Thousands of people from around the Bay Area descended on the Graton Resort &amp; Casino for its debut Tuesday, clogging surrounding roads and forcing the casino to temporarily close its doors to long lines of gamblers waiting outside.
Casino officials would not say how many people came on opening day, but by 11 a.m., two hours after the casino opened, an estimated 5,000 or more people were inside, hoping for jackpots in an atmosphere that at times bordered on frantic. It was like Times Square, all flashing neon and shoulder-to-shoulder crowds that made it tough to walk.
Outside, the casino's 5,700 parking spaces were mostly full. Highway 101 was backed up beyond the Cotati Grade and traffic stopped cold on neighboring streets. The nearest major intersection, at Redwood Drive and Golf Course Drive West, was closed. People frustrated by the deadlocked traffic parked their cars in any nearby parking lot available and walked over.
"Many, many people are parking a considerable distance away and walking in," said CHP Officer Jon Sloat. "It's seriously like the dumbest zombie movie you've ever seen. They're coming from everywhere."
Inside, virtually all of 3,000 slot machines were occupied, with onlookers gathered around to watch the steady spin of numbers and symbols. The 144 poker, baccarat and blackjack tables were filled. Even the high-limit room was seeing action. The three bars were crowded.
"Until I run out of money," said Joe DeSena, 53, a San Francisco union representative, describing how long he planned to stay.
Hundreds of people waited at the casino's three entrances to be let in. Security guards kept them at bay and guided them into lines. Some visitors said they'd been told the wait would be hours.
On its opening day, the $800 million casino, which is owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and has been planned for a decade, was living up to the hopes of its backers and fans and also fulfilling some of its opponents' worst fears.
"Many people work their entire lives and they don't have the satisfaction of completing, or accomplishing or winning, for that matter," said Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris. "We've worked very hard and, in this case, we won. So I'm full of gratitude."
"I expected every seat to be filled, and they are," said Joe Hasson, general manager of the gambling palace, 340,000 square feet of vintage Las Vegas set by the Laguna de Santa Rosa.
Chip Worthington was going to stage a protest against the casino but decided he didn't want to be blamed for stopping traffic -- which was as bad as he and other casino foes long predicted it would be.
"Everything we said is true," said Worthington, a Rohnert Park pastor who leads the Stop Graton Casino group, which has fought the project for a decade and is still battling it in court.
"It causes air pollution, traffic pollution, people are spending money that they can't afford to gamble," Worthington said.
But on Tuesday, they came in Mercedes and tour buses, pickups and minivans. They came alone or in large groups. They came in stiletto heels and bedroom slippers, cowboy boots, spit-shined dress shoes and sneakers.
There was a man in a shining jacket that appeared to be made of silver snake skin. A man in a crisp, gray linen suit had perfect white hair and a pink pocket handkerchief. Women wore cocktail dresses; others dressed in San Francisco 49ers gear.