By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
It's 3 a.m. and pitch-black except for a spot of light pollution emanating from the island of North Bimini — and a 669-foot-long ship bumping with club music.
Suddenly, DJ Zog, of Power 96 fame, cuts the sound. He announces that Kok Thay Lim has arrived to cut his birthday cake. After celebrating in Bimini with presumably vastly more important people, the international businessman has jumped aboard a catamaran, puttered out to the Bimini SuperFast, and climbed aboard. Now, the politely smiling executive in a short-sleeved button-up stands behind a cake replica of the ship with his wife, Cecilia Lim, in a conservative purple dress at his side.
Awkwardly, hundreds of partying 20-somethings all sing "Happy Birthday" to Lim, with everyone, including the MC, mumbling when they get to the words "Happy birthday, dearrrrr Kok Thay Liiiiiim." Most people in this crowd don't have the slightest clue that this man will largely decide the future of Miami. But complimentary champagne and sheet cake were passed around, so they could tell he was someone important.
As chairman of the Genting Group — a multinational Malaysia-based corporation specializing in resorts, casinos, and cruise ships, with a market capitalization valued at $45 billion — Lim is behind one of the most controversial developments in Miami. In 2011, Genting bought the waterfront property where the Miami Herald was headquartered and proposed one of the biggest projects ever imagined in Florida: a massive bayside resort that would include 5,200 hotel rooms, 50 restaurants, 60 shops, and the world's largest casino. Except, Florida law currently allows only limited gambling: racing and slot machines at pari-mutuels and full slots and table games on Native American reservations.
Genting initially tried to get the state Legislature to allow Vegas-style gambling at destination casinos, but when that failed, it planned a petition drive that would circumvent legislators and have voters decide on the 2014 ballot. But since the Legislature is currently in the midst of trying to set up a stronger, more permanent gambling regulatory framework — it commissioned a study and will hold hearings later this month — Genting has once again shifted gears, dropping the petition drive and indicating that it will work with lawmakers and modify plans for the Herald site as laws become clearer.
In the meantime, Genting is luring people away from the Magic City, to 50 miles east in Bimini — where looser laws already enable Vegas-style gambling and the drinking age is just 18. So last month, I boarded the Bimini SuperFast for an evening cruise. The voyage was perhaps a metaphor for Genting's arrival and future in South Florida: not exactly smooth, but refusing to accept no for an answer.
Despite living in the cruise capital of the world, I've never understood the allure of being captive and vulnerable to seasickness, even for a party. However, the novelty of taking my first cruise as a media trip aboard the Bimini SuperFast, which started service mid-July, seem too good to pass up. I got free admission, but for $49 round trip on Thursdays and Fridays and $69 on Saturdays, anyone with a valid passport can come aboard the SuperFast and party until sunrise. Day cruises, which depart at 9 a.m. and return at 7 p.m., cost $69 on weekdays and $99 on weekends.
Tonight, the ship is expected to hit the high seas at 10:30 p.m., anchor a mile from Bimini at 1 a.m., and return to Miami by 6 a.m. I stock up on Dramamine.
After checking in at PortMiami, I meet up with public relations reps Christine Corson and Aaron Gordon. Media get whisked away to a faster boarding line, alongside DJ Zog and his entourage of about ten people. The ship books headline DJs for night cruises. DJ Laz and DJ Irie have both spun already.
The SuperFast is a speedy ferry that can hold 1,600 passengers, travel up to 28 knots, and go the 48 nautical miles to Bimini in about two and a half hours. The 12-year-old ship was built in Germany.
At a final checkpoint before boarding, computers are down, and workers scramble to fix the problem. According to Yelp reviews, this doesn't seem to be the first time it has happened.
I enter the boat midship on deck seven, in the first of two casino areas. An endless array of penny and nickel slots and gaming machines is eerily quiet — we can't use them until we hit international waters. Everything shines like it's new, including a low-hung, gold-plated ceiling that might force anyone over six-foot-five to duck. The other gaming area, located at the stern of the ship above a sports bar, features high-stakes table games including blackjack, roulette, and craps. Everything in that area is gold: the carpet, the felt on the tables, the ceiling, the uniforms. Everything. Nametags identify workers' home countries: Malaysia, Singapore, Australia.
"Your cabin number is wrong. We have to reassign you," says the clerk. After a fix, I'm off. Cabins start at $40 per person. Mine seems laughably small and a bit outdated with its Formica tables and beige color scheme, but my shipmate says it's pretty standard size for a cruise ship. The twin bed looks tiny, but we can lie down and stretch comfortably. The private bathroom with shower will probably come in handy after a day's excursion.