About Tunica

The Casinos




What To Do

The Backstage Story




Tunica: Gamboling in the Mississippi Delta

Bling-Bling, Toot-Toot

Monte Carlo? Tres magnifique. Las Vegas? A hearty ring-a-ding-ding. But Tunica, Mississippi? It rises not from desert or sea but from the legendary Mississippi Delta, the heart of the American South, the siege perilous of King Cotton, cradle of the blues. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, you can get your gambling done out on Highway 61. And  there you will be, tootling down the historic Highway 61, slowing down to hear the crickets and listening to heart-bursting, soaring gospel on the car radio, and suddenly you wonder, :”Where on earth am I going to eat? Sleep?” And then you see the signs. And lights. What’s all this…glitz…going on out here, half an hour south of Memphis, in the middle of nowhere, are we in Disneyland or whuuut??? And you swing the car up.   


Tunica County historian, Ellis Koonce, notes, “Hernando DeSoto, the Spanish explorer, who was our first tourist in 1540, would be amazed at what has come to this area. The county has progressed from being one of the most economically depressed areas in America into energetic prosperity that has lowered our unemployment rate and continues to provide a variety of jobs for everyone. Yet, we have managed to preserve the culture and history that has made the Delta the birthplace of the blues while maintaining acre upon acre of the nation's richest farmland." Tunica was in incorporated on 3 March 1888, which, we guess, makes it a Pisces.

Bringing in an industry (especially this one) seemed like a can’t miss idea that would deliver jobs and add dollars to the city’s coffers. When the town started cashing in its chips, it discovered a few problems demanding reaction. More interestingly, it went beyond reaction to planning for future growth, development and local betterment. More about this elsewhere.

When the first casino opened its doors on 19 October 1992, town leaders could not avoid noticing that high, low and wannabe rollers lined up for hours just to enter this new player’s palace – even though the casino charged an admission fee!

From such fanfares are mighty concerti written.

We’ll talk about where to sleep and where to shop and what to do and all that other stuff that makes a good trip special. But let’s start with the action.

All Bets Are On

Nine casinos attract 15 million intrepid visitors hoping to repeal the law of averages, eager to get even with the odds. And if that fails, there’s always getting right with Jesus.

These are full-service, all-glitz, no waiting casinos. None of your “Oh this is really a riverboat” affectation. As you walk through a casino (no doubt, on your way to the facility’s exercise room), you will hear the music of the slots — that counterpoint of plink, plink, plink, ringing bells and the cartoon soundtracks of a thousand machines a-whirring. You will pass the tables, each a universe of bated breaths, instant community, shouts and hyper concentration.

The establishments (and their significant stats) are: 

  • Bally's Casino (800-382-2559), 1,300 Slot Machines, 40 Table Games;   

  • Fitzgerald’s Casino/Hotel (800-766-5825), 1,400 Slot Machines and Table   Games;

  • Gold Strike Casino Resort ( (888-245-7829), 1,460 Slot Machines, 55 Table Games;

  • Grand Casino Tunica (800-946-4946), 2,800 Slot Machines, 55 Table Games;

  • Harrah's (662-363-7777), 1,357 Slot Machines, 23 Table Games; Hollywood Casino (800-871-0711), 1,600 Slot Machines, 35 Table Games Horseshoe Casino & Hotel (800-303-7463), 1,596 Slot Machines, 61 Table Games;

  • Sam's Town Tunica, (800-456-0711), 1,336 Slot Machines, 48 Table Games;

  • Sheraton Casino & Hotel, (800-391-3777) 1,300 Slot Machines, 42 Table Games.

Bally’s, Gold Strike, Horseshoe and the Sheraton are grouped together on Casino Center Boulevard. The others are not too far away.  

