Casino voyage marred; Gamblers livid over delays

by John Tedesco
Metro / South Texas

All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

PORT ARANSAS — Hours of delays and last-minute glitches Friday marred the maiden voyage of the Texas Treasure, a casino cruise ship touted as an economic bonanza for the Coastal Bend.

While in the international waters of the Gulf of Mexico, out of reach of state gambling laws, 900 guests spent the evening enjoying a slice of Las Vegas aboard the 420 foot-long cruise ship.

But the carnival-like atmosphere disappeared by the time frustrated guests disembarked — two hours behind schedule. The crowd ended the night by chanting, “Refund! Refund!”

Many guests said they would never come back.

“There’re some rough spots, no question about it,” said Mike Katz, spokesman for Viva Gaming and Resorts Inc.

Employees met Saturday to address problems the crew encountered, and company officials said setbacks were to be expected on the first trip.

Plagued by delays, Viva Gaming had rushed to get its first profit-making venture into the water. But they cut it close.

The Texas Treasure’s first patrons were greeted by the smell of tar and asphalt as construction crews worked on a parking lot and access road by the terminal.

Below deck, crewmembers loaded supplies, and in the casino, a drill screeched as workmen tried to install bank-teller machines.

The harried, last-minute preparations set the tone of the voyage. The ship was behind schedule as crewmembers swept metal detectors over each guest.

The sour note of the departure was made sweeter by a lounge act and rock band playing on two separate decks and a round of free drinks, courtesy of management trying to make up for the inconveniences.

At 8:05 p.m., an hour after the scheduled departure, the crowd on the sun deck cheered as the Texas Treasure went under way.

Cruising at a healthy clip of 21 knots, it took about 45 minutes to reach international waters nine miles away. Guests feasted on a buffet of seafood, roast beef and salad.

Eager gamblers staked out seats by slot machines and gambling tables.

“I like this one because no one’s on the side of me,” said Myrna Hunt of Corpus Christi, who was sitting at a $5 slot machine in the High Roller Lounge. “I don’t like crowds.”

At 8:50 p.m., the intercom system came to life.

“It’s now time to play,” a friendly voice announced. “The casino is open.”

Hundreds of slot machines flickered on, erupting into a cacophony of electronic tunes. Coins clanked as the winnings began pouring out.

Dice ricocheted at the craps tables and roulette wheels whirled. Within moments, laughter and cries of delight filled the cigarette smoke-filled air.

Vegas, baby.

At a blackjack table, Priscilla Wolf, sales manager for Lamar Outdoor Advertising in Corpus Christi, started the night with a run of good luck, at one point hitting “21” three times in a row.

“You can’t think of it as money,” Wolf said of her gambling philosophy. “You just got to think of the chips as pieces of wood. You can’t think, ‘Oh, God, that’s a mortgage payment.'”

Across the room, Missy Medary, an assistant district attorney running for the 347th District Court, had a tall stack of chips in front of her. By the end of the night, she was up $300.

“It’s all going to my campaign,” Medary pledged.

As the night wore on, pleas of gamblers, hoping to change their luck, emanated from the tables.

“Come on, honey, it’s my last 50 bucks,” one man said.

“Ain’t it time to reshuffle that deck?” another asked.

“Baby needs a new pair of shoes!” a gambler yelled to a stoic dealer. Several guests hoped the slot machines would be generous, figuring management would want to start the first voyage off with happy passengers.

One Texas Treasure employee said the payout ratios fluctuated throughout the ship, with the best slots situated in the High Roller Lounge.

The employee said the machines were generally set with conservative payout amounts, but Marty Gross, president and CEO of Viva Gaming, disputed that.

“All the machines have been very loose tonight,” Gross said. “I tell you that with no baloney.”

As he spoke, one behind him lit up — a man had just won $2,000.

In another area, Ellen Thomas, 65, hit triple dollar signs on her slot machine, winning $4,000.

Shortly after midnight, the machines turned off and the dealers closed their tables. It was fun while it lasted, the contented gamblers said.

Then came the long trip home.

Scheduled to return by 1 a.m., the Texas Treasure took an extra two hours to dock in Port Aransas.

The bar had closed and the bands stopped playing. A crowd began gathering near the exit, hoping to be the first ones to leave.

The minutes dragged by and the patrons grew restless. Packed like cattle inside the ship for more than an hour, the room grew stuffy and complaints flowed freely, with one man in the back making cow noises.

“This is going to get ugly,” said John Holsonback, the owner of a Corpus Christi irrigation company.

The Texas Treasure eventually docked, and a loud thump could be heard as the plank was moved into position. But still the exit did not open, and crewmembers offered no apologies or explanations.

Instead, they stood like bouncers in front of the exit, as if to block an escape. At 2:50 a.m., a woman near the door began screaming frantically, insisting she get off the ship.

The crowd began chanting: “Refund! Refund!”

At 3 a.m., hope flickered when the exit finally opened and a faint breeze filtered into the room. The crowd jostled to get outside.

The crew, standing silently as guests left the ship, bid no one farewell. They seemed just as happy the cruise was over.

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