Call it the gray-line tour Gambling: Wheeling meets dealing as senior citizens make regular bus trips from west Columbia to Atlantic City casinos, where the over-55 crowd accounts for a robust percentage of visitors.

June 19, 1996|By Dolly Merritt | Dolly Merritt,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Each month, they board a bus outside the Hickory Ridge Place apartments in west Columbia, senior citizens bound for El Dorado in the form of Atlantic City's Trump Plaza casino.

There, amid glittering chandeliers, they feed the slot machines and take their chances at the wheels or card tables -- all for the price of a $22 round-trip Eyre bus fare, which comes with a $3 food coupon and $18 in coins for wagering, courtesy of the casino.

"It's a cheap way to spend a day," says Dorothy Mobley, a 75-year-old Clarksville resident, who usually supplements the $18 stake with a few dollars of her own. "I don't smoke and I don't drink." The $22 price "is cheap. You spend that when you go out to dinner."

The informal group, organized by 67-year-old Ellicott City resident Marie Lee, is part of a daily flood of 30,000 casino visitors who stream into Atlantic City, according to the Southern Jersey Transportation Authority -- more than 350,000 bus loads each year.

They come from as far away as Massachusetts, Ohio and West Virginia. And, increasingly, the elderly among them make up a significant part of the gambling resort's clientele.

Paul Doocey, senior editor of International Gaming & Wagering Business magazine in New York, estimated that 38 percent of the population who stay overnight at the casinos in Atlantic City are 55 years old or older.

And for some casinos, the number of older patrons can be even higher.

"I would say seniors make up better than half of our business," said Kim Martin, public relations manager at Trump Plaza. "Slots are a draw for seniors because there are seats and bill changers -- it's very convenient."

Lee, the organizer of the Hickory Ridge group, is a five-year veteran of Atlantic City casino trips, having gone on others through the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, which still offers such trips.

About a year ago, she began organizing group trips for herself and a few friends. That informal group now averages between 15 and 25 roving gamblers each month, most of them women.

"I do this for the ladies," said Lee. "Even if they don't win, they are excited. Some like to go to to the boardwalk, others like the bus ride, and some like to chat with the people and the bus driver."

On a recent Friday, a group of about 20 boarded the Eyre bus in Columbia about 10 a.m. and settled in for the three-hour ride to Atlantic City.

It was the fifth trip for Evelyn Ditingo, a 71-year-old Ellicott City resident, who left her husband home this time but took along a few rolls of quarters he had saved for her. She was looking forward to winning -- like the time she won 1,600 quarters at a slot machine.

"You get nervous and you start to shake," she said with a laugh.

Spirits were high as the group arrived in Atlantic City in time for lunch, ready to stretch their legs and pad their pocketbooks.

"Don't play the same machine for any length of time," Lee advised a novice gambler. The tour leader settled herself at the winning slot machine she had played on a previous trip, as veterans in the group disappeared into a room ringing with jackpot bells.

Most members of the Hickory Ridge group said they wager modestly -- $20 or $30 each in addition to the $18 they get as part of the bus trip package.

But there's plenty of room for excitement even in that price range, as 73-year-old Mary Jane Paquette can attest.

The resident of Columbia's Hickory Ridge village recalled the time she was walking through the casino on her way to catch the bus home when she decided to try her luck one last time.

"I dropped in a few quarters and the machine hit," said Paquette, who had to wait for a casino employee to change the coins into bills.

With no time to lose, she began filling up containers with the coins and ran to cash them in. "That was exciting -- except I almost got a coronary running for the bus," she said.

There was little such excitement on the most recent trip as some members of the group doggedly pumped coins into the slot machines. Others took a walk on the boardwalk, watched the surf or decided to visit some of the other casinos.

After a few unsuccessful hours leaning on a cane in front of a sluggish slot machine, 89-year-old Angelita Camallonga was ready for a break in the wagering.

"After I lose too much, I go to the cafe at 4 o'clock to play cards," she said -- wager-free 500 rummy, only.

And by 7 p.m., the group was back on the bus to Columbia, ready to leave the promise of Trump treasure behind for another month.

Pub Date: 6/19/96

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