Where to Sleep: Piling Up the Zzzzs   

All casinos are also hotel sites. They offer the full array of services and amenities one might find in good resorts – gourmet restaurants, health spas, golf courses and Jacuzzis. Grand Casino Hotel even sports the Willows Sporting Clays Center (Don’t be too quick to sing “Ebb Tide” This is not for pottery. It’s for clay pigeons.) Several hotels also feature RV facilities. The largest hotels are the Grand Casino Tunica (1,356 rooms), Sam's Town Tunica (1,054 rooms), and the glitzy marble-floored Gold Strike Casino Resort (1,200 rooms). Where Travellers USA Notebook  stayed. The most intimate of the casinos is the Sheraton whose 1300 slot machines are complemented by only 134 rooms.

You don’t have to stay in a casino to get the full Tunica experience. The charming

Hotel Marie, located in downtown, was built 85 years ago, and is a convenient meeting spot for whatever passes for a ‘power breakfast’ in this part of the world. Its recent $2 million renovation fuses the old charm with modern comfort. There are suites (most of which have Jacuzzi bathtubs) and single rooms. Altogether, the Marie has 29 accommodations.  Call 800-363-6307. They make their own divine range of glycerine soaps shaped like trapezoids, which come in a range of extremely unusual and bizarrely enchanting scents: the best are Kiwi, and a rich glowy unforgettable one called Briarpatch. Sort of like root beer, and sort of like the forest. Anyway, we’re hooked. Hotel Marie will ship to you.

Also there is a host of other hostelries —both independents and chains — and you’ll easily find one to suit your mood and your budget. For more information, click here.

From Haute Cuisine to Heck Cuisine

 You won’t go hungry in Tunica. Every casino has a range of restaurants, ranging from haute cuisine to heck cuisine. Of course there are buffets. We feel a bit subversive for saying this, but even if you’re just on a roadtrip in the area, do yourself a favor and bring your shovel to one of the buffets. They’re reasonably priced and offer just about anything you might want. And yes, you can have seconds. Tunica also offers a few of the usual fast-food franchises and local thrills.

Start with the haute cuisine, though, and that means a mandatory meal at a restaurant called Fairbanks, in the Hollywood Casino. A grown-up  steakhouse – grand, luxurious, masculine, romantic, and welcoming. This is  high-end food in the middle of Highway 61, babuh! You’re gonna eat like a movie star…like Douglas Fairbanks, perhaps.

           Your drink might be a Jacob’s Well, 80 proof single barrel Bourbon with a peppery finish, selected specially for you by the equally fiery Aries chef, Marc Silverberg, the hotel’s Vice President of Food and Beverage. He is a vibrantly special personality, with a culinary talent to match. He has cooked at the venerable James Beard House in New York and,  after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (a/k/a the C.I.A.) in Hyde Park, New York, became a big shot at Bally’s and the Tropicana resort restaurants in Atlantic City, then jumped to Atlanta for the Crowne Plaza. Eventually, he was offered every chef’s dream, but a strange plum: come to Tunica and have executive responsibility for gustatory delights in every room and on every table in the Hollywood Casino.

            “Sir, I don’t know where that is,” was his response. But by then, he already liked the South. And years later, he has built a lakeside cabin he designed himself, complete with spectacular views and an oversized fireplace.             








             And Fairbanks has become the place for gourmets to go for many miles around: it’s a roaring success.  

            “Living is easy here,” he says. But Silverberg is a stickler for every culinary detail. He orders his butter specially from Harlysville. Only the best ingredients. Plugra. Delicious dishes. Daiquiri chicken with strawberries over saffron rice delights flesh eaters. Vegetarians have been deliriously happy dining at Fairbanks. The man has a wicked way with mushrooms, or “mush” as he likes to call his dishes by restaurant slang. And maybe having such a winning way with his staff has been an added ingredient in his recipe for success, because the food’s unbelievably delicious, and not just for Tunica.

            So why didn’t he do a Lutece, or make his own snooty little place in New York or Paris or Gstaad?

            “I like the big hotel excitement,” he grins.

            And so do we. So will you. .

