Story by Karen Paton-Evans
Photography Courtesy Caesars Windsor
Shortly after Ontario’s first commercial casino opened in Windsor 25 years ago, many residents suddenly became popular with out-of-town friends and relations. One Walkerville couple with a guest room recalls juggling reservations to accommodate a stream of GTA friends who oh so casually mentioned, “While we’re down there, maybe we could drop into that new casino of yours?”
The allure and fascination for Las Vegas calibre gambling and entertainment have only grown stronger over the years, even though other gaming centres were established in communities throughout Ontario. Today, Caesars Windsor is the largest casino resort in Canada.
Windsor has been part of its progression, every step of the way.
Seeing the gleaming complex sprawling along Riverside Drive, it’s hard to imagine the casino had humble beginnings. After Ontario’s NDP government approved casino gambling in the province in 1993, all eyes were on Windsor.
Caesars World, Circus Circus Enterprises and Hilton Hotels were engaged as the team to build and operate the interim casino, which was owned by the province of Ontario and overseen by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.
A temporary home was needed.
The Art Gallery of Windsor building proved a safe bet, with three floors for gaming action and a prominent downtown location on the Detroit River. The AGW moved into Devonshire Mall, where it remained till the permanent casino was constructed farther east along Riverside Drive and a new art gallery was constructed several years later.
An army of tradespeople renovated the building in only seven months. Originally storing ale for years before it displayed art, the three-storey structure was ready to serve adults eager to try their luck on the 80 table games and thousands of slot machines.
On opening day, May 17, 1994, people lined up around the block, waiting to enter the interim casino. To take care of the steady inpouring of guests, the 1,631 employees originally hired were joined by an additional 1,391 a year later.
To avoid crowding at the casino, the province took another gamble by deciding to launch a second interim gaming venue, the Northern Belle, on Dec. 12, 1995. Even people uninterested in playing the slots enjoyed the sight of the genuine riverboat casino docked at the foot of Ouellette Avenue and Riverside Drive. Its Mardi Gras theme set the party mood for the 1,500 passengers onboard for a good time, looked after by the captain and full marine crew.
All of this gave guests and residents a taste of what was to come. With great fanfare, on July 29, 1998, Casino Windsor welcomed everyone to its permanent complex, a massive white structure with continuous banks of windows tinted aqua blue, inspired by the Great Lakes Waterways.
Local people accustomed to Essex County’s flat terrain exclaimed over the tropical atrium’s 60-foot high waterfall, lush with giant palm and olive trees and alive with meandering brooks running beneath clear plexiglass footpaths.
Musicians, dancers and comedians entertained guests in the lounges. People could grab a bite or dine leisurely in five dining areas. Overnighters now had a choice between local hotels or Casino Windsor’s new Forum Hotel Tower with 389 rooms. Non-stop gaming spread over two floors, totalling 100,000 square feet.
On May 12, 2005, OLG executives and Casino Windsor representatives put their shovels in the ground once more, this time to expand the complex with the addition of The Colosseum, Augustus Tower and Convention space.
In just 72 hours, 1,500 trucks, each hauling eight metres of concrete, convoyed for the four major concrete pours required to form the foundation of the new areas. When done, the permanent casino complex covered a total of 5.5 hectares of primarily former industrial and commercial land. The Convention Centre alone measured 100,000 square feet. The Four Diamond Augustus Hotel tower is still the tallest building on the Windsor riverfront, with 27 storeys and 369 rooms.
Casino Windsor not only received a huge expansion, it also got a new name: Caesars Windsor. As construction wrapped, large illuminated letters spelling “Caesars” were installed at the top of the building, catching the attention of Americans across the water.
The transformation complete, on June 19, 2008, Caesars Windsor hosted its premiere gala event, inviting celebrities, dignitaries and the community. Showcasing the state-of-the-art sound and lighting in the 5,000-seat Colosseum, Billy Joel played the inaugural concert and brought down the house. Since then, The Colosseum has hosted nearly 700 shows, thrilling 2.3 million guests. Celine Dion, The Tragically Hip, Russell Peters, Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias and many other headliners have played Caesars Windsor. Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band are returning this Aug. 1.
Stuart Chatwood of Windsor’s own rockers, The Tea Party, knows from the band’s past concerts that “The Colosseum is probably one of the best sounding rooms in Canada.”
Billboard ranks it among the top 10 performance venues in Canada, while Pollstar® gives it top billing among national theatre venues.
Each week, an average of 77,000 visitors come to Caesars Windsor to play, dine, take in a show, be pampered in the spa, entertain their guests and vacation.
As the city’s third largest employer, the organization is proud that over 600 employees have stayed since the 1994 opening.
On May 14, 2019, Caesars Windsor celebrated its silver anniversary in its signature lavish style. Guests included Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens and Lori Sullivan, chief operating officer, Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation.
“OLG is proud to have been on this 25-year gaming journey with the Caesars Windsor team,” Lori says. “Over the last quarter century, Windsor has received more than $87 million from OLG for being a host gaming community with those funds being used for many local improvements benefitting the people of Windsor.”
“The casino remains the number one trip motivator for our region and has provided employment to thousands and supported the community through corporate giving and charitable investments,” says regional president Kevin Laforet, who began as its first chief financial officer. “It has dramatically and positively changed the Windsor-Essex landscape.”