While Reno thrived as the countryís divorce capital in the Ď30s, Las Vegas would not be far behind. In 1939, Vegas caught a huge break when Maria Langham arrived for a six-week stay in order to divorce Gone with the Wind star Clark Gable. Reno was no stranger to celebrity divorces, but the city didnít take advantage of what they had in the manner that the early Las Vegas publicity machine did. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the Las Vegas Review Journal and arranged for Maria to pose for photos in a variety of Las Vegas hotspots. The story, and accompanying photos, received national attention and Vegas soon began to capture a piece of Renoís divorce market.
Vegas casino owners catered to divorce seekers in ways Reno casino operators never envisioned. The El Rancho Vegas, The Stripís very first resort, not only brought in customers waiting out divorces, it kept them there. With a steakhouse, swimming pool, drugstore, barbershop, outdoor activities, live entertainment, free breakfast buffet, and a setting designed to let divorce seekers mingle, the El Rancho Vegas blew Reno offerings out of the water. Other hotel operators followed suit, the publicity engine was unrelenting, and Las Vegas overtook Reno as the nationís divorce capital.
Renoís reputation as the top gaming destination suffered a similar fate. Just as the El Rancho hotel outdid Renoís best in terms of accommodations for those seeking divorces, its casino outshined Renoís top gaming establishments. At nearly triple the size of Haroldís, arguably the premier casino in Reno at the time, the El Rancho Vegas started a trend of doing things bigger and better. The Ď40s also saw the introduction of the Last Frontier, The Thunderbird, and the legendary Flamingo, all of which greatly expanded upon the concepts that had been tested in Reno for the last decade.
Despite the Flamingoís turbulent start, it set a new standard for casino resorts and proved to founder Bugsy Siegelís mob partners just how profitable the casino business could be. Backed by mob money, Las Vegas resorts became goliaths. The Sands opened with 200 rooms, the Riviera with 300, and the Stardust with 1,000. Casino floor space ballooned and revenue soared in ways Renoís pioneers couldnít have imagined. Not only that, Las Vegas poached some of Renoís best and brightest. Wilbur Clark, founder of the famed Desert Inn, was a successful Reno gambler and casino employee before leaving for Vegas. Pit boss Jack Duffy and casino operator Bernie Einstoss similarly left the city for new opportunities in Las Vegas.
As Las Vegas took over as the nationís top entertainment and gaming destination, Reno looked for new ways to draw tourists. The 1960's Winter Olympics, hosted less than an hour away at Squaw Valley, were a large draw. Virginia Street, perhaps best described as Renoís version of The Strip, saw the addition of bigger, grander casinos. In 1964, the Primadonna expanded and added 20-foot tall ladies that dazzled at night. Harrahís introduced a four-star steakhouse and, later, a 24-story luxury hotel tower in 1969.
In the Ď70s, Reno saw a small surge of growth. The El Dorado, Circus Circus, and Fitzgeralds opened on Virginia Street, while massive Vegas-style resorts like Atlantis, Peppermill, and the MGM Grand Reno debuted in the surrounding areas. Despite the introduction of these new entities that could rival Vegas in terms of amenities, crowds did not materialize and the Reno market soon became over-saturated. Adding to the trouble was the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City. When its first casinos opened in 1978, they further drained Renoís customer base. Renoís oldest casinos were the first to feel the impact. The Mapes, Haroldís, and Nevada Club all disappeared. Even the newer resorts were stretched thin, fighting for shares of a market too small. The MGM Grand Reno was sold in 1986 and became Ballyís. In 1992, it filed for bankruptcy and became the Reno Hilton. It still operates today, now as Grand Sierra Resort, following a 2006 buyout.
Reno continued to struggle with oversaturation into the Ď90s and early 2000s, when it was dealt another hefty blow via the introduction of Indian casinos in California. After losing so many of its visitors to Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Reno became reliant upon customers from more local areas like San Francisco. Once Indian casinos began to emerge, gamblers no longer felt the need to make the trip to Reno. Gaming revenue declined, and more properties shut their doors. The Virginian, a 16-story hotel on Virginia Street, closed in 2004. Fitzgeralds, which once brightly lit the Reno strip and sat directly beside the iconic Biggest Little City arch, was shuttered for renovation in 2008. Both still sit vacant today and serve as very big reminders of what once was a vibrant stretch of real estate.
