Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Locally, Casino Cruises a Gamble; Low Turnout and Better Opportunities Elsewhere Seem to Keep Gaming Cruises from Flourishing

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Locally, Casino Cruises a Gamble; Low Turnout and Better Opportunities Elsewhere Seem to Keep Gaming Cruises from Flourishing

Article excerpt

Byline: ALISON TRINIDAD

Bad business and better opportunities seem to have put Jacksonville-area gambling cruises on choppy waters, leaving only one still sailing -- the SunCruz VI out of Mayport.

Fernandina Beach lost its lone casino ship in late March, a dinner-cruise outfit that docked at the city marina about a year ago. The Escapade Casino was sold, renamed the Diamond Girl II and moved to South Carolina.

Meanwhile, in a $2.7 million deal, La Cruise Inc. owner Dewayne Williams sold about 2.5 acres of waterfront property in Mayport to a residential developer in December and January. Lee Utley, a La Cruise spokesman, said it leases land from the new owners to operate its restaurant, La Cruise Dockside. It hasn't sailed its casino ship from Mayport for about a year, since first docking there in 1993.

That leaves the SunCruz VI, one of five Florida gambling ships operated by Dania Beach-based SunCruz Casinos. The company, the state's largest gambling ship operator, has been in Mayport since 2001.

The come-and-go nature of gambling ships isn't new to the area or the state. But, in the last year, the number of those ships cruising from Florida's ports has dwindled from 17 to 10.

Jean Walder, executive director of Florida's Day Cruise Association, said offshore gaming is a strong business in Florida, where sailing is possible nearly 12 months of the year. According to statistics from the Florida Ports Council, the number of passengers on casino cruises rose 14.7 percent from 2000 (3.4 million people) to 2004 (3.9 million people).

But it's hard to predict, Walder said, which cruise operators survive and where. "It's not an easy industry," Walder said. "It's an industry that is very labor intensive."

There are healthy casino ship operations in Brunswick, Ga., Myrtle Beach, S. …

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