            The famously atmospheric and funky Hollywood Café is one of the official local thrills. It made the country charts by being memorialized in popular song “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen. Go into the café and see the piano where Cohen wrote the song.  Linger a bit around the old 88 and then do the smart thing. Sit down and order. Make sure you have a mess of fried pickles  — dill pickles, coated with a lush cornmeal batter. Traveler thinks of them as exotic, tasty pickle pekoras. There’s great cole slaw and distinctive vegetables prepared in down home fashion. I’ll have some  fried okra please. As always, Veggievores, do ascertain which of today’s vegetables are meatless and were not prepared with pot likker — then dig in and enjoy.

Located in the above-mentioned Hotel Marie in downtown Tunica is a little spot called Cafe Marie.  We’re told the Café Marie offers genteel Southern cooking, and we dreamt of warm biscuits, grits and succulent corn soufflés, but alas, we were there for a special breakfast where baked goods (muffins and the like) and sliced fruit were served. Probably worth a return visit, even if just to pick up some of that gorgeous, crazy Briarpatch soap we’re still jonesin’ for. (662) 357-0055, 6195 Fox Island Road  

Shopping: There’s Even a Gap

            If you thought Tunica does not have the stuff to trigger the wild shopping gene, you’d be almost right and woefully wrong. It harbors the Casino Factory Shoppes, a reasonably sized outlet mall (over more than 30 stores). You’ll find merchants like Carter’s Childrenswear.  Dress Barn, G. H. Bass, Gail Pittman Pottery, Gap Outlet, IZOD Outlet, L’eggs Hanes Bali Playtex, Nautica, Reebok Factory Direct Store, Van Heusen and Zales Outlet and several; Casual Corner corners.

And if you like antiquing - surprise, surprise - pop downtown to Main Street where you won’t feel like an exile. Some of the shops are Ann-Tiques, 1259 Main Street; Dunn's Jewelry (& Antique Clocks), 1255 Main Street and Main Street Market Antiques, 1212 Edwards Avenues.

While the shopping mood grips you, do check out the Downtown Grocery. The store, which had a soft opening this past 12 May and an official grand opening on 26 June, is not a glamorous supermarket. It does have shiny new top-notch equipment, which makes strolling through easy. It has something else. Although privately owned, it is assisted by the town in order to give Tunicians an affordable, comfortable nearby place to shop. The least we can do is support this noble effort by buying an RC and a Moon Pie. Tourists do like its Daily News Deli and Here's-the-Scoop Ice Cream Shop  

Things To Do

Southern Nights with the Stars

Casinos. Right? Show biz, right? Stars and laughter and fun, right? All right! Sounds like nightlife to Traveler. And Tunica offers more than its share of crowd-pleasing, pulse-quickening artists. Here’s a short list of some of the recent and up and comings: Among those who have appeared -- in no particular order of magnitude --  are The Imperial Circus of China,  Rick Springfield, Tiffany, Brett Butler, Ronnie McDowell, Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band," LeAnn Rimes, The Temptations,  David Sanborn and Willie Nelson.

            It’s not common knowledge . . . but fresh air and worthwhile experiences await those exotic souls who step beyond a casino’s boundaries. This certainly is true in Tunica.

            For those who need to adjust, we’ll start with the Blues & Legends Hall of Fame. You won’t have to venture far because it’s located in the Horseshoe Casino. If you passed it too quickly, you might think it’s just a Hard Rock Café display on steroids. Actually it’s a fine showcase of memorabilia and artifacts with helpful tutorial information.  It succinctly traces the history of the blues and allows you to gawk at objects once owned by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King and Eric Clapton.  


