The Margaritaville Diaries
I know the reason I ended up in Margaritaville: I wanted to experience in person the boozy, real-world universe being spun out of what may be the world's most lucrative song.
Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville" peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977. The song's chart success is arguably its lowest point. During the last 30-plus years, Buffett has birthed an empire from the 3 minute, 20 second ditty about being drunk and searching for a lost shaker of salt.
Credit Buffett's entire music catalog and, of course, the Parrot Heads. But this goes beyond the true believers. Anyone can eat a burger -- a Cheeseburger in Paradise, even -- at Buffett's Margaritaville restaurants. Or sip a Who's to Blame Margarita or a LandShark Lager (Buffett's brew) at a LandShark Bar & Grill. Or double down with booze money at a Margaritaville Casino. Hungover? Treat it at a Margaritaville Coffee Shop dressed in a "Woman to Blame" T-shirt from the Margaritaville Store.
Buffett's beach-and-booze themed outposts have become popular vacation destinations, with the most recent debuting Memorial Day weekend on the northern reaches of Atlantic City's boardwalk. Margaritaville's presence at the Resorts Casino Hotel is considered so important to New Jersey's post-Sandy recovery that Governor Chris Christie cut the ribbon at its opening.
Atlantic City's Margaritaville contains a critical mass of Margaritaville properties: restaurant, bar, bar and grill, casino, store, coffee shop, a blender bigger than Shaquille O'Neal -- all attached to a hotel. One could conceivably live there. So for a day, I did. I spent (almost) 24 consecutive hours roaming the Margaritaville universe.
Yes, I wore flip flops.
What did I learn? Here are some highlights from the diary of my Margaritaville immersion.
The onslaught of Buffett songs begins.
I cross the threshold of Margaritaville for the first-time ever to the sound of what my Shazam app tells me is Buffett's song "Barefoot Children."
Mid-afternoon on a Wednesday and I'm quoted a 10-to-15-minute wait for a seat at the busier-than-I-expected Margaritaville restaurant. I'm given a restaurant pager that reads,
YOUR TRIP TO PARADISE BEGINS SOON
NO PASSPORT REQUIRED
NO PASSPORT REQUIRED
I'm impressed by the on-message detail on a utilitarian device.
The hostess says the Margaritaville store is around the corner, so I go there to wait.
Blenders. Onesies. T-shirts. Smartphone covers. Sunscreen. Picture frames. Window decals. Sugar-free tequila-flavored candy with "genuine worm." Books and CDs with Buffett's smiling face on the front.
I am overwhelmed by Margaritaville-branded product.
I was aware that Buffett has extended his empire to the extreme -- that's why I'm here -- but I wasn't prepared for the breadth of Margaritaville merch.
I buy a "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem" magnet in the shape of a flip flop for $4.95.
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My pager buzzes and flashes.
I'm escorted to my table by a dude wearing margarita glass-shaped glasses frames. We walk through a staged beach scene, with fake palm trees and fake sand where the floor meets the walls. Wetsuits hang over the railing of the Stiltsville Republic. Large flatscreens show videos of surfers and tanned men strumming guitars on sailboats at sunset.
Buffett's face smiles down on me from pictures on the walls and videos on the screens. I'm starting to feel like he's following me around.
I want to ease into Margaritaville, so I order a Coke and the obvious choice from the menu, a Cheeseburger in Paradise.
The people at the surrounding tables are already immersed in Buffett's world, drinking margaritas and LandShark Lagers. I see closed-toe footwear only on the waitstaff and one other diner. A waiter whistles the melody to "Margaritaville" as he walks past. Diners tap their fingers on their tables to the music.
I'm aware this is a Fake Beach Scene, but I'm in my flip flops and shorts and am surrounded by people having a good time. It's contagious.
On the restaurant's video screens Buffett and Zac Brown sing "Margaritaville." It's the first time I hear Buffett himself sing the song in Margaritaville.
I figured it would be too on-the-nose to hear the song a lot here, but I adjust my thinking. My revised over/under on the times I'll hear "Margaritaville" during my stay: 3½.
I'm served a lot of Cheeseburger in Paradise for $11.99. I'm a little surprised to see no Buffett-branded condiments. Even if there were one, I probably wouldn't have needed it. The burger is thick and juicy and well-spiced. I've had much worse for $12.
The Fake Beach Scene extends to an alcove near the restaurant. It's decorated with a mural of a beach, fake palm trees, four beach chairs and a blender I estimate to be at least twice my height. I'm 6'4". Buffett is serious about his blenders. (How serious? In 2012 Margaritaville restaurants sold more than 4 million margaritas.)
I watch streams of happy kids and adults admire it from my seat on a beach chair.
Three women ask me to take a photo of them next to the blender. I do so. I hold myself back from saying, "Say Cheese...burger in Paradise."
The restaurant and alcove sit on the boardwalk, overlooking the sand. I go for a walk on the real beach, where it's hot and humid and sticky and there are ads for a strip club on the side of a PediCab. It's ... too real?
On the balcony of the LandShark Bar & Grill, a guitar duo performs. Lazy versions of "Folsom Prison Blues" and "Bad Moon Rising" waft across the thick salt air. Faucets sit at the bottom of the stairs at the rear of the property -- a place for people to wash off the sand from the real beach before entering Buffett's world.
I feel bad about wanting to turn away from the real beach. But: air conditioning and frozen concoctions. I've quickly developed an appreciation of Buffett's version of the beach vs. Atlantic City's real thing.
I take my first sip of a Who's to Blame Margarita at the bar of the LandShark Bar & Grill. It's sweet and smooth, and I can see how I could waste away here. The drink comes with a shark fin stirrer. Again, it's the little touches.
