by Steve Bourie  Learn more about the author 

In early December 2008 my wife and I made a visit to the casinos of Tunica, Mississippi.

I had been there twice before, but this was my wife’s first visit. I had enjoyed my previous stays in Tunica, but both times I had little time to see nearby Memphis and for this visit I made sure that we had one full day in that city to visit some of its attractions, the most famous of which is Graceland, the former home of Elvis Presley.

We flew non-stop to Memphis from Miami and it’s interesting that the first thing you notice when heading in for a landing is the abundance of Fedex planes. Memphis is the company’s headquarters and also its largest hub for package sorting. The facility processes more than 1.5 million packages a day and, depending on the time of day you arrive or leave, you will probably see lots of their planes. The day we flew in there were only six, but when we left three days later there were at least 40.

At the Memphis airport we picked up a rental car for the 30-mile trip to Tunica, but there are other options. A shuttle service is offered by Blues City Tours (662-357-9609) with a price of $47 per person ($37 per person for two passengers). Yellow Checker and Premier Transportation (901-577-7700) also offer taxi service that averages about $83 for a cab that holds up to four people.

From the airport the drive to Tunica is all on major highways and once you cross into Mississippi you understand why the state is so well known for its cotton growing because there is basically nothing but miles and miles of cotton fields.

Tunica’s nine casinos are somewhat spread apart with two areas each housing three casinos that are within walking distance of each other. When I had last visited there was a paid shuttle service that went to all of the casinos, but it had been discontinued. If you don’t have your own transportation it would be difficult to visit all of the casinos. The only other option is a free shuttle service run by Harrah’s. They own three casinos (Harrah’s, Horseshoe and Sheraton) and provide free shuttle service to and from those properties, however, you must be a Total Rewards slot club member. Since there is no charge to join their slot club, it is very easy to qualify for the free rides.

An interesting thing to note about Tunica’s casinos is that none of them is located directly on the Mississippi River. As required by state law, all of the casinos are built on barges, but all are set back from the actual River and they are all floating in water that is fed from the Mississippi. 

The first casino you come to on the drive down is Harrah’s Tunica and this place is huge! Originally opened as Grand Casino in 1996, it was bought by Harrah’s in 2004, but they kept the Grand Casino name until May 2008 when it was changed to Harrah’s.

The Veranda Hotel at Harrah's Tunica
The Veranda Hotel at Harrah’s Tunica

The massive size is somewhat evident when you make the turn-off from the main highway and discover that you still need to drive about another mile on their property to reach the casino. The entire complex takes up 2,000 acres (about three square miles) and it houses the area’s largest number of hotel rooms: 1,356 in three separate hotels.

There is also a 2,400-seat event center, an 18-hole golf course, a 200-space RV park, a 40,000-square-foot convention center, a 16-000-square-foot spa and salon, a skeet and sporting clays shooting center, plus a Kids Quest childcare center.

We stayed at the Veranda Hotel which is about one mile from the casino with a shuttle service scheduled about every 15 minutes offering free door-to-door service. The hotel was fairly upscale and we enjoyed staying there.

There are five different restaurants to choose from and a highlight of our stay was eating at the Paula Deen buffet. Harrah’s entered into a partnership with celebrity chef Paula Deen to brand their buffet with her name when the property changed to the Harrah’s name in 2008. She periodically makes guest appearances at the property and she personally approves all of the menu items.

 Paula Deen Buffet at Harrah's Tunica
The Paula Deen Buffet at Harrah’s Tunica

There are six separate stations serving a variety of Southern-style foods, such as fried chicken, collard greens and smoked BBQ. There’s even a “Hoe Cake & Biscuit” section, plus “Little Jacks’ Corner,” which was our favorite because it offered an assortment of delicious desserts. We really liked the buffet a lot and would heartily recommend giving it a try.

About three miles south of Harrrah’s is Bally’s which is built to resemble a barn with a silo. Their 238-room hotel is located about a quarter-mile away from the casino and a free shuttle service is offered for hotel guests.

Resorts International's Bally's Tunica
Bally’s Tunica

Bally’s, as well as Resorts Tunica, are owned by Resorts International which also operates Resorts Atlantic City, the Atlantic City Hilton and the Las Vegas Hilton.

The casino has one fine dining restaurant, a buffet and a coffee shop. While we were there they were promoting a special “One Buck Buffet” offer. To qualify, you had to earn one comp dollar on your Resorts Destination players club card and then you were eligible to redeem it the same day for a free breakfast, lunch or dinner buffet. The promotion was a continuous offer which could be used every day of the week and it seemed to be a very good deal.

Another mile south is the home of three casinos that are within easy walking distance of each other in an area known as Casino Center Boulevard. The Gold Strike is an MGM Mirage property and, with 1,200 rooms, the 31-story hotel/casino is the largest of the three properties. Dining options include a steakhouse, a coffee shop, a deli, and a food court with three fast-food outlets. The 800-seat Millennium Theatre features a variety of headline entertainment and there is free nightly entertainment on the casino’s Bullion Bar Stage.

