In the competitive casino industry, owners frequently pull out all the design stops to stay one step ahead of the competition, and it's a well-conceived themed environment that's often the key ingredient for success. The owners of Harrah's Atlantic City were recently willing to bet that an underwater environment called Fantasea Reef would outperform the competition, and spent $7 million to renovate existing space and expand the concept into a new wing. Part of the new facility is a 14,000-sq.-ft. (1,260 sq. m) restaurant of the same name, created by Philadelphia-based interior design firm Daroff Design Inc. Evocative lighting by Norbert, PA-based Grenald Waldron Associates (GWA) helps to submerge patrons in the mysteries of the deep.

"The unusual design challenge of this assignment required an uncommon integration of lighting and architecture," says GWA lighting designer Dan Edenbaum. "Be it large, small, rigid, or flexible, [the lighting technology] was recessed, bent, and programmed to make the fantasy come alive. Besides the live fish in tanks, no element in the interior really moves except the lighting, so the layered illumination helps to create a sense of motion and activity."

The adventure begins as patrons enter the restaurant through a meandering tunnel encrusted in synthetic coral. A Mermaid or King Neptune actor greets guests as they listen to whale and dolphin sounds on an audio track. "Customers are coming from the brighter gambling areas of the casino to this darker, grotto-like space, and we wanted to create a transition that helps to transport them to a different world," says GWA principal Ray Grenald, FIALD, FIES. The tunnel is primarily illuminated by large seawater tanks filled with exotic species of fish, and is intended to allow for eye and mood adaptation.

As patrons waiting to be seated turn the bend in the tunnel, they get their first glimpse into the underwater fantasy world beyond. Vapor-tight fluorescent strips, hidden from view above the tanks, provide plenty of ambient light. Small, low-voltage, incandescent strips integrated into the wall's base act as path lights while simultaneously illuminating the cave illusion. The fantasy's success throughout the restaurant relies heavily on blending the lighting with the surrounding surface details, "as if bits of sparkling light are being refracted by water," Edenbaum says. "We have silhouetted dark spaces and used tight beams elsewhere to create pools of light that accent decorative elements evoking the ocean floor."

Although some of GWA's initial concepts involving moving lights and extensive projections were set aside for budget reasons, each grotto-like section of the completed restaurant showcases its own distinct lighting feature, according to the design team. Compact MR-16-based pattern projectors, concealed in a large cove designed to look like a natural rock formation, create a rippling water effect on the ceiling. Designed to mimic what a snorkeler might see underwater, the effect was created by using a rotating pattern wheel with a gobo. Blue and sea-green cold cathode, concealed in the cove, enhances the illusion with broad washes of color. Careful matching of the cold cathode colors with the surrounding mural creates a surreal aura. Meanwhile, schools of transparent glass fish hung from the ceiling catch the light amid 30' (9m) synthetic coral-covered pillars.

Since the space serves as a high-traffic, 12-hour-a-day dining facility, operated and serviced by the casino's in-house staff, the owners voiced several lighting equipment maintenance concerns. One requirement was to eliminate the need for maintenance crews to interfere with the glass fish props. The solution was to extend the MR-16 luminaires on slender stems just below the fish. These minimalist fixtures, providing illumination for the tables below, effectively disappear in the brightly colored background. Other goals, such as maintaining minimal lamp inventories, were also successfully achieved by limiting the types of lamps specified in the space, says Edenbaum.

Wherever patrons are seated within Fantasea Reef, they are able to view colorful deep-sea vignettes. Small MR-11 fixtures with dichroic glass filters, integrated into the column formations, accent the coral forms with dramatic splashes of color. Recessed MR-16 downlights, also integrated into the structure, provide the functional illumination for the perimeter tables.

At the perimeter of the restaurant, blue cathode creates a "window" to the open sea. The lighting gently and continuously cycles in intensity to mimic lapping water, reinforcing the illusion of being immersed in an island reef. Fiber-optic sea anemones, which periodically change color, add still more atmosphere.

The buffet line is playfully outfitted with props and lighting to engage patrons. Unobtrusive MR-16 downlights recessed into the blacked-out ceiling illuminate this typically busy area. Across the back wall of the serving line, vivid colors slowly and playfully splash in and out. Small MR-16 fixtures on a two-circuit track were used to trans-illuminate the bubble coral forms above the serving line. By randomly locating fixtures and slowly crossfading between circuits, the corals appear to pulse with life. As patrons pay for their meals and prepare to re-enter the world of slot machines and craps tables, a final burst of colorful coral and starfish at the point-of-sale desk encourages them to return again.

All special motion effects were linked with a Crestron control system that was programmed with four primary scenes: lunch, dinner, clean-up, and closed. Subtle adjustments were made to create a sense of change from the lunch to dinner scene. For lunch, emphasis is placed on the higher coral and rock forms by increasing their brightness. For dinner, a slightly more intimate feeling is created by lowering the general ambient light from 10fc to 5fc. Emphasis is directed to the lower formations and all motion effects are slowed. The clean-up scene eliminates all special effects, while the closed scene retains a few highlights that are visible from the gaming floor of the casino to excite the curiosity of late-night passersby.

"Lighting a themed environment is about creating experiential architecture," Grenald says. "The eye sees different colors of light at different distances. We wanted people to feel comfortable and enveloped here, but also to heighten their impression of movement and mystery, to play around with what they think they see." Within Fantasea Reef, it's largely the expressive lighting that helps casino patrons take the plunge.

Interior Design Daroff Design Karen Daroff, Martin Komitzky, Richard Marencic, Susan Udovich, Scott Winger

Lighting Design Grenald Waldron Associates Ray Grenald, FIALD, FIES; Dan Edenbaum

Electrical Contractor Calvi Electric Co.

Partial Equipment list CSL Lighting surface-mounted MR-11 luminaires with color filters CSL recessed MR-16 luminaires Hydrel free-standing pool light Lumenyte fiber optics Light Project MR-16 pendants Lumiere MR-16 uplights Cutler Sign blue and aquamarine cold cathode Halo MR-16 luminaires Halo incandescent striplight tracks Metalux fluorescent troffers KLP under-counter fluorescents Times Square Lighting MR-16 luminaires with pattern projectors and Rosco custom color filters Kurt Versen recessed compact fluorescent downlights Norbert Belfer surface-mounted compact fluorescents Litelab surface-mounted incandescent striplights Crestron controls