The LandShark Bar & Grill seems less fake than its in-hotel counterpart. It feels like a beach bar should, with light wood and surfboards hanging on the walls and big windows framing surfers in the water.
Presiding over everything, of course, is Buffett. Photos of him are on the walls. His tour dates are on the chalkboard. His songs are in rotation on the flatscreens, sprinkled in with old David Bowie and new Katy Perry.
Like the music, the crowd spans generations. I see babies being rocked in their strollers and seniors eating broiled oysters.
A margarita buzz starts to hit me, and my mind drifts toward booze-driven "deep thoughts" about Buffett's achievement. I wonder: What is it about him and Margaritaville that's so appealing, that can unite Chris Christie and babies and oyster-eating seniors and, judging from the eclectic crowd, a lot of people in between?
I turn to the Internet on my phone and fall down a Jimmy Buffett rabbit hole. I search Twitter, and I find extreme devotion:
If you don't love the song Margaritaville then you aren't American- Rene' (@reneeeee5) July 18, 2013
I search Google and am struck by how interested people are about how much money Buffett earns from his empire. The fourth most popular query is "Jimmy Buffett Net Worth."
I take another sip of my $7.75 margarita.
I order a LandShark Lager and make small talk at the bar. The wait time for a table, I hear, is 30 minutes. Same at the Margaritaville restaurant. But Buffett is on the sound system, and drinks are in hand. People are in a great mood.
Still at the bar, I order the Fire Pit Chicken, marinated in LandShark Lager and LandShark barbecue sauce.
It is, of course, not the only item on the menu made with Buffett's spin-off products. There's also the LandShark Cheeseburger and the margaritas made with Margaritaville tequila.
The menu features nothing too adventurous, except maybe the Wisconsin Cheese Curds with an option of blueberry ketchup. It strikes me that this mix of accessibility with a hint of colorful weirdness is a big part of Buffett's appeal.
Bands play nightly in the Margaritaville restaurant. I head over and am disappointed to find one playing Justin Timberlake and Rihanna and Train covers. Fun, no doubt. But I'm in the mood for something more mellow, more relaxed. Something more Buffett.
Earlier in the day I felt like Buffett was following me around. Now that he's not, I miss him.
I wander into the Margaritaville Casino and sit at a $10 blackjack table. There's a Margaritaville parrot logo on the felt. It feels wrong. When I spent $4.95 on my fridge magnet, I got a piece of the Margaritaville universe in return. This feels off-brand. It's just like any other casino I've been in.
But I'm winning.
I make a little run, then my stack starts to shrink. I manage to step away from the table with a $20 profit. I take it to the bar in the middle of the casino, Buffett's 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar.
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I order a LandShark lager and chat up the bartender. This is a flair bar, but he offers no Tom Cruise-in-"Cocktail" antics.
I ask if he serves many Parrot Heads.
"Oh, yeah. They come," he says. "He's got a following, man."
I'm joined at the bar by three Floridians, each drinking a margarita from a 22 oz. souvenir plastic blender. When a picture of Trayvon Martin flashes on the bar's flatscreen, conversation turns to the recent verdict. It's a respectful, measured discussion.
I think: Margaritaville is the kind of place where sometimes people can talk calmly about an issue that polarizes the country while drinking $18 oversized margaritas served in fake plastic blenders.
As I leave the bar, I spot another great detail: the face of the clock above the bar is a wedge of lime.
Ready for bed, fully expecting to dream about Jimmy Buffett.
Awake to my phone's alarm. No dreams about Jimmy Buffett. The beach calls.
Few people are around. It's quiet enough to hear crisp, clear Buffett tunes on the Resorts' sound system. So far, this is my favorite time in Margaritaville.
I envision breakfast overlooking the water at the Bar & Grill, but it's not open. I walk around the beach and enjoy the lack of people and the lack of heat, the sound of the water lapping on the shore.
This, of course, is what Buffett is selling: an idealized version of the beach. It's what I prefer, but in its absence, I'll take Buffett's air-conditioned version.
I return to the Margaritaville restaurant, where I'm recognized by the hostess.
"You're back," she says. "You must like us."
I feel welcomed, a little like I belong with the pirate crew.
The line runs a dozen people deep for Sunrise in Paradise and License to Chill coffees at the Margaritaville Coffee Shop. I wait five minutes to buy a drink and a pecan pastry the size of a softball.
I'm still nibbling at my pastry when "Cheeseburger in Paradise" comes on the sound system. I realize I still haven't heard "Margaritaville" again, and I'm resigned to losing my over/under bet with myself.
The Margaritaville Coffee Shop is a comfortable spot to watch the world come and go. And it does: families with dads weighed down by heavy beach bags, girls in sequins, walk-of-shamers.
I study the old-timey beach photos and sepia portraits on the shop's walls. There's Buffett beside a surfboard. There's Buffett playing his guitar, inviting me to linger.
So I do. I connect to the wi-fi, which is easy enough to access. The network's name: "Margaritaville-eWireless."
I think: Nice detail, Jimmy. Yes, Jimmy. We're now on a first-name basis. I've come to think of him as my omnipresent vacation friend.
I'd planned to go full circle with a final lunch at the Margaritaville restaurant, maybe try some Key lime pie while Jimmy, on stage singing or maybe lounging on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit, smiles down on me from the video screen.
But over the sound system, I hear Jimmy and Zac Brown sing "Toes," with its line in the chorus:
Adios and vaya con Dios
I take it as a hint that sometimes, even at a place like Margaritaville, you just have to know when to leave the party.
I pack up my belongings and let Jimmy sing me out.