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Inside the affordable beach town where the Miss America pageant takes place

Miss America of 1984, Vanessa Williams (center), with other contestants on the beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Bettmann | Getty Images
Miss America of 1984, Vanessa Williams (center), with other contestants on the beach in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The Miss America beauty pageant ended the swimsuit competition, but contestants will still participate in photo shoots and promos in swimwear on the beaches of Atlantic City, New Jersey, where the event will be televised live on ABC on September 9 at Boardwalk Hall.

But Atlantic City is much more than just the home of the famous pageant. It's an affordable beach town with a glamorous past. And after years in an economic downturn, the city is now being revitalized.

Miss America originated in Atlantic City on the Jersey Shore in 1921 as a bathing beauty contest. It ran there for 85 years before relocating to Las Vegas from 2006 to 2013 because of rising costs, according to The New York Times; the bill was more than half a million dollars every year.

Atlantic City wooed the pageant back in 2013, then the state offered $12.5 million dollars in subsidies in 2016 for another three-year deal. NJ.com reports that Miss America would promote Atlantic City during her appearances at awards shows, and Dick Clark Productions would have to promote Atlantic City during productions like Billboard Music Awards and New Year's Rockin' Eve. Miss America is under contract to promote the city as well.

Though this comes at a time when Atlantic City has been struggling as a tourist destination for years, the local tourism board is betting on Miss America to bring attention (and tourists) back to the Jersey Shore beach town known for its glamorous past.

Aerial view of Atlantic City
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Aerial view of Atlantic City

In its heyday, Atlantic City was a retreat for wealthy east coasters, as far back as the 1850s. Through the decades, famous faces like Ulysses S. Grant, Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra vacationed here, and rich people came through in the 1920s since officials didn't enforce Prohibition. Gambling became legal in 1976, and the large casino resorts started opening doors, including three Trump Entertainment Resorts properties: Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, Trump Marina Hotel Casino and the Trump Taj Mahal.

But by the early 1990s, Donald Trump's businesses were failing: According to The New York Times, stock and bondholders lost more than $1.5 billion in the casinos. All Trump casinos closed, including Trump Marina Hotel Casino (now Golden Nugget) and Trump's $1.2 billion-dollar Taj Mahal (which filed for bankruptcy in 1991), reportedly sold to Hard Rock International for $50 million.

Revel, a $2.4-billion casino resort opened in April 2012, closed 14 months later due to lack of guests.

Group portrait of Miss America contestants on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, 1962.
Hulton Archive | Getty Images
Group portrait of Miss America contestants on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, 1962.

Now, the local government is investing in Atlantic City to rebuild the city's identity and future. The Washington Post reported "it hopes for revival as a millennial playground" with survival depending on "shows, spas and clubs, not chips and cards."

The $200 million Ocean Resort Casino, which is partnering with actor Mark Wahlberg who is opening one of his Wahlburger burger joints there, will open in the former Revel Casino, and the $500 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino will open in the former Trump Taj Mahal, both on June 28. Carrie Underwood and Pitbull are scheduled to perform at Hard Rock Hotel's grand opening.

The Borgata, the city's first luxury casino resort aimed at younger travelers, is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Its birthday bash will be hosted by Iron Chefs Michael Symon and Geoffrey Zakarian and Barry Manilow will be on hand for events. Borgata recently opened a new beer garden and outdoor pool.

The new Hard Rock Hotel Atlantic City
Hard Rock Hotels
The new Hard Rock Hotel Atlantic City

The past year has been good for Atlantic City.

According to financial reports filed with the Division of Gaming Enforcement, the casino licensees' total revenue increased 0.9 percent to $3.54 billion, and combined sales (which includes sales from third party businesses) increased 0.5 percent to $3.74 billion, according to the New Jersey attorney general.

The occupancy rate in the industry's casino hotels last year was 86.9 percent, 5.4 percent higher than 2016.

Many travelers to Atlantic City return for reasons outside the casinos.

All the action is in and around the famed boardwalk, lined with family-run businesses and restaurants. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on May 25, 2018, to celebrate the completion of a $52-million-dollar Absecon Inlet seawall made of 99,000 tons of stone (it helps prevent shore damage — the beaches suffered from Hurricane Sandy). Also unveiled was a boardwalk expansion from Rhode Island to Oriental avenues.

Atlantic City BeachFest Concerts — launched in 2014 — is returning for the summer right on the beach, attracting millennials with young stars like Demi Lovato, Sam Hunt and The Chainsmokers. Tickets start at $49.50 (or $75 bundle for all three shows). Jazz on the Beach Summer concerts (Thursday nights in July and August) are free for all ages.

There are plenty of nostalgic activities (like arcades and rides at Central Pier), as well as traditional must eats on the boardwalk for less than $10, like fudge at Steel's Fudge, taffy at Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy and famous funnel cakes at Vanina's. Burgers at the new Bill's Bar and Burger at Golden Nugget Casino Resort are $10.95. The menu says CNN awarded the Fat Cat burger one of the top burgers in the country. Outside of the resort nightclubs and bars, the city is chockfull of dive bars, like the popular The Boneyard Bar & Grill, known for late-night karaoke (the bar is open 24 hours), with 40 beers on tap (starting at $3).

Hour-long sunset cruises with AC Cruises are a great way to see the strip lit up at night, and cost $20 per adult. Guests can upgrade for an open bar for $40 per person. Afterward, Tropicana has a free multimedia light and sound show (including fireworks) every Saturday (From May to September) at 10 PM.

Introductory rates at Hard Rock Hotel Atlantic City are $149 for a double/night.

Doubles at Borgata start at $149/night.

Doubles at Ocean Resort Casino start at $149/night.

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