Road Warrior

MGM National Harbor brings a slice of Las Vegas to the DC/Maryland area

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
The outdoor plaza at MGM National Harbor offers views of the harbor, the Potomac River and the nation's capital.
Source: Harriet Baskas

If opening day was any indication, it's a pretty sure bet Maryland's brand-new $1.4 billion integrated resort casino — billed as "Las Vegas on the Potomac" — is going to be a winner.

Within 15 minutes of opening its doors to the public for the first time on Dec. 8, the MGM National Harbor was filled to capacity.

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"They could not admit any more people until other guests left" on the first night, Liz Fitzsimmons, managing director of the Maryland Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts, told CNBC. "And they have been at capacity several days and evenings since then."

So what's all the fuss about?

10,000 pounds of soil excavated from MGM National Harbor's construction site was used in this artwork, which is a map of the region.
Source: Harriet Baskas

The 23-acre MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino sits on the banks of the Potomac River about 15 miles from Washington and is the first resort-casino to break ground in the metropolitan D.C. area. The MGM National joins five other casinos in Maryland, an outgrowth of 2012 legislation that expanded casinos and gaming in the state.

The luxury project is providing about 4,000 new jobs, and marks the East Coast debut of MGM Resorts, the company that gave Vegas the Bellagio, MGM Grand and Aria, among other properties.

"When we envisioned MGM National Harbor, we wanted to create a resort destination that embodied the excitement of Las Vegas and the amenities it's known for, while also embracing the essence of the Capital Region with its steep heritage and local roots," said Bill Boasberg, general manager of MGM National Harbor.

He added that MGM expects the facility to become a "tourism driver" for a region that welcomed more than 20 million visitors last year.

The Conservatory at MGM National Harbor features extravagant, seasonal floral displays.
Source: Harriet Baskas

The property boasts a 24-story hotel with more than 300 rooms and a 125,000-square-foot casino floor with 3,300 slot machines and dozens of card game tables.

In addition to some first-to-market slot games, the casino has a bill validator that will automatically convert currency, as well as machines that print out time-saving tax forms for lucky jackpot winners. It keeps them from hanging around waiting for staff people to fill out paperwork.

The resort also has a host of amenities like a spa, salon and upscale retail shops — including actress Sarah Jessica Parker's first stand-alone boutique, SJP. Among the more than 15 dining venues are chef-driven restaurants from Marcus Samuelsson, Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, and Jose Andres. The latter's seafood restaurant, FISH, will feature Maryland blue crab and Rappahannock oysters on the menu.

The 24-hour Blossom Cocktail lounge pays homage to the Washington D.C. iconic cherry blossom season.
Source: Harriet Baskas

Beyond gaming, shopping and eating, there are bars, nightclubs and a 3,000-seat theater where headliners such as Lionel Richie, Bruno Mars, Cher and ZZ Top have already been booked. A sculpted iron archway by legendary musician and Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan adorns one entrance, and a wall-mounted interpretation of the National Harbor created with soil dug from the resort's construction site hangs behind the check-in desk.

A signature amenity of MGM National Harbor is a conservatory that's actually 20 percent bigger than its Vegas counterpart at the Bellagio. The 15,000-square-foot showcase has three display beds, an 85-foot-tall glass atrium and will present seasonally changing botanical exhibits made from thousands of flowers and plants.

More than 150,000 flowers were used in the MGM National's inaugural "Holiday Reflections" exhibit, and all the flowers going forward will come from Melwood, a local nonprofit that employs people with disabilities.

Lucky for MGM National visitors, the resort-casino's strategic location offers lots of additional entertainment nearby.

The facility is part of the larger, 350-acre National Harbor development, which offers many shops and restaurants, movies, hotels, a carousel and a pirate ship adventure. One such attraction, the Capital Wheel, is a 189-foot observation vessel with heated and air-conditioned gondolas that offers spectacular views of the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, among others.

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas. Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.