Gaming in Reno will never be what it once was. The market is still oversaturated and the city is still struggling to deal with the results of expanding beyond demand. In the past three years, Circus Circus, El Dorado, Silver Legacy, and the Siena have all filed for bankruptcy. Many of those that have avoided such measures have gone without maintenance and updates for some time.
The layout of casinos in Reno today has strangely evolved to be a mirror of Las Vegas. The Virginia Street strip, which decades ago outpaced its Las Vegas counterpart, has fallen into disrepair. With former giants now standing as empty shells, and once impeccably maintained resorts becoming grim and grimy, the area seems remarkably similar to the version of Fremont Street that housed an empty Binionís hotel and where an abandoned Lady Luck could be found nearby. And, as Renoís off strip mega-resorts seized revenue that once kept the strip alive, they have secured their places as Renoís top gaming destinations. Just as the The Strip is the place that canít be missed in Vegas today, itís the off strip properties in Reno that are the stars.
Among the off strip resorts is Peppermill. Like MGM Grand and The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, the 1,600-room resort holds a AAA Four Diamond rating. With 10 restaurants, a nightclub, 33,000-square-foot spa, multiple pools, health club, impressive poker room, and lots of convention space, Peppermill offers nearly everything you can find at a Vegas mega-resort.
Atlantis, another off strip resort, also holds a Four Diamond rating. Like Peppermill, it offers all the luxury amenities that Las Vegas resort guests are accustomed to. If youíre a fan of themed casinos, you will appreciate its tropical motif. With indoor waterfalls, abundant plant life, and even a cave under which to gamble, Atlantis is a unique place to play.
What you wonít find in these off strip resorts, or anywhere else in Reno for that matter, are the wallet-draining super productions that Vegas has used to offset declining gaming revenue. While there is fine dining, donít expect to feast at any place with a celebrity name attached. If youíre hoping to catch Calvin Harris, Kaskade, or Tiesto, head eight hours south. The few clubs here donít attract names that big, although they do come with cover charges about a tenth the size. Likewise, pool parties and stage productions are miniscule in scale.
What you will find are the bargains and budget-friendly games that Vegas was once known for. Renoís slot machines are looser than those in Vegas, even Downtown Vegas. In 2013, Vegas slot hold (including video poker) was 6.7%. In Reno, it was just over 5%. On the Las Vegas Strip, finding a decent Blackjack game is nearly impossible. Itís either play $25 a hand, or head Downtown in search of the few remaining 3:2 games. In Reno, $5 tables are the norm, and few casinos dare to insult gamblers with 6:5 payouts. Casino restaurants and buffets offer deals that canít be beat. The average nightly hotel rate, $80, is about 20% lower than in Vegas. And, thereís no such thing as long hauling.
Renoís best offerings, however, are found outside the casino walls. The city is an outdoor loverís paradise. In the winter, the proximity to Lake Tahoe and some of the nationís top ski resorts makes Reno an excellent vacation base. Squaw Valley, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Heavenly, Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, and quite a few others, are just a short drive away. Most hotels offer stay-and-ski packages that can make an otherwise costly trip affordable. During the summer, Reno is home to virtually every outdoor activity you can imagine. Golfing, kayaking, and mountain biking are just the start of the options.
The days of Reno dominating the gaming and entertainment industries are long gone, unlikely to ever return. The city is still recovering from the wounds inflicted first by Las Vegas, then by Atlantic City, and most recently by Indian casinos that conquered the local markets. The surviving resorts continue to face financial difficulty, but havenít given up. They await a resurgence. Perhaps convention business will rise. Or, maybe that 2026 Winter Olympics bid will pan out. It will take something monumental to restore the city to its former glory. In the meantime, Renoís off strip hotels are ready. They may not have the extravagant shows and swanky dining options that Vegas is now known for, but they do offer the superior odds and budget buffets that it once was.
To those who are considering substituting Reno for Vegas, donít. That is, unless you are a Vegas veteran who knows exactly what you want: Classic Downtown Vegas gaming in a Strip-style resort. If you long for themed casinos and favorable odds, and can forgo the lavish Vegas entertainment offerings, you might find yourself in love with Reno.