Of Museums and Mules

The Tunica Museum (opened 30 June 2002) has a strange split personality quality but certainly is well worth a visit. It provides a history and insight into the region that spans the days of Native American to Spanish explorers right up to the present. It includes cotton gins and gin rummy. The aforementioned “split personality” aspect comes from an attempt to deal with racial injustice in a manner that is both honest but with a “positive” spin. Can’t be done. The most glaring example is the orientation film visitors can watch before they tour the galleries. The segment that covers race — specifically the conflict between the Federal Government and Mississippi over the state’s segregation laws — treats racial conflict as if it were some kind of communications failure (Oops!). Frankly embarrassing, this portion of the film is eerie and jarring

On the other hand the museum takes a frank look at the story of Sugar Ditch, an African-American neighborhood of ramshackle houses that overlooked open sewers. The longtime health hazard was finally sorted out right after the Reverend Jesse Jackson brought national attention to Sugar Ditch.The CBS television newsmagazine, 60 Minutes, devoted a 1985 segment to Jackson taking a two-block walk through Sugar Ditch as he explained the people’s plight. The museum relates the story with candor, although it can’t resist taking a cringe-making, gratuitous slap at Reverend Jackson.

Hopefully, the fledgling museum will use its unique place in history and geography to inform us about the story of racial injustice. The story is not just limited to Mississippi but continues to haunt  all of America. Sugar Ditch is a good start; but lose the film, fellers. And learn how to spell the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s name, please.

 That said, the museum can in spots deliver a colorful, fascinating look at the region. You can learn a thing or two about the Chickasaw Indians and the original, lush hardwood forests, parts of which still survive alongside the river, with its rich, alluvial soil. Cotton became king, with people working from sun to sun. The kids worked, too. The Jim Crow character is here, introduced in 1832. After Emancipation the sharecropping way of life developed. Then the machines came; each one replaced 80 cotton pickers. Later on, see the farmers sipping coffee at the Blue and White Café.

For the little carnivores, there’s Sally the mule, reputed to be only stuffed mule to be found east of the Rocky Mountains — at least in a museum. Of course there’s a small gift shop, with local souvenirs, folk art, cards and posters. And we found a true gem: a must-have poster print reproduction of local artist Ronald Rainey’s masterpiece, Sugar Ditch, an intense, phantasmagoric painting    

The Real Dirt  

The Tunica Paul Battle, Jr. Arena has both an indoor 48,000-sq. ft. indoor, climate-controlled arena, an outdoor arena, and an adjoining150,000-sq. ft. of expo pavilion. This state-of-the-art facility opened in August 2002 and hosts concerts, livestock shows and other such outdoor extravaganzas. It has a great supply of all kinds of dirt to satisfy the most discriminating of animals. For a list of upcoming events, click  here.

Welcome to the Club

The town is making quite a racket about the imminent opening (1 September, 2003) of the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Club. It promises to offer America’s only indoor clay courts south of the nation’s capitol. And the golf course, designed by Mark McCumber, will be affectionately cursed but rabidly admired for its complexities that bring out the best in newbies and pros.

Rollin' With The River

 Another experience for Tunica County scheduled to open this summer is the 168-acre RiverPark, right behind Fitzgerald’s Casino. The park, which celebrates the mighty Mississippi River, will have a harbor for excursion, river and private boats; a 40,000-square-foot visitors' center with museum, aquarium, a high-tech interpretive center and other “oh-look-Marthas”; a nature trail and the 110-foot, three deck, 400-passenger Tunica Queen Riverboat. The whole shebang should be ready by Labor Day. The boat will go on four cruises a day (coffee, lunch, river lore, and dinner) as of August. Although passengers can enjoy (depending on the hour) food, cocktails, views and dancing, there’s no gambling on board. The Tunica Queen arrived at Tunica RiverPark June 22; she used to ply Long Island’s Peconic under another name; but has been refurbished, remodeled, and enhanced.

Closed circuit TV cameras and five plasma screens (three 42-inch and two 50-inch) are part of the boat’s new look and looking. Passengers can view a documentary about riverboat as well as see live views of their journey.