Gold Strike Tunica
The Gold Strike Tunica

Adjacent to the Gold Strike is the Horseshoe Casino Hotel which is owned by Harrah’s. It features 511 rooms and it has a steakhouse, a buffet, a deli, a Starbucks, and a snack bar. There is also a 300-seat Bluesville Nightclub which showcases headliner entertainment.

Horseshoe Casino Tunica
The Horseshoe Casino Tunica

The Sheraton Casino and Hotel is the area’s third property and it is also owned by Harrah’s. All 140 of its rooms are suites and each has its own Jacuzzi. It has a steakhouse, a buffet, and a T.J. Cinnamons that serves freshly-baked cinnamon rolls, as well as sandwiches and salads.

Sheraton Casino Tunica, Mississippi
The Sheraton Casino

About three miles further south is the Fitz Casino and Hotel. It is part of the Majestic Star Casino Corporation which also owns the Fitz Casinos in Las Vegas, Nevada and Black Hawk, Colorado, as well as the two Majestic Star Casinos in Gary, Indiana. It is an Irish-themed property with 577 hotel rooms and is built to resemble a castle with turrets. The property offers a steakhouse, a buffet and a cafe. Free lounge entertainment is offered Wednesday through Sunday nights at its Stage Bar and concerts are periodically offered at its Great Hall Event Center.

The Fitz casino & Hotel located in Tunica, Mississippi
Fitz Casino and Hotel

A final cluster of three casinos can be found three miles further south on Casino Strip Resort Boulevard and they comprise the area’s remaining gaming properties. The largest is Sam’s Town with more than 800 rooms. Next is Hollywood with 494 rooms and the smallest is Resorts with 201 rooms. All three are associated with the nearby 18-hole River Bend Links Golf Course and offer golfing privileges to their guests.

The American Casino Guide conducts a survey each year to determine our readers’ favorite casinos in each area of the country and Sam’s Town has consistently been the winner in Tunica. It’s owned by Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming which operates more than a dozen casinos throughout the country and is well-known for its “looser” player-friendly games. The Tunica casino is a smaller version of the original western-themed Sam’s Town in Las Vegas which has always been a  popular casinos for “locals.”

Boyd Gaming's Sam's Town Casino and Hotel Located in Tunica, Mississippi
Sam’s Town Casino

My wife and I played some 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker at Sam’s Town Tunica for about one hour and when we returned home we received some good offers in the mail. We were given three free room nights (Sunday through Friday) for up to three separate future visits, plus $10 in free slot play on each visit. This seemed very liberal to us and we could understand the popularity of the property if it treated all of its customers this way.

Hungry casino-goers can enjoy their choice of a fine dining restaurant, a snack bar, a coffee shop, or a buffet that offers a Corky’s BBQ section, plus free draft beer and wine. The property also has a 100-space RV Park and a 1,600-seat special events center.

Sam’s Town is located on the north side of the busy boulevard while Hollywood is situated about 1/2-mile away and  across the street. It would be a long walk, but once you arrived it would be a short walking distance to Resorts as it is right next door and connected by a walkway.

Hollywood Casino is owned by Penn National Gaming which operates 16 casinos/racinos throughout the U.S. and its Tunica property is a truly unique destination that can be fun to visit even if you’re not a gambler. In keeping with its “Hollywood” name, the casino contains a treasure trove of movie artifacts and displays.

Penn National's Hollywood Casino in Tunica, Mississippi
Hollywood Casino

Some of the larger memorabilia on display include the Delorean from Back to the Future, the Batmobile from Batman: The Movie, and the Harrier Jet from True Lies. There’s also a six-ton scale model of the Titanic used in the move starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, plus numerous displays of costumes and props from other famous movies. The property also has a 123-space RV park, a steakhouse, a buffet and a cafe.

At Resorts Tunica (owned by the same company that operates Bally’s Tunica) the dining choices include a steakhouse, a buffet and a Cantina Grill serving Mexican dishes, as well as standard coffee shop items.

Resorts Tunica
Resorts Tunica

Just like Bally’s, the buffet promotion was in effect and we would have taken advantage of the “One Buck Buffet” for dinner, but we had made plans to meet a friend later that evening at Tunica’s most famous local eatery: the Hollywood Cafe.

Casually mentioned in John Grisham’s first novel, A Time To Kill, the Hollywood Cafe’s most notable mention is in Marc Cohn’s hit song, Walking in Memphis. In the lyrics Cohn recalls a night at the cafe when he played piano and sang with one of the locals.

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would —
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said —
“Tell me are you a Christian child?”
And I said “Ma’am I am tonight”

Part of the music video for the song was also filmed at the cafe, but lately the eatery is more well-known for its appearance on a Travel Channel show entitled Deep Fried Paradise. A segment on that one-hour show delved into the history of the Hollywood Cafe as the birthplace of the deep fried dill pickle back in the 1970’s and its continuing popularity among diners. Naturally, we tried it out, and we all agreed that the pickle chips, which are fried in a beer batter with cayenne pepper and chili powder, were quite tasty!

To continue to part two, click here

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