This article was first published on TravelZork on November 13, 2017.
My first Atlantic City trip was in January 2010, and even though the tables were as cold as the weather, I immediately fell in love with the city. Standing on the boardwalk on a quiet, chilly evening with the city’s famous rolling chair operators outnumbering pedestrians, I was struck by the sense that Atlantic City could have been built just for me. So when people ask why I love the city so much, I usually reply that I feel like it’s “mine,” especially in the winter.
I’ve always had trouble articulating what that means in a way that doesn’t come off as backhanded or equivocal — “I love how empty it is!” doesn’t sound great — so when Cousin Vito asked me to be on his podcast to discuss winter in Atlantic City leading up to the December 2nd ZorkFest, I relished the opportunity to lay out my case.
As a kid who loved going to Ocean City, Md., more for the boardwalk than the beach, and as an adult who loves going to Las Vegas and Atlantic City more for the casino vibe than the actual gambling, Atlantic City is tailor-made for my vacation time. And unlike other beach towns in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, the casinos bring enough people that the boardwalk doesn’t totally shut down in the winter. Sure, if you want to buy a beach umbrella you’re going to have fewer options, but many of the fudge shops, pizzerias, and t-shirt shops are still open for business, albeit with reduced hours.
Convenience is definitely a factor in my appreciation of the off-season. It’s nice to stroll the boardwalk without the crush of beachgoers, or pop into a casino knowing there won’t be a long wait for the best video poker machines or a spot at a $10 craps table. The lack of crowds also means low rollers get treated better. Restaurant reservations are easier to get, room upgrades are more freely handed out, and show tickets are more steeply discounted. I should probably be embarrassed to admit that I get excited every year for the first post-Labor Day casino mailers, which invariably advertise big drops in weekend room rates. For low-level players, that’s always the first hint that it’s time to start mashing refresh on your Total Rewards calendar in hopes of a comped Friday or Saturday stay. But focusing on the lack of crowds undermines the unique charm of the snow-covered beach, the casino floors decorated for the holidays, and the seasonal shows.
Atlantic City is a relaxing place any time of year but it takes on an even slower pace in the winter. When I went with my wife last December, we got an $84 Saturday night rate at Bally’s and successfully used the $20 sandwich to get upgraded to a newly renovated Jubilee room. After checking in we did some Christmas shopping at The Walk outlets, then headed to Borgata for an amazing dinner at Izakaya, where we had our pick of tables. To finish the night, we had free tickets through MyVegas for the Human Nature concert (normally in residency at The Venetian Las Vegas). It was a fantastic trip, and the cold didn’t slow us down a bit.
— Tropicana AC (@TropicanaAC) November 18, 2017
In fact, right before a prior trip with my wife it snowed enough that we both got off work and were able to get to AC earlier in the day than we would have otherwise. Looking down on the snow-covered beach and boardwalk from our room at Caesars was a treat, and the fire pit at The Continental restaurant in The Playground pier is even more inviting when there’s a dusting of snow on the ground. Enjoying a meal and a cocktail while looking down at the ocean and the boardwalk and the casinos lit up at night is a quintessential Atlantic City experience that I always recommend to first-time visitors.
If you love holiday decorations, AC doesn’t disappoint. Starting in mid-November, Tropicana goes all out with their light display in The Quarter and has more understated décor in the Palm Walk. It’s one of my favorite places to be between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And if you can brave the cold for seven minutes, Boardwalk Hall’s exterior is lit up with a winter-themed 3D light show every half hour. While the entertainment calendar thins a little in the offseason, holiday concerts and live performances join the usual weekend headliners and comedy shows. (Tip: Tropicana is very generous with comp tickets to their annual “Holiday Jubilee” stage show. Check your email if you’re a Trop Advantage member.) There’s still plenty to do when it’s too cold to lie out on the beach.
After my brother’s first Atlantic City trip last year, we swapped lengthy emails trying to put our finger on how Atlantic City can be so different than Vegas but still so enjoyable, and the main difference he noted is how laid-back Atlantic City is. That may be surprising for a casino town if you’re used to the Vegas Strip or Fremont Street, but it’s less surprising when you consider that Atlantic City is a beach resort originally conceptualized as a health retreat.