The Tunica Queen’s status as a gaming free zone is significant. The boat and RiverPark are the anchor in Tunica’s bid to attract tourists who are not necessarily interested in gambling. The Battle Arena and the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Club also support this vision. It’s no wonder that trade pub Travel Weekly listed Tunica as one of 10 “up and coming destinations.” (Others cited by TW In its 10 February issue are Molokai, Hawaii; Krakow, Poland; Belize City, Belize; and Queenstown, New Zealand.) It’s easy and fine to simply look at Tunica as one more engrossing chapter in rich and soulful history of the Mississippi Delta. But this community also has its eye on  the future — and it’s fun to visit.



The Backstage Story  

As with every glittery show, there is a backstage to this rural casino town’s beckoning crowd-pleasing bling-bling, wow-and-pow-extravaganza. It would not surprise Traveler if other communities used Tunica as a model for planned growth. Apparently, Tunica went for the casino option with what we might call a what-the-hell attitude. Jobs? Revenues? Sign us up!

When the first casino opened on 19 October 1992, town leaders could not avoid noticing two phenomena. High, low and wannabe rollers lined up for hours to enter this new player’s palace – even though the casino charged an admission fee. Complementing this was the second event – snarled traffic.

The two-lane highway leading to the casino was too narrow a pipeline for the sudden heavy flow. Aside from the likely frayed tempers, missed appointments, and cold suppers, there also was the sight of ambulances stuck in traffic. And funny thing about money, it attracts people who want it fast. Previously, area crime mostly consisted of people who -ahem- broke the speed limit.

Great God a mighty, went the best thinking. We’ve got something here. Now what are we going to do? The traffic nightmares, the increased need for policing, the yes — increased revenue – and yes yes —continuing poverty —called for quick response. Enter reaction.

Making the roads wider to ease access was a no brainer. But still took some will. And speaking of vital arteries , gambling enabled the community to build sewers and bring water to everybody in this, the poorest county in Mississippi. Before gaming, Sheriff’s office had 9 people (including the sheriff’s wife) on staff and an annual budget of 325k. Now there are over 200 deputies.

Better than reaction, which is commonplace, is proaction.

The real challenge was making this inherently attractive but definitely off the beaten track site even more come hither.

It might be fun for some to think that a gathering of the local shakers and movers is not unlike a Gomer Pyle episode. The reality is very different. The thing about being a cotton planter is that you’re in the agribusiness and that makes some of those good ol’ boys players in the international commodities markets – sharp, complicated, visionary. And they like where they live.

Town planner Ken Murphree was hired, as was management consultant McKinsey & Company. While paving, policing and  piping were being upgraded, blueprints were being assembled. Emerging from the McKinsey recommendations and the local pow-wows were the following projects and ideas.

·        Airport expansion.  (Tunica Airport expansion completes its next two phases in 2003 and then in 2005.)

·        Tunica RiverPark, described as a “$23 million ecopark built right on the banks of the River,” will be a recreational, interactive, instructional, unique, good time.

·        The Paul Battle Jr. stadium and expo center

·        Tunica County Museum

·        Family Health and Fitness Center

And the results already are coming in. The exercise center, museum and arena are open and working for the community and its visitors. The airport expansion is on schedule and the Tunica RiverPark is due to dock this Summer.            

The results of these activities and, more importantly, this kind of thinking can make Tunica into a dynamic destination that offers not just regional but national appeal. We’ll be watching.

Some observers say that there could have been more planning for growth before the first casino opened. In a white paper for Social Science Research Center of Mississippi State University, James Thomas Snyder wrote, “Overall, Tunica’s experiment with gaming has been positive. It has also been lopsided. It has lifted the extremely poor out of abject poverty. It has created huge numbers of jobs, attracting workers across the entire region.” He notes however that,  “while nobody in the county could have predicted the success they would have bringing casinos and gamblers to Tunica, some foresight in planning would have benefited the county more. Preparing schools, acquiring property for housing under eminent domain, and subsidizing and encouraging links between the casinos and secondary development could have spread wealth and avoided the problems of slow expansion in other sectors of the local economy.”

            Mr.. Snyder’s paper was published in 1999. Since that time, some of Tunica’s planning and projects have been put into place. The next study might reveal much more progress and promise.


Traveler's USA Notebook