The Story Of Trump Plaza And Its Roller-Coaster Ride In Atlantic City

Written By Bill Gelman on September 22, 2020 - Last Updated on March 4, 2021

Once upon a time, Trump Plaza was used to film a scene in Ocean’s Eleven. Danny Ocean (played by George Clooney) was trying to recruit Frank Catton (portrayed by the late Bernie Mac) for a job.

It was a small scene in the 2001 movie, and most viewers probably didn’t make the connection. Trump Plaza was the centerpiece of the AC Boardwalk then. It was the site of star-studded parties, wrestling matches and big money.

And decades before becoming president of the United States, Donald Trump was front and center in the Atlantic City casino spotlight.

Fast-forward to today, and the once-glitzy casino hotel is literally a crumbling vestige of its former self. The shuttered property is scheduled to be imploded on Jan. 29, 2021.

So before the 39-story hotel tower comes tumbling down, here is a look back at Trump Plaza’s history. While we’re at it, we’ll take a look at what should happen next with the soon-to-be-vacant lot.

Start of the Trump casino empire

The story of Trump Plaza Atlantic City dates back to May 15, 1984.

Some may recall the original name being Harrah’s at Trump Plaza, with the former being Holiday Inn’s gaming brand at the time. The Trump Organization would eventually take full ownership of the $210 million property.

It was Atlantic City’s tallest building at the time. The centerpiece was the 60,000-square-foot gaming floor.

But the casino was just the start of Trump’s big Atlantic City plans.

Trump Castle, now Golden Nugget AC, opened the following year. The property was originally slated to be operated by Hilton Hotels, but the company failed to get approved for a gaming license.

Then, in 1990, the ginormous Trump Taj Mahal, which was billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” opened next to Resorts. This property has since been rebranded as Hard Rock AC.

And those familiar with Atlantic City history will likely recall the smaller Trump World’s Fair on the former Playboy site.

At its height, the Trump casino empire on the Boardwalk and Marina included four hotels and casinos.

Trump Plaza enjoyed its share of good times

The World’s Fair site has since been demolished. So this makes Trump Plaza the final piece standing (and that’s even questionable at this point). But believe it or not, the building enjoyed its share of moments in the national spotlight.

We are not just talking about a scene out of a Steven Soderbergh movie, either.

June 27, 1988, will likely forever hold the top spot. This is the date heavyweight champion Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson even made the trip for fight night.

There was a Donald Trump and Marla Maples sighting, too.

Click on an image below to view it. 

The property also hosted WrestleMania IV and V, the WWF’s (now WWE) marque event of the year. Hulk Hogan was the big star back then. Today, the annual show sells out NFL football stadiums when social distancing guidelines are a nonissue.

Of course, we can’t forget about the Miss America Parade.

And several big-name acts also performed at Trump Plaza’s showroom, including the Beach Boys and Smokey Robinson.

It’s all part of Trump Plaza’s history.

Trump’s Atlantic City success story deflated by bankruptcies

While customers enjoyed plenty of good times, Trump’s casino company struggled to maintain solid financial footing on the casino floor. Multiple bankruptcies prevented Trump Plaza from maintaining long-term profitability.

And all of that played a role in the doors closing for good. Here is a look back at the not-so-good times:

  • 1986: Trump buys Holiday Inn out of Trump Plaza and takes full ownership of the property.
  • 1992: Trump Plaza and Trump Castle file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • 1995: The Plaza is consolidated into Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, a publicly traded company.
  • 2004: The company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The parent company changes its name to Trump Entertainment Resorts.
  • 2009: Donald Trump resigns as chairman but maintains a 10% ownership stake after the parent company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • 2014: Trump Plaza closes, and its parent company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Donald Trump is no longer associated with the business.
  • July 2014: The parent company announces the pending closure of Trump Plaza.
  • February 2016: Carl Icahn takes over ownership of the two remaining Trump AC properties.
  • March 2020: Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. holds a press conference outside of Boardwalk Hall seeking a court order to have the former hotel and casino immediately demolished.
  • June 2020: Small holds another press conference to announce that Trump Plaza will be imploded.

Trump Plaza closes in 2014 with no future plans

While Trump Plaza may be viewed as a financial bust, the eventual closure came at a time when the AC casino industry was struggling big time.

Outside competition from neighboring states had a lasting impact on the resort town and the casinos that called it home.

In 2014, a town of 12 casinos was downsized to eight. The Atlantic ClubRevel (now Ocean), and Showboat all closed alongside Trump Plaza.

What makes the Trump Plaza saga stand out more is its location. Think about it.

The Jersey Shore is considered a resort destination, yet the property at the center of the Boardwalk is closed and falling apart. When the doors were locked for good on Sept. 16, 2014, there were no buyers.

Six years later, what comes next (after implosion and cleaning up the wreckage) remains one of Atlantic City’s great mysteries.

What does one do with prime vacant Atlantic City real estate?

Clearing the land is the next step in what will hopefully be a much bigger and better plan.

Icahn will be left with 10.5 acres of prime beachfront real estate with great views of the Atlantic Ocean. Eliminating an old problem makes the land much more attractive.

New owners will not have to worry about a building that has long been considered a safety hazard. However, another casino company purchasing the land seems highly unlikely because of the deed restriction.

The owners of the ShowboatClaridge and Atlantic Club are dealing with similar scenarios.

The would-be buyer needs to have deep pockets and creativity to think outside the box. The project needs to appeal to customers beyond gamblers and be a year-round attraction, too.

A family-friendly hotel and entertainment complex would seem to make the most sense. Showboat owner Bart Blatstein plans to go that direction with his proposed $100 million indoor water park.

Building a second aquatic-themed attraction doesn’t make sense for a seasonal market. But transforming the land into green space seems like a waste of prime real estate, too.

Replacing Trump Plaza on the Boardwalk

How about building an esports arena? It’s only a matter of time before the Garden State passes legislation and the New Jersey of Division of Gaming Enforcement approves esports betting guidelines.

Sportsbook operators are currently permitted to offer it on a case-by-case basis.

And with Esports Entertainment Group and Twin River Worldwide Holdings announcing a partnership, an esports arena would be investing in the future.

Of course, would-be developers also need to look at what the Atlantic City market is missing.

With the Tanger Outlets shopping district and Rainforest Cafe both steps away, focusing on a concept that appeals to those customers could fly. It could be as simple as a mixed-use hotel/condo/dining complex.

And with the former Trump Plaza parking garage not going anywhere, the next owner will have a head start.

For now, imploding the building and clearing the property is the priority. At this point, almost anything would be considered an upgrade from the now-deteriorating Trump Plaza. It is a shadow of its former self.

And who knows? This story could have a Hollywood ending.

Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images
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Bill Gelman

Bill Gelman is a veteran sports writer based just outside of Philadelphia and not too far from the Jersey Shore. Bill spends time in Atlantic City writing about casino openings and expansions, special events and now NJ sports betting and online gambling.

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