If you're from Florida or the nearby Southern states and don't want to travel to Vegas, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa is a terrific alternative -- just prepare for a lot of noise and cigarette smoke
Monday 9th March 2020
I stayed in a Deluxe King, which starts at $219 but cost me $619 in high season. I loved the modern and expansive space, but as a whole, the venue smelled like cigarette smoke and was loud. This hotel is best for groups or couples who like to party rather than business travelers or those looking for romance.
Located just off I-4 on the Tampa Reservation - one of the six governed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida - the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa is a massive compound. Founded on nine acres of land, it sits relatively isolated, with only the Florida State Fairgrounds and its MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre nearby for competition.
But the self-contained complex doesn't really need any company. It debuted in 2004 but has undergone a glitzy $700 million expansion that was completed in fall 2019. Florida's biggest gaming site and one of the largest in the nation, the casino alone is nearly 200,000 square feet. And the many milling guests justify all that space.
The new enhancements include a 15-story, 564-room East Tower, which brings the lodgings to a total of 800 rooms and suites, as well as a 25,000 square-foot Rock Spa & Salon, and a 30,000 square-foot Seminole Hard Rock Event Center. Six shops and a 200-seat Italian restaurant, gelateria/coffee shop, and wine cellar were also added, as well as three enticing pools and a 120-seat pool bar and grill. Finally, 600 parking spots were tacked onto the 6,000 that already await wheels.
I decided to go and check out all these numbers - and play a few of my own, because I'm something of a blackjack addict. I booked a standard Deluxe King in the East Tower, which typically starts at $269 and drops to $219 in the summer. On coveted peak nights, these standard rooms run between $599 (West Tower) to $619 (East Tower). And that's without the upgraded pool view.
Being a Florida resident and signing up for a Wild Card can help reduce costs as well. But even though I live in Miami and registered for the account, I wound up shelling out, with taxes and fees, $685.85 for a room overlooking the parking lot. Next time I'll know to upgrade to the Luxury King Suite in the West Tower, which ranges from $499-849 and includes a bathtub with jets, floor-to-ceiling windows, and contemporary, custom-crafted furniture that likely feels more worth the inflated price.
Pulling into the multiple-lane valet parking system was like coming in for a landing at an executive airport. Uniformed team members directed traffic so efficiently I was out of the car and heading to the lobby within seconds. The valet costs $25 per day with unlimited re-entry. I was told it takes three to five minutes to retrieve the car, but the actuality was more like 13-15 minutes, especially during busy dinner hours, so plan accordingly. I was almost late to an event because of this optimistic information.
More than anything, this campus resembled an upscale mini-mall, with a large parking garage, modest signage, and several connected structures to greet you.
Inside, the polished marble floors and gold-hued light fixtures hung from recessed ceilings and added to that initial mall impression.
Entering the lobby, I was charmed by the brilliantine of Elvis Presley's gold piano, but less so by the clanging and trilling of more than 4,000 slot machines and the unmistakable haze of cigarette smoke. It's easy to forget, in our everyday clean-air cocoons, that public smoking is still allowed in casinos. And to get to reception, your room, and every amenity, you have to skirt or cross the smoky casino floor.
That said, you don't go to a Hard Rock property if you're not prepared to tolerate other people's habits. Along with tons of rock-and-roll memorabilia, retail shops offering branded merchandise, and framed gold records everywhere, expect to observe drunken debauchery and public displays of affection from fellow guests. In the end, just like the games and live music acts that were performing in the various bars, I considered it all entertainment. What can I say? I'm a creative writer: I adore a good scene.
Checking in was a Tampa Bay breeze. Velvet ropes anchored by electric guitar "poles" were there to keep crowds organized. I arrived on a Saturday night at 5 p.m., but didn't encounter anyone other than a mannequin wearing a Lady Gaga costume.
After giving my card to one of the numerous, polite clerks for the requisite $100 security deposit, and receiving instructions for the free Wi-Fi, I was on my way.
I walked the carpet along the edge of the casino to the elevators, which are guarded by security to prevent non-guests from entering. The elevators also smelled like smoke, as did the hallways, even if you've booked a non-smoking room. I found it more pleasurable to focus on the souvenirs left by the likes of Nicki Minaj.
