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Odds are, Hard Rock a hit

About 15,000 - not to mention 10 parachuting Elvises - attend the casino's grand opening.

JAY CRIDLIN
Published March 12, 2004

TAMPA - Maybe, just maybe, an 11th Elvis might have done it.

But the sight of 10 pompadoured, jumpsuited Elvis impersonators hurtling through space at 120 mph just wasn't enough to coax Carroll Kopitke outside.

"I've seen it all before," Kopitke said, methodically punching buttons on her 75-cent video bingo machine.

That may be true for the 69-year-old Kopitke, who lived in Las Vegas for two decades. But for thousands of other Tampa gamblers, Thursday's grand opening of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino was like nothing they'd seen before.

The Flying Elvi skydivers, based in Las Vegas, plummeted from the sky. A Seminole tribal elder shattered an acoustic guitar with an overhand smash that would make Pete Townshend shiver. Alcoholic drinks began flowing, and will now from dawn to dusk to dawn again.

When all was said and done, about 15,000 people helped celebrate the first official day of the 250-room hotel and casino. The facility is expected to generate $300-million per year, equaling the Seminole Tribe's current casino-based revenue.

"People with plastic, you're welcome any time," Seminole Tribal Chairman Mitchell Cypress told the crowd.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan - whose harmonica and handwritten set list for a show are among pieces of rock memorabilia in the casino lobby - many a gamble has already been lost and won at the Hard Rock.

The facility is half of a $400-million plan by Hard Rock and the Seminoles to build hotel-casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla., by this spring. The Tampa casino, at the site of a former Seminole bingo hall near the Florida State Fairgrounds, is Hard Rock Cafe International's sixth hotel, and its first successful commercial venture with a Native American tribe.

The tribe fell more than $400-million into debt to finance the Tampa and Hollywood facilities, but officials expect to boost annual gambling profits to $1-billion or more.

About 800 video gambling machines, a low-stakes poker room and a cavernous bingo hall opened at the Tampa site last June, and more than 4,000 wannabe cooks and croupiers turned out for a casino job fair in January.

This latest addition more than doubles the size of the casino floor and its gaming capacity. About 10,000 customers are expected to pass through the casino's bronze guitar-handled doors each day, five times the number who visited the Seminole bingo hall.

"I used to hear people would think it was just bingo and old people," said Seminole Tribal Council member Max Osceola. "With the Hard Rock, you have the baby boomers and all that. Everybody loves rock 'n' roll."

For the first day at least, the casino succeeded in drawing in a younger crowd.

"I'm really impressed with it," said 22-year-old Katie Smith as she sipped drinks beneath a set of handwritten lyrics to the Black Crowes' Hard to Handle. "We're coming out here tomorrow night with all our friends."

"This is going to be our new hangout," said her friend Rachel Sawyer, 23.

But Wednesday wasn't all about the youngsters. About 1,000 Elvis fans turned out to watch the Flying Elvi kick off the ribbon-cutting with a 5,500-foot dive into the hotel parking lot.

Spectators hopped on cars and stood atop a parking garage to get a better look, then reverently crowded around the Elvi themselves.

"It was more of a spectacle than we expected," said Kimberly Llewellyn of Safety Harbor, moments after having her photo taken with an Elvis. "It kind of felt like we were in Hollywood there for a minute."

After tribal elder Alan Jumper smashed a guitar in front of the hotel entrance - all Hard Rock facilities are christened with that ultimate rock 'n' roll gesture - the crowd poured inside for a better look.

Avowed Hard Rock aficionado Charles Guess of Miami said he was impressed with how bright and colorful the casino seemed compared to many muted, barlike Hard Rock Cafes.

"They took the Hard Rock name and just dusted everything off," he said.

Myra Hall and Justin Coppolino made the event their first date - a blind date, no less - and were blown away by the rock memorabilia on the walls.

"It gives me chills to see all these things," Hall said, swinging her drink toward a wall of John Lennon sketchings. "Museums don't have this stuff."

Added Coppolino: "I assume we're going to have a hard time topping this."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 813 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com

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