith operated off the coast of Long Beach California in the 1920s and '30s. The ship was a former lumber carrier until she was purchased in 1928 and converted to a gambling ship that sat in international waters off California. After several incidents with the law she caught fire and sunk in 1932; divers can still go down and visit her remains to this day.
• In 1961, Cunard Steamship Line began a trial of 20 slot machines on the Queen Mary ocean liner.
• The S.S. Rex, a gambling ship that was moored three miles off the California in the late 1930s, ended up being put into war service in World War II. It was later captured by a German submarine and sunk off the coast of Africa.
• In 1963, actor John Wayne brought an old navy minesweeper and called it “Wild Goose.” When he had the ship refurbished, he made sure it had a wet bar and a poker table.
• The Oasis of the Seas, at 1,187 feet in length from bow to stern, is the world’s largest cruise ship. It also offers the largest casino at sea. You can find 464 slot machines and 27 table games in the 18,000 sq. ft. casino.
• In October 1492, sailors aboard Columbus’s ships threw away all their playing cards thinking they were bringing them bad luck. Almost immediately afterward, land was spotted.
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