Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Twice each year my wife Anne and I drive down to southern Indiana. Usually it’s for the sake of visiting relatives, helping family keep in touch, doing something nice for others, that sort of thing. Usually it consists of one three-hour drive down slow highways behind lackadaisical drivers, four to six hours of sitting and chatting and letting the older folks enjoy each other’s company while we might or might not nod off, then another three-hour drive home. We’re adult enough to accept not every weekend can be a convention or even a trip to the movie theater.
Dateline: October 24, 2015. My aunt suggested we break routine and get together for a bit of Indiana tourism. We headed out to the twin towns of French Lick and West Baden. When I was a kid we drove through them frequently but rarely stopped in either of them except for gas. Fast-forward four decades later, and now each town has a special attraction to boast as their own. For West Baden, it’s the enormous West Baden Springs Hotel, a structure with a history dating back to 1855 filled with frequently changing ownerships, periods of disuse, extensive restoration funded by multiple donors, and a new life today as a premier getaway in the southern Indiana area…
Next door to the West Baden Springs Hotel is their sister establishment, the French Lick Springs Hotel. Though they occupy adjacent lots, together they’re a joint resort as inseparable as the two towns themselves, united around a single establishment: the French Lick Springs Casino.
French Lick’s hotel dates back to the 1840s, but fell into a long period of decline in the mid-20th century like West Baden’s had. Circa 2005 a local billionaire took a vested interest in both buildings and arranged for a staggering amount of funding to restore both back to timeless, decadent beauty. His organization also spearheaded an intense lobbying effort to legalize casino gambling in the area in hopes of turning their combined properties into one big upscale resort. Despite protests from local who weren’t excited about what this would do to their property taxes (my own family in the area included), government bought in. Both hotels and the all-new casino opened in 2006 and seem to have enjoyed a measure of success ever since.
Anne and I have only been in a casino once before, and we weren’t there to gamble. Our party on this occasion still had no interest in surrendering money or minutes to their coffers, but had two goals in mind: to see what it looked like inside, and to grab lunch. We walked past money machines bearing images of Ellen DeGeneres and The Walking Dead to reach their concession stand, which offered mostly predictable concession stand fare. To my mild delight they also sold breakfast sandwiches. A hearty sausage-‘n’-egg sandwich in the middle of the day sounded fine by me, once I added enough packets of salt and pepper to boost the flavor level.
Sadly, no photos were allowed inside the casino itself. I presume it looks like most other typical casinos, like a video arcade where the patrons are five or ten times older than the kids who used to play Galaga and Tempest back in my heyday, except we played for fun and pride, not for funds and pulped hopes.
The symbiotic complex around the casino, on the other hand, appeared to be fair game, photo-wise. To us the best showcase was the hotel interior, particularly its flashy displays of Greco-Roman paintings all around the lobby walls and ceilings.
For an intermission we took advantage of the French Lick Resort Trolley, a nifty novelty for fans of trains and train-like vehicles. For a small fee the trolley rode on the rails into the area woods, then back to the hotel entrance. We took photos of the surroundings as we passed, nearly all of them blurry.
Afterward we walked the complex a bit more, perusing the small shops and other decorations.
To be fair, the FL/WB resort has noticeably boosted local quality-of-life to a far higher level than we’re accustomed to seeing from casino towns, where gambling conglomerates are usually happy to benefit from their hosts without actually giving back to them. Sidewalks and shrubbery look far better than they did when we drove through town in my childhood. Formerly abandoned businesses have been reborn under new owners and enterprises, not all of them nationwide chains. The dilapidation of old has been supplanted with the new ambiance of “Welcome!” to provide a unified front to out-of-towners and their dollars. The hometown of basketball’s Larry Bird now has more to show off than just him.
It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to blow all my retirement funds there.