As in so many areas of tourism, entertainment and attractions, Florida is a leader in supplying US casinos. Further solidifying Florida’s reputation as an American center of leisure and entertainment activity are the over two dozen casino gaming outlets in Florida. Alongside 16 or so “racinos,” i.e. facilities combining slots gaming with track betting, are nine full-on casino spots, including two expansive Hard Rock Hotel & Casino complexes.
Population: 19.89 million (off. 2014 est.)
Area: 65,755 sq. mi.
Gambling Age (Casinos): 21
Gambling Age (Lottery): 18
Number of Casinos: 31
• As of 2016, Florida is one of six states which still allows greyhound racing.
• Florida leads the nation in toll roads.
• Geographically speaking, Jacksonville is the largest city in the U.S.
• In Florida, it is illegal to sing in public while wearing swimming gear.
The history of gambling in Florida – not necessarily of the legal sort, mind you, but definitely high-profile – begins with the wishes of a billionaire. As the story goes, Standard Oil CEO Henry Flagler and his wife moved to Florida on her doctor’s advice. After he wife passed away, Flagler decided to stay on in Florida. When he remarried, he simply bought a St. Augustine hotel for their honeymoon. About five years later, Flagler established his Bacchus Club Casino in 1888 inside his Ponce de Leon hotel in St. Augustine. Over the next 25 years until his death in 1913, Flagler erected two more casinos in Florida, each with gambling.
Of course, it was the 1920s and 30s in which vice in America became popular nesting areas for gangsters. Gambling – and the organized crime mobs that ran them – thrived in Miami and Tampa Al Capone himself bought a winter home in Tampa in the 1930s, which at that time had become known as “Little Chicago.”
Tampa was hardly alone in shadiness, however; Legislation which would allow pari-mutuel betting on horse racing got through the senate in 1931 despite massive opposition, though then-governor Doyle Carlton vetoed the bill despite a reported $100,000 bribe offer. No matter: The veto was overridden and Florida’s racetracks continued taking punters’ money as before, just under auspices of law. Similarly, slot machines were legalized in 1935.
With the creation of the Crime Commission of Greater Miami and the state’s gambling commission in the 1940s, organized crime was more or less chased out of Florida’s casinos by the 60s. However, at that time, loto-style games were also drawing untold amounts of illegally-gained winnings in Tampa and elsewhere.
A dream to compete with Las Vegas by creating an incredible 16-mile strip of casinos and like entertainment that some politicos and casino operators started pushing in 1975 is interesting as a historical footnote, but these folks’ ambition was the seed of its own destruction. A coalition formed to opposed the plan, including the Florida cruise ship industry, the Walt Disney folks, right-wing Christians and animal-rights organizations. This eclectic bunch rallied to oppose referendums on the subject in 1978, ’86 and ’94.
In the meantime, a few more Native American-operated casinos went up in Florida thanks to the federal Indian Gambling Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988, but expansion to gambling in Florida outside of reservation land only began again in 2004.
The emphasis in the Florida gambling industry, however, is on the “racino” concept: Tracks for horse or greyhound racing may provide on-site a few hundred casino games to enjoy alongside the sport.
As of this writing, nine straight-up casinos are open in the Sunshine State; six of these, including both of Florida’s Hard Rock franchisees, are managed by the Seminole tribe. Tampa and Miami host three and two gaming facilities, respectively. And naturally the Broward County and Palm Beach areas make for great places for gaming entertainment as well, with 11 racinos and casinos in these regions combined.
Aside from killing the Florida Strip, about the only victory anti-gambling proponesnts can claim in Florida is the maintenance of the 21-year age limit at Florida casinos. All other forms of gambling in Florida, including the ever-popular horse racing, require players to be at least 18 years old.
We don’t know if M.C. Davis qualifies as famous, but the effect he’ll have on Florida for perhaps even centuries to come is certainly for more profound than that of, say, natives Mickey Rourke and Wesley Snipes.
Davis spent much of the 1960s and 70s (from the time he was 16 until about 30, by his estimates) earning a living through gambling, mostly at the card tables. After winning the appropriate amount of money, Davis would plunk it into the purchase of two-mile strips of land alongside Florida’s newest highways. Ultimately, after the card playing was swapped out for a career in land speculation, Davis amassed untold millions in other assets.
The legacy of this incredible success story? Davis had been developing some 54,000 acres of land into a longleaf pine forest and, with his death in 2015, this private preserve became cared for by the state to help save some of Florida’s disappearing biodiversity.
Essentially most forms of gambling are legal in Florida – heck, it’s just one of six states still running greyhound races. In Florida, a legal adult may play the state lottery, horse races, casino gambling and the like – and in much safer and fairer fashion than about 80 years ago…
One can’t imagine much expansion to extant gambling law in Florida. In this very purple state, the conservative side still holds a lot of say in social issues. These folks have resisted changes to gambling law since the turn of the 20th century and, to be fair, they’ve mostly lost. But change, if any is to come to gambling in Florida, will certainly come slowly and with much advance warning.