Imagine stepping into a cruise ship, but instead of ocean water, you’re surrounded by the Sonoran Desert.
We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort, approximately 30 miles northeast of downtown Phoenix on land owned by the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, is where that vision becomes reality as a reimagined unique vacation spot.
People who visited We-Ko-Pa before the pandemic will find a different, upscale experience today, said Gail Manginelli, a spokeswoman for the station.
“We have it all here – fine dining, a casino, golf, outdoor activities and a spa,” she said. “And you feel like you’re away from it all, even though you’re pretty close. All you see is the desert.
Reinvention and rebranding
The 166,341 square foot casino, a AAA Four Diamond hotel, reinvented itself and renamed itself after the completion of a new 100% non-smoking casino in October 2020. It replaced the original Fort McDowell Casino.
The resort closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but reopened in May shortly before its refresh was complete.
The resort is across from the We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, which features two award-winning golf courses with desert and mountain views, and adjacent to Fort McDowell Adventures, which offers outdoor experiences like horseback riding and Segway tours in the desert.
We-Ko-Pa’s Saguaro Course is the #1 public course in Arizona on Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play list and #6 on the casinos list for the entire United States.
We-Ko-Pa Resort and Fort McDowell Casino are now unified
Prior to the pandemic, the We-Ko-Pa Hotel and the Fort McDowell Casino operated as separate entities.
The casino opened in 1984 as Ba’Ja Bingo, Manginelli said. It was Arizona’s first casino.
The hotel opened in 2006 as Radisson Fort McDowell Resort & Casino, then renamed We-Ko-Pa Resort & Conference Center in 2014, she said. The hotel has 246 rooms, 25,000 square feet of meeting space, two outdoor pools and a spa.
Unifying the hotel and casino has allowed We-Ko-Pa to build “a more cohesive brand” and operate more efficiently, Manginelli said.
A new, improved, smoke-free casino
Open 24 hours a day, the We-Ko-Pa casino has more than 900 slot machines, a 400-seat bingo room and 16 blackjack tables.
Over the past 12 months, the casino has introduced new gaming options, including new craps and roulette table games and eight sports betting kiosks.
A key difference from the old casino is how the new one opened as a smoke-free venue, said Christi Windle, We-Ko-Pa’s sales manager.
“Nobody ever smoked there,” she said. “With other casinos, even though it’s smoke free, you can still get lingering smoke (from when smoking was allowed).”
Where to eat at We-Ko-Pa Casino Resort
One of the most significant additions to We-Ko-Pa since its rebranding is Ember, a gourmet restaurant specializing in steaks and seafood. It has generated great interest among visitors and received recognition from high level.
“It really is a standalone destination,” Windle said. “Some come just for the restaurant.”
OpenTable recognized Ember in its 2022 Diner’s Choice Awards as one of Arizona’s 10 Best Service Restaurants.
Ember’s wine selection encompasses 22 countries with 800 wines by the bottle and 26 wines by the glass. Of these, 32 wines earned a perfect score of 100 points on Wine Spectator’s World’s Best Wine Lists.
Wine Spectator recently honored Ember for outstanding wine storage. The resort said on July 25 that Ember received the magazine’s 2022 Achievement Award.
Ember also received this recognition in 2021.
“The fact that we have won this award two years in a row – which is also the length of time Ember has been open – is a testament to our entire staff’s commitment to excellence,” Zac Gallo, executive director of the catering at We-Ko-Pa. , said in a statement.
Ember isn’t the only place to eat in We-Ko-Pa. Other restaurants include:
- WKP Sports & Entertainment, which serves pub food and craft beer and hosts live music and sports betting. The Market, a quick-service restaurant with on-the-go options, open 24 hours a day.
- The Dining Studio, with two all-you-can-eat restaurants in one: Las Tapas, which serves Mexican cuisine, and Dragon Wok & Noodle, which serves Asian cuisine.
- Ahnala, a breakfast and lunch spot specializing in American comfort food.
What’s next for We-Ko-Pa
The rebranding and improvements to the guest experience—down to Native American design elements in the lobby—were intended to reinvent We-Ko-Pa as a must-visit destination.
And there is still more to come. The cabanas by the pool will be transformed into “super luxury”, each with its own television and its own refrigerator.
The new cabins were due to debut in May, but supply chain disruptions delayed completion, Windle said.
Occupancy in We-Ko-Pa is on the rise
The result of We-Ko-Pa’s work is an occupancy rate that staff say “significantly exceeds” pre-pandemic levels.
“Everyone is just super excited to get out there and have an experience,” Windle said.
Business travel is still weathering pandemic-era challenges nationally and in the Phoenix area, but We-Ko-Pa’s business with groups is strong through 2023.
The staff attributed this in part to upcoming events like the Super Bowl and the WM Phoenix Open.
“(Travellers) want it to be 2019,” Windle said. “They give me three to four dates and we’re all booked.”