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Is Las Vegas for families?

A top Vegas expert reveals her picks for the most kid-friendly attractions in Sin City
Image: Shark Reef
Patrons of the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay get a look at the exhibit's new great hammerhead shark in Las VegasJoe Cavaretta / AP
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

“We’re taking a family vacation to Las Vegas! We’ve heard it’s a great place for kids!”

Back in the good old days of crooners and mob men, those words would have been unthinkable. Vegas was clearly a resort for the over-21 crowd to enjoy clearly adult pursuits. There are, after all, a few casinos around. And yet during the last ten years, it’s become accepted wisdom that Vegas is now, rather than Disneyland for adults, a playground for children of all ages.

But is this accurate? Not if you ask just about every hotel or organization in the city. All insist that the “Vegas is For Families” image was strictly “a media creation”. This is disingenuous in the extreme, given the number of hotels built or reconceived with the obvious intention of providing at least the illusion of wholesome recreation. How else to explain the theme park behind the MