One of the most enduring myths about Las Vegas is that, having failed spectacularly to remake itself in the mid-1990s as a family-friendly destination, the town returned to its Sin City roots with such gusto that parents would almost be guilty of criminal child abuse for bringing their offspring along.
That's not entirely true. Yes, some of the more grandiose efforts didn’t work out as planned. (Most notably the theme park built behind the MGM Grand that closed in 2000.) And yes, recent marketing efforts have emphasized the destination’s naughtier side. Think: "What happens here, stays here.") And yet, the Strip overflows with live entertainment, roller coasters, exotic animal displays, diverse museums and fantastical swimming pools.
“You have to pick and choose because Las Vegas is built on drinking, gambling and sex," says Kathy Espin, author of the guidebook "Kidding Around Las Vegas", "and those are not family-friendly activities. But there’s plenty to pick and choose from ... Las Vegas is doing more in the way of family events like weddings and family reunions and children are naturally involved.”
Las Vegas is, after all, the world capital of two forms of entertainment that most kids adore: magic and circuses.
Sin City's undisputed illusionist is folksy Lance Burton at the Monte Carlo, where he’s performed nightly since 1994. Worthy rivals include Steve Wyrick at the Miracle Mile Mall inside Planet Hollywood and the famed David Copperfield, who appears about 15 weeks a year at the MGM Grand including an astounding 116 shows between Nov. 20 and Jan. 12. Daytime magic shows can be a particularly good value, especially America’s Got Talent finalist Nathan Burton’s offering at the Flamingo and the uproarious Mac King Comedy Magic Show at Harrah’s.
As for circuses, the Canadian acrobatic troupe Cirque du Soleil's six productions are the most visible force on the Strip. While one, the risque Zumanity, is for adults only, four others—Mystere, O, Ka and Love—are superb choices for all ages. The newest show, Criss Angel Believe, requires adults to accompany children under 12, but it also fuses the "Mindfreak" star’s brand of magic with Cirque’s penchant for eye-popping costumes and intriguing choreography. In the same vein, there's the modernist percussion spectacle of the Blue Man Group at the Venetian and, over at Planet Hollywood, Stomp Out Loud, in which the cast makes music using a range of household objects.
Las Vegas’ parade of Broadway shows in recent years has also shown there’s life beyond the casino. Consider the special-effects-laden version of "Phantom of the Opera" at the Venetian and the Four Seasons-scored "Jersey Boys". And coming this spring to Mandalay Bay will be a permanent staging of Broadway hit "The Lion King", based on the top-grossing Disney animated movie.
“It just goes to show you," says Mandalay Bay vice president Scott Voeller, "that in many ways, Vegas has become a destination that offers so much more than it has before. Is some of that family-friendly? Yes.”
Las Vegas is also known for its free public entertainment, nearly all of which is kid-friendly. What could be more enthralling to a youngster than the soaring beauty of the Bellagio Fountains, the excitement of the hourly light show on the underside of the four-block-long Fremont Street Experience canopy or the story told each hour with light, fire and animatronic moving statues inside the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace? Aerialists, jugglers, clowns and trapeze artists perform a free 10-minute show every half-hour at Circus Circus, too.
Most of the city's animal exhibits and acts are free, too. At MGM Grand, progeny of the original MGM Studios’ roaring cats loll around in a glass tank that visitors can walk beneath at the Lion Habitat. The Flamingo’s Wildlife Habitat offers an array of pink flamingos, African penguins and other exotic birds. And inside the Hawaiian Marketplace, the Birdman of Las Vegas, aka Joe Krathwohl, gets his feathered friends to do some very silly things twice a day, Fridays through Sundays.
One of Las Vegas’ most celebrated animal attractions is the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. The only Nevada facility accredited by American Zoo and Aquarium Association, it features displays of 1,200 marine species in a 1.3 million-gallon tank. They include, of course, various sharks, but also a rare komodo dragon. And now that Siegfried & Roy have retired, their Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat is the public's only chance to glimpse their famed white tigers, plus elephants, lions and dolphins.
The Strip is also known for its many rides, and the five-acre Adventuredome at Circus Circus is America's largest indoor amusement park. For the more adventurous, there's New York-New York's loopy rollercoaster and the three rides atop 1,149-foot Stratosphere Tower, which include ones that spin and cantilever off the top’s edge.
If you want to expose the kids to some education and culture, you may be surprised by how easy it can be. On the Strip, the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art has mounted impressive shows of Faberge, Monet and Alexander Calder, and a professionally curated exhibit of Titanic artifacts is now open at the Tropicana. The latter is moving to the Luxor in early 2009, where it will join the exhibit of “plastinated” human remains at "Bodies".
Away from the Strip, the newly opened Las Vegas Springs Preserve is a 180-acre nature retreat built around the now-dry spring that birthed the city and is now a vast museum and hiking region with interactive displays that teach about conservation, the environment and the desert climate. After that, the Lied Discovery Children’s Museum is also worth a stop for its more than 100 permanent exhibits that mostly focus on science. And if you’re looking to cut your history with some fun, the Pinball Hall of Fame allows visitors to play more than 200 vintage pinball machines, some dating back to the 1940s.
Finally, if all else fails, the Strip is nothing if not a succession of fantastical swimming pools in which to cool your heels amid some of the nation’s hottest weather. Alas, only hotel guests can enjoy the pools at each resort so choose wisely. The two that tend to get the best ratings from kids are the Flamingo, which has slides and powerful waterfalls, and Mandalay Bay, with its 11-acre spread that includes a wave pool and lazy river. They have several smaller, quieter pools, too, somewhat better suited to Mom and Dad—part of the family too, after all.