Date night options in Connecticut; Foxwoods looks to go one better Lifestyle

The eastern Connecticut Land of Oz, which pulses with state and regional visitors in good times but feels a bit cold and empty in bad economic times, has made several aggressive moves to soften the blow of increased competition from Massachusetts gaming (MGM Springfield opened its doors on Aug. 24 and Wynn Resorts’ Encore Boston Harbor is due in 2019).

Foxwoods still relies on gambling, of course. But adding to its excellent Mashantucket Pequot Museum for nongaming attractions, tribal officials approved the Tanger outlet mall (which links portions of vast Foxwoods in a better way than in the past), and also new food and beverage places such as Caputo and Stony Creek Brewery, not to mention high-tech attractions unthinkable during the cutbacks of the recession a decade ago.

This visit’s highlight was the Monza Kart Racing attraction, fitting nicely in the basement of the Fox Tower garage. The two-level track had a media preview with Joey Logano in July, but then its public opening was delayed over concerns about humidity and moisture buildup. New ventilation and fans were installed and an August planned opening turned into a September opening.

For food this time, we chose one of Foxwoods’ collection of Big Night Entertainment Group offerings at the resort, Guy Fieri’s Kitchen and Bar, which turns out American-style (read: tasty but high-calorie) food and some fun drinks. There was a “misunderstanding” over a drink order that seemed like brazen up-selling, but the food was good. Boston-based BNEG also runs another fun place, the beautiful High Rollers Luxury Lanes (bowling, with food and drink), along with Shrine Nightclub, Red Lantern and Scorpion Bar.

Another recent addition to “eco-tourism” attractions at Foxwoods, which sits on 1,600 forested acres, is the Thrill Tower just outside the 10-year-old Fox Tower hotel. You can do the Sky Drop, a 120-foot freefall ($15), or Sky Launch, a quasi-bungee slingshot ride that propels riders upward ($25). We chose the former, enjoying the view on the way up in the double-belted seats and chuckling at the ominous music during the pause at the top. The plunge was pretty terrifying, like one of those falling nightmares after watching a Senate hearing for too long. The landing was safe, and it’s all over in a few seconds, about as quickly as you can lose $15 on the slots.

A lesser-known attraction was next. With its animatronic zombie out front, the XD Dark Ride sits quietly in the 25th Anniversary Celebration Zone (the concourse near Cedars Restaurant) — just eight seats facing a theater screen against the wall. Added 3D glasses provide a virtual experience with stereoscopic graphics, and a shooting device is wielded during the two available movies. We chose the most popular one, with zombies attacking after your vehicle crashes in the woods. It’s intense and jolting but sure to please horror and video game fans. Again, it’s pretty brief and costs adults $10.99.

If you’re staying over, the Grand Pequot Tower is tops (with a tony indoor pool), the Great Cedar is also well-rated and the Fox Tower is roomy with good views (it has a seasonal outdoor pool but only access to a smaller pool at Great Cedar instead of the Grand Pequot pool). Also, the Two Trees Inn is across the road from the casinos, with its own indoor pool.

Foxwoods is so big that you can easily total 10,000 steps on your Fitbit if you’re moving about the resort. But in decent autumn weather, you may want to get out and enjoy the outdoors before or after your date night. Foxwoods has a few trails that lead from the Great Cedar Parking Garage to and around the museum OR away from the resort to Lantern Hill and pond. We chose the Woods Trail, which you can pick up from the rear of the parking lot at Two Trees Inn (since part of the trails near the casino runs along a busy access road).

The thrill rides and trails add more than the expected level of activity to date night, so an outing at Foxwoods certainly fits today’s busy lifestyle better than a film and buttered popcorn. It’s a date night on steroids, without any heavy lifting. Whether it’s refreshing may depend on your choices and pace, your luck if you venture onto the casino floor and the depth of your pockets to start.

The Shubert Theatre’s Broadway Series (or most of its one-night bookings) are a lively and classy option. (If you don’t like parking in the garage, park around the Green or up Chapel or High Street and walk over). Precede the show with a dinner at one of New Haven’s fine restaurants, from Pepe’s or Modern Apizza to Goodfellas on State Street to (near the center) Prime 16, Zinc, Barcelona or (my son’s go-to place) Geronimo.

If you’d like to make a visit to some of the area music clubs for a concert (a throwback if you’re no longer in your 20s), there is new-ish music at College Street Music Hall, Space Ballroom in Hamden, Firehouse 12 for jazz in New Haven and other small to medium-sized venues. If you’re near the shoreline, there are plenty of seafood joints on the way, from Skipper’s in Niantic to Edd’s Place in Westbrook (BYOB!) to Lenny and Joe’s Fish Tale in New Haven and Captain’s Catch in Milford.

For folks away from the shoreline, Hartford is a very reachable location for theater. Hartford Stage does a very good job and The Bushnell is a larger, more ornate version of The Shubert, with free parking across the street! Pair that with Peppercorn’s restaurant nearby (nice happy hour and great carpaccio). Also good: Trumbull Kitchen, Salute, Republic and Bear’s BBQ.

Mohegan Sun is a great choice for folks looking to see an arena show and choose from a variety of good eateries. On the low-price end, there’s Bow & Arrow ($2 draft beer and wings amid walls of TV screens for sports-loving couples) and on the classier end is Bobby Flay’s Americain or Michael Jordan’s. If you’re staying over in Uncasville, Mohegan’s lodging was just named Best Casino Hotel in the USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards. Which makes Mohegan another choice for a busy alt-date night.