Tribal resort casinos aren’t just for adults anymore. Many tribes are providing innovative answers to the question: What will we do with the kids when we go to the casino?
Water parks, bowling alleys, safari trips, museums and alligator wrestling are some family activities offered by tribes as vacation destinations in their own right and as extra draws to attract people to casinos by providing entertainment for children of all ages.
Photo courtesy Tuolumne Band of Me Wuk Indians Teenagers enjoy a game of pool at the Tuolumne Band of Me Wuk Indians family entertainment area at the Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne, Calif.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has been a leader in turning its Class II gaming profits into a realm of diverse enterprises and fostering inter-tribal trade, was also one of the first tribes to develop the resources of its six non-contiguous reservations into tourist destinations. The Big Cypress Reservation offers an exciting tourist adventure – the Billie Swamp Safari – and is home to the tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
Located in the center of the Florida Everglades watershed, the Billie Swamp Safari opens up 2,200 acres of the tribe’s reservation lands to the public.
Ironically, it was the quest for privacy that led to the development of the safari.
“People were always driving through the swamp, looking for Indians. The tribe decided to turn that into an opportunity to share its resources and culture, but at the same time protect its privacy by controlling public access to their lands,” said Cindy Malin, a safari spokeswoman.
The tribe has turned the natural wetlands into a business enterprise while protecting the environmental integrity of its ancestral home and providing an educational experience to visitors.
The safari offers daily tours into the swamp, hardwood hammocks and sloughs that are filled with wildlife – deer, water buffalo, bison, wild hogs, hawks, eagles and other birds, and Florida panthers.
Visitors can travel on swamp buggies or airboats, or walk through the boardwalk nature trails where alligators are feet away in the water.
Photo courtesy Seminole Tribe of Florida Alligators are one of the big features at the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Billie Swamp Safari. Visitors can travel through the swamp by airboat or eco-buggy. Here, a member of the tribe holds one of the swamp’s inhabitants.
The Billie Swamp Safari has a number of other activities. There is Sam Jones Camp, re-created for and named after the medicine man and leader who led the Seminole resistors in the second Seminole War. There’s bird watching and the opportunity to study snakes in the Herpatarium. There’s alligator wrestling – a spectator sport conducted by professionals, not visitors – and there are campfire stories about the history and legends of the unconquered Seminoles.
The adventurous can try Seminole specialties such as gator nuggets and frog legs at the Swamp Water Café.
There’s also an RV park and eight to 12 people can spend the night in a Native-style chickee hut for $65.
Big Cypress is also home to the tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum; meaning “a place to learn.” In April, the tribe announced that Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is the first tribally governed museum in the United States to receive official certification from the American Association of Museums.
“The Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum is dedicated to preserving, celebrating and sharing the culture, lifestyle, arts, thoughts and wisdom of the Seminole Tribe and Native Americans,” reads the tribe’s Web site.
The museum, which opened in 1997, has four main galleries with rotating exhibits exploring various aspects of Seminole life and traditions in the Florida swamps and Everglades. It is comprised of three buildings with more than 5,000 square feet of exhibition space and a mile-long nature trail with a “living village,” all of which sit within a 62-acre cypress dome.
While the Big Cypress Reservation does not have a casino – the nearest is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood – the Tuolumne Band of Me Wuk Indians built a family entertainment area into its Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne, Calif.
“When our tribe started working on developing this as an entertainment destination, they wanted to make a commitment to family entertainment because of the family nature of the tribe and their culture,” said Al O’Brian, the tribe’s marketing and entertainment manager.
The family center has a full 24-lane bowling center, large arcade, fast-food restaurant and a sports bar on the first floor of the three-story building. The entire family center floor is a non-smoking area.
Photo courtesy Seminole Tribe of Florida Aerial view of the swamp area visitors travel through on the Billie Swamp Safari at the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Big Cypress Reservation.
“We’re constantly booked for kids’ parties. We do a lot of bowl-a-thons and fundraisers here. On Friday and Saturday nights we have cosmic bowling, which is a big teenage attraction in a rural county where there isn’t a lot for kids to do, so this is really a boon for the county for entertainment for high-school-aged kids,” O’Brian said.
He said the environment is safe, with surveillance and emergency medical personnel on site at all times so families feel confident allowing their children to come to the family center.
And how effective is the family entertainment center in drawing customers to the casino?
“Let me put it this way: the tribe is a huge fan of it and we have a lot of active bowlers who use it. In addition, here in central California we have a large Hispanic population and Sundays are just packed with Spanish families – it’s kind of become a cultural experience. Multi-generational families come together and the adults go to the casino while the grandmother is with the kids downstairs enjoying the arcade and bowling and eating pizza. So it’s been a big boon to our business and the acceptance of our property in the community,” O’Brian said.
The Comanche Nation in Lawton, Okla., is rapidly growing its tourist and family-fun amenities in anticipation of huge population growth over the next 10 years as the Base Closure and Realignment project sites a military base there, said Bill Shoemate, who managers Indigo Advertising Agency, a tribally-owned business that markets the tribe’s diverse enterprises.
The tribe has an enormous 12-acre water park and family entertainment center about a half mile from its Comanche Nation Casino. The water park has been open for seven years and has several slides, a wave pool, a kiddie pool, and “naturally, a snack bar. People love it,” Shoemate said.
He said the water park sold $40,000 of season passes in one week. A few months ago, the tribe opened a family entertainment center called Nations of Fun next to the water park.
“It has three birthday party rooms, all-you-can-eat pizza and pasta, about 40 games for kids to play, this gigantic jungle gym set up right in the middle that can accommodate 200 kids at a time with all kinds of chutes and slides and ropes, and small rock climbing walls and stuff,” Shoemate said.
The tribe is planning to add a driving range, paint ball in a nearby wooded area and other activities.
“It’s just going to be a tremendous set-up by the time we add on to it.”
Do the family activities draw people to the casino?
“They draw a lot of people,” Shoemate said. “For example, if there’s a convention going on and they bring the kids, they might go to the casino but the kids can’t go there, so they can drop the kids off for a swim or at our Nations of Fun, and it’s a cheap and safe babysitter. It’s well supervised. It’s on federal land, so we have strong rules.”