It doesn’t look like much now – there’s not even a sign or much frontage – but the brand new Pickering Casino Resort is going to change gambling in the province. And it will draw customers away from competing establishments like the similar-sized Casino Rama and the much smaller Ajax and Great Blue Heron casinos.
The massive Great Canadian Gaming Corporation property was scheduled to open its first phase in early 2020, but those plans were paused due to the pandemic.
On Monday, Pickering quietly opened its casino part with very little fanfare. I only heard about it because a Twitter friend DM’d me about his opening-day reservation. In Ontario’s step 3 plan, casinos are able to operate at 50 per cent capacity. I reported last week on the reopening of Fallsview Casino and Casino Niagara, two of the biggest casinos in the country. The Vegas-style Caesars Windsor reopened on July 23 and Orillia’s Casino Rama reopened on July 30.
But when I visited the Pickering Casino website early in the week, it said reservations weren’t required; walk-ups were accepted and patrons could come on a first-come, first-served basis, “occupancy permitting.” At the top of its homepage it lists info about its current capacity – updated, it seems, every 12 hours or so. “No delays are expected to enter the casino floor during your visit” it reads – which makes me suspicious because I’ve checked it more than a dozen times over four days and I’ve never seen it read anything else.
Located just off Highway 401 in Pickering (Brock exit), it’s about a 45-minute to 1-hour drive from downtown Toronto, and anywhere from 10-30 minutes from Markham, Ajax, Whitby or Oshawa.
Hoping to beat the after-work crowd, my dad and I visited on the first Friday afternoon. A few hastily erected signs point the way. And unlike most casinos, there’s no “Ahhh” moment when the property comes into sight. In its present state it resembles nothing more than a large factory or the back of a mall. Workers are set up to guide you into a parking lot. When I ask one if I can get out and take a picture of the front, he says there is no front, and no other way in.
After we park, enter the space and don our masks, there is about a 10-15 minute lineup to check our information and current health for contact tracing. The set-up looks about as warm and inviting as a pop-up vaccination clinic.
Then we are led through a curtain-lined hallway (which seems like a storage area), told to remove our masks and look up at invisible cameras. Before long we’re ushered into the gaming hall.
It is massive, more than 300,000 square feet. Shiny new banks of slot machines are grouped according to manufacturer, beeping and flashing to beckon you over. A couple of wide paths take you deeper into the casino – the key to any gaming establishment, after all, is to draw you in so you keep spending money.
Dozens of tables have been set up for blackjack and other live card-based games. At these tables, plexiglass has been installed, and every other spot remains empty for distancing reasons. When I spot someone leaving one of two brand new Roll to Win craps games, I head over and, before I can play, the pit boss wipes off the screen and chair.
Constructed during the pandemic
Unlike older casinos, Pickering was built during the pandemic, so accommodating for distancing was obviously part of their plan. Plexiglass rests easily between slot machines. And even if they’ve been deactivated, many machines are still lit up, avoiding that ghostly feeling that plagues many other partially reopened casinos.
While the present casino lacks a personality, signs throughout tell you what’s coming: live music, restaurants, shows, a hotel. After a few hours of up-and-down gambling, my dad and I visit the only open restaurant, which serves an à la carte menu, and the food is very good, although it comes in takeout boxes, complete with plastic cutlery and condiment packages. Eventually, there will be a buffet, a high-end steak place and a Chinese restaurant as well.
Complimentary beverage stations are set up along several walls but are currently cordoned off for health reasons. Cocktail servers come around pretty regularly, as well as people pushing carts for complimentary coffee and water (remember to tip them).
One of the big draws at the Pickering casino is a special room for stadium gaming, where gamblers play on a monitor in front of them, choosing from various games – among them baccarat and blackjack – while live dealers flip cards at the front, their moves captured by cameras and projected onto big screens. A few hours into my trip I visit, and the energy here is raucous, the music cranked up and the young dealers sharing a jokey banter between them.
Low rollers will have a hard time
The slot machines (2,399 will be active when it’s fully operational) are all shiny and new, featuring the latest games. Because there are so few older games, however, low rollers won’t be able to bet 25 or 30 cents per spin. After all, the casino is in the business of making money.
The proof of that hits home as I prepare to leave and stand in line for a redemption machine – a console that takes paper tickets from slot machines and dispenses cash. It’s hard to find these machines, because they’re often located far from the exit. The reasoning, of course, is that people looking for them will be drawn to the bells and whistles of other machines, and so stick in that ticket to keep playing until they’re cleaned out. As Kenny Rogers sings, you’ve got to know when to fold ’em.
This particular machine doubles as an ATM, and the guy in front of me curses after the screen says he has insufficient funds. After trying another card, he’s told it’s been declined and the transaction is cancelled.
A few minutes later, as my dad and I are leaving at around 11:30 pm, a lineup of mostly younger people stretches outside the makeshift casino entrance. I estimate they’ll be waiting at least another half hour. It’s then that it hits me: This place is going to be a gold mine. Why would people in the GTA travel 90 minutes to go to Niagara Falls or Orillia when they can get here in less than half that time?
I look again at the lineup of masked, expectant faces. I hope they have sufficient funds.