By Michael E. Miller
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By Luther Campbell
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Few of those on-board know of (or care about) the ship's colorful history. According to Collins, the Tropicana was built in 1966 at the Cockrell Boatyards in Hoboken, Belgium, and christened the Princess Paola in honor of the woman who would become that country's queen in 1993. The Belgian government built the ship exceedingly heavy, with lots of steel reinforcement to withstand the turbulent North Seas where the Princess Paola would see extensive duty as a ferry. A decade and a half later, a Greek shipping concern headed by international wheeler-dealer Takis Kiriakidis purchased the Paola for $28 million, plunked it into the port of Piraeus, renamed it the Sea Palace, and literally cut the ship in half to lengthen it 60 feet. Collins will not speculate as to how the Guinness Mahon Bank of England, which financed the Kiriakidis deal, wound up with the boat, but they did. Guinness Mahon sold it to British investor Graham Kornish, who renamed it the Tropicana after the renowned casino in Havana. Eventually Kornish, too, would lose the boat back to Guinness Mahon. The bank then leased the vessel to day-cruise armada SeaEscape, who operated it out of ports in Texas and on both coasts of Florida. SeaEscape experienced some financial problems of its own, and in 1991 the boat went into dry dock.
Collins tendered an offer to purchase the ship in early 1994, but Guinness Mahon, holding out for a higher price, turned him down. But the Bank of Tokyo, which acquired Guinness Mahon at about the same time Collins made his offer, ordered the nonperforming asset liquidated. And suddenly Fred Collins found himself in the gambling cruise business.
"They were tired of losing money on the boat," Collins remembers. "And I paid cash. They weren't about to finance another sale." His memory, so clear on the other details of the boat's past, mysteriously fogs up when the question arises of exactly how much Collins paid. The proud new owner does allow, however, that he spent nearly eight million dollars on renovations, including the installation of state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and high-tech slot machines that enable the Tropicana to offer daily slot machine tournaments, as well as player tracking, multiple jackpots, and frequent-player discounts.
The Thursday-night blackjack tournament is only one factor among many drawing people aboard the ship. It sails seven days a week, with evening gambling cruises every night, a full-day excursion to Bimini on Saturday, and five-hour gambling jaunts every afternoon except Monday and Saturday. While the number of passengers varies widely owing to seasonal tourism and weather conditions, the ship usually carries between 150 to 300 people (maximum capacity is 850) who have paid anywhere from a minimum of $19 for port charges alone on one of the five-hour cruises to as much as $49 (plus $35 port charges) for the Saturday trip to Bimini.
A Tropicana cruise can even make a nice, cheap date for nongamblers; for the price of a dinner at a moderate restaurant, you get a Vegas-style floor show (without the partial nudity), palatable buffet-style dining, duty-free shopping, and that romantic magic conjured up by the wind blowing through your hair as you slice through the water into a night full of stars (or, during the daytime, as you bask/frolic by the pool). Just be aware that most of your fellow cruisers are there to gamble, not gambol.
To a serious blackjack player, taking a gambling cruise is a little like being trapped inside a mediocre hotel in Reno for five and a half hours. The ship's casino is closed when you arrive, and anxious gamblers -- assuming that's not a redundancy -- can go a little crazy from the waiting. A good 90 minutes elapse from the time you board the boat to that glorious moment when the sudden ringing and clanging of the slot machines herald the vessel's arrival in international waters (where U.S. and Florida laws have no jurisdiction over gambling) and the official opening of the casino.
The most important distinction between cruise ship gambling and any other type of casino play is that, win or lose, you can't leave the boat. Start your night with a lucky run at the tables and the odds are you'll give it all back before the ship returns to port. Few have the discipline to just walk away winners and spend the rest of the evening sampling the "activities" -- checking out the shows, playing Name That Tune in the Copacabana Lounge, dancing to the tunes the DJ spins in the disco. Conversely, if you start out with a losing streak, you can't simply call a cab to go home or move on to another casino. So by the time the blackjack tournament finally commences approximately one hour into the cruise, the players are itching for action.
The three and a half hours that the casino is open fly by. But winner and loser alike must quit playing an hour or so before returning to port when the ship re-enters Florida waters. The cruise line tries to ease these periods of downtime with the dinner buffet upon arrival and a coffee-and-sweet-rolls snack after the casino closes, but to borrow a line from Tom Petty, the waiting is the hardest part.