Fortunately, when I reached my room, I found it shut out smoke, noise, and every other unwanted intrusion as effectively as an angry spouse.
I booked a Deluxe King in the new East Tower. Because it was a Saturday night in high season, it cost $619 without tax. On other days of the week, however, this room and the Deluxe Queen, which has two beds, start at $269 in high season. In the low season, it goes down to $219.
I found the Deluxe King and Double Queen, at 400-square-feet, to be expansive enough for two people without feeling crowded. I liked the generous bed, contemporary corner seating arrangement that was ideal for room service, and the 55-inch television mounted above a dresser topped with ice bucket, glasses, and drinks menu.
I found the "Sleep Like a Rock" Egyptian cotton bedding to be comfortable as well as clever, embroidered with little guitars on the pillowcases. I also appreciated the variety of charging cords and connections offered on the night table.
A smart fridge with "quick cool" and "snooze" options was handy for storing leftovers from Council Oak Steaks & Seafood or Cispresso, and was found under the room's Keurig coffee maker.
In the closet, a safe pulled out like a drawer and opened from the top, which was very convenient and easy to use. The closet itself was spacious and contained an ironing board, an iron, and robes.
The bathroom was also roomy, with double sinks and a generous seat in the shower. The toilet had a separate room, and the whole area was tastefully done in tones of white and gray with stacked stone backsplashes.
I thoroughly enjoyed the walk-in steam shower, which had both a European handheld showerhead and a rainfall shower function, with a simple hot-cold dial that did not take an engineering degree to figure out.
I also admired how the Sweetgrass toiletries were attractively wrapped in a washcloth, and the Gilchrist and Soames soap propped on a fanned towel. The only problem, aside from the single-use plastics, was that the water puddled over the lip of the shower, requiring an extra towel along with the bathmat to soak it up.
Overall, the room was discriminatingly decorated in modern lines. Filled with light from windows that were covered by gauzy curtains (and blackout blinds at night), it was also an oasis of quiet and clean air that facilitated quality sleep. Oddly, though, the view of the parking lot was jarring.
A similar room in the West Tower would have cost $599. In summer months, prices fall on weekends in both towers for Deluxe rooms to $419. It makes just as much sense to book a Luxury Spa or King Suite in the West Tower, which ranges from $499-849, depending on day and season, as it includes a bathtub, a wall of windows, and customized clusters of furniture. For higher-end suites, which are fewer in number and have more specialized amenities and features, you have to call for price and availability.
If I were to come back, I'd book a Luxury Suite for the same money or spring for the Deluxe pool view.
The 200,000-square-foot casino, which was crowded at all times of the day and night, was easily the biggest draw. Although it doesn't technically have roulette and craps, it offers computerized versions of those games, as well as 4,000 slot machines and 138 table games. A non-smoking casino on level two is also available.
Within the casino complex, you can listen to live music or watch sports at the half-dozen bars and lounges. These handle overflow from the restaurants at night - you do need reservations if you want to dine at prime hours - and are also quite busy.
I eventually grabbed a drink at the Center Bar, which had 12 televisions broadcasting everything from motocross to music videos, while I waited for a last-minute reservation at Council Oak Steaks & Seafood. While I was there, security was called to intervene in a drunken incident.
On the way to Council Oak, the popular albeit pricey steak house, I witnessed more guests being less than their stellar best. One who was being carried by friends, another was drunkenly sobbing, a third was belligerent.
Once in the steakhouse, over a tasty meal of medium-rare rib-eye, baked potato, and creamed spinach, another table had trouble controlling a near passed-out member of their party. This is certainly a venue where guests overindulge. Next time, I'd come on a weekday, when folks likely keep it more together.
If you're on-site for several nights in a row, you can also try Cispresso, the new high-end Italian restaurant, or go with the more casual, tried-and-true Hard Rock Café.
Other dining choices run the gamut from The Rez Grill and Fresh Harvest Buffet to Rock 'N Raw and Jubao Palace Noodle Bar. I enjoyed gelato for dessert from Constant Grind, another new addition.
For breakfast, Rise Kitchen & Deli is popular, but the smoke from the casino drifted into the open eating area. I took my made-to-order mocha latte out to the pools to avoid it.
The three pools, a cabana area, and a Pool Bar & Grill, are also part of the recent expansions.
Located on the second floor, they are adjacent to the eerily quiet Rock Spa & Salon and the Body Rock gym, complete with weight machines, free weights, treadmills, and other cardio equipment - everything but people. I wandered around the spa, gym, and salon, all of which were lovely and tastefully done, before making my way out to the pools. The echoing interiors were a stark contrast to the can't-hear-myself-think casino.
The pools, too, were mostly unoccupied, an advantage for those like me who appreciate solitude. I'm not sure if the majority of people who visit this venue are locals who don't need to soak up the sun as much as others, or if the pool area was too new to be a serious draw. But it was unusually quiet on this particular, amazingly beautiful Sunday.
Should it become busy, however, guests will have to arrive early to find a lounge chair. There didn't seem to be that many. Other options include renting a cabana, which ranges from $150 to $700.
The Pool Bar & Grill was on-hand to serve frozen drinks in pouches as well as one of the biggest club sandwiches I could ever hope to attempt.
If or when the interior overwhelms you, the pool and spa area is your escape hatch.
Opposite the Rock Spa & Salon, framing the other side of the pools, the 30,000 square-foot Seminole Hard Rock Event Center hosts concerts, trade shows, conventions, and meeting space, with a full model of the entire complex.
The walls were covered with renderings of various artists and gold records. When a convention is in the building, or a poker tournament or concert is taking place, I'd imagine the pool area becomes quite crowded.
Not much is located in the immediate neighborhood. Next door, the Florida State Fairgrounds and the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre also offer events that complement or compete with the Seminole Hard Rock Event Center, depending on how you look at it.
Otherwise, the nearest entertainment is Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark District only seven miles away. Once there, you can learn about cigars and dominos, shop boutiques, and dine on Spanish cuisine (don't neglect the Cuban sandwich!) at the historic Columbia Restaurant, open since 1905.
Past guests loved the large room sizes, upscale restaurants, casino offering, and other activities. Most agree that there's always something to do at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa. They also liked the modern decor in rooms with "amazing" showers. Almost everyone agreed that the pools are beautiful even if they didn't get to use them.
However, many guests complained about the smoke, calling the air in the casino and hallways "unbreathable." A few had issues with air-conditioning and plumbing fixtures. Several didn't think it was worth the elevated price at busier times.
Who stays here: People who like to party, and party hard. Couples, bachelor and bachelorette parties make up many of the revelers, but I also saw families with small children that appreciated the suites and pools.
We like: The rock-and-roll memorabilia, the gorgeous pool and spa area, and the professional and friendly staff.
We love (don't miss this feature!): The on-site concerts are a fabulous option, and if you like to gamble, as I do, this is the biggest casino in Florida. There's also a no-smoking casino on the second level.
We think you should know: As mentioned, the cigarette smoke can be overwhelming. My hair, clothing, and luggage all smelled afterward. And if you're offended by loud partiers and drinkers, book elsewhere.
We'd do this differently next time: I'd book a suite in the older West Tower for the same money that I spent on a newer room in the East Tower with more features. I'd also stay during the week for a few days as opposed to one day over the weekend, to hopefully experience a calmer crowd.
If you're from Florida or the nearby Southern states and don't want to travel to Vegas, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa is a terrific alternative. Although the roulette and carps are computerized, the casino offers blackjack and poker, and the slots machines are hypnotic. While room rates surge on weekends, they're more moderate on weeknights, so it averages out. I was only in town for one night and love to gamble, so I didn't mind building up some credibility on my Wild Card with an expensive room.
With its 2019, $700 million expansion, the hotel's facilities definitely increase the allure. The high-end restaurants and casual cafes offer fare that's high-quality enough to keep you on campus. On-site entertainment, a luxurious salon and spa, and three pretty pools with private cabanas also make it easy to linger.
The cigarette smoke, however, is a big problem. It's clear that management has tried to address it with the alternative, smoke-free casino. But like the rowdy crowds, there's simply no escaping it.