Viejas Casino. Vegas Casinos. Two alliterative words that certainly sound similar. But appearance? Until recently, the San Diego-area casino and Sin City were about as identical as Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And now? From October 19 to 21, the public is invited to a grand opening weekend celebration. The event officially reveals the results of a seven-year, $250-million renovation to Viejas Casino & Resort, and showcases a visual package that more closely aligns with the décor and ambiance associated with Las Vegas.
Weeks before the Grand Opening, I’m on an informal walking tour of the seriously upgraded casino-resort with general manager Todd Simons. Bronx-born and amiable (yes, you can be both), Simons leads me to the textured, gold-and-silver-accented lobby of the brand-new Willows Hotel & Spa. The adults-only, all-suites property has 159 rooms, and the lobby exudes an upscale boutique ambiance.
Viejas Casino: Walking the Talk
Simons is beaming when we stroll out of the lobby. Employees wave and make small talk. The GM exhibits the friendly patter of somebody who’s spent the majority of the last three decades as an executive at Las Vegas casinos.
In reverse order, Simons worked at The Cosmopolitan, The Palms, Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock, New York-New York and the Flamingo Hilton. His Vegas career kicked off after a chance meeting at Circus Circus when he was a 20-year-old bootstrapper.
“I went to Vegas for a vacation, but wound up working during the vacation,” he recalls. “I went back home to the Bronx, got my car and drove back to start a long career in Las Vegas.”
Simons came on board at Viejas in early 2017 and has been GM for a little over a year. The renovation process has been a seven-year endeavor. But like most construction efforts, the visible change happens quickly near the end.
A sparkling hallway takes us from the Willows lobby past the luxury spa entrance, the contemporary/farm-centric Locale Kitchen & Lounge, and into the revamped and expanded casino floor. Simons leads me into the new, pristine, super-sized, 15,000-square-foot high-limit gaming area. Breathe in deeply and inhale that new baccarat table smell.
If you haven’t been to Viejas in a few years, it may be difficult to get your bearings in the new layout. I get spun around trying to pinpoint exactly where the poker room used to be—a task made more difficult by the fact that it moved a couple times during the former iteration.
After we exit the high-limit room, Simons extends his arm in the universal “behold” gesture. And there in front of us is the shiny new Center Bar. It popped it’s first cork just days earlier.
The 360-degree rectangular Center Bar is a colossal 1,900 square feet. There are 50 bar seats—each with video poker or some gaming machine in front of it on the bar top. Wrapped above the interior of the bar are 18 65-inch flat-screen TVs. Are you ready for some football?
Indeed, the Center Bar’s tile-and-stone architectural elements—as well as its sheer height and placement under an open area with already tall ceilings—makes a bold statement.
“There are a lot of casinos in the San Diego market,” notes Simons. “But there’s nothing—when it comes to design—that can compete with the Vegas market other than Viejas.”
Willows Hotel & Spa rooms
There’s no debate that the suites in Viejas’ new Willows Hotel & Spa are stunning.
The two-bay, 600-square-foot King and Queen suites are modern, elegant and luxurious. Tech-wise, there are a pair of 40-inch flat-screen TVs. If you’re not an Alexa owner you’ll enjoy amusing yourself with an artificially intelligent voice assistant in the room that can direct you to on-property restaurants…or even tell you jokes.
There’s an 1,800-square-foot Villa Suite for high-rollers—but even the Signature Suites come with I’d call mini-spa-sized bathrooms. These individual mini spas come with chrome fixtures, quartz counter tops, wooden benches, deep bathtubs, and rainfall-showerhead-equipped showers stalls big enough in which to park a Mini Cooper.
Some suites come with extended patios that fit a pair of chaise lounge chairs, with room to spare to play a regulation-length game of Cornhole.
From these patios, there’s a view of the also-adult-only Allure saltwater pool. Allure is serviced by a fully-stocked bar and adorned by comfy cushioned wicker seats and swings, all piled with pillows.
Viejas is giving away $250,000 and a Mercedes convertible
The October 19 to 21 public party for the Viejas upgrade will feature $250,000 in prize giveaways. Also up for raffle on October 20: a 2019 Mercedes C300 Cabrillo.
It’s just a 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego to Viejas, and worth a long look. Wander around the property. Try the Crab Louie Toast at Locale. Check out the nighttime glow of Allure.
And if you do get a chance to shake hands with Simons, ask him about the long-haired guest he met and chatted with for 20 minutes at the Hard Rock Las Vegas before realizing he was a rock superstar. Hint: Somebody was livin’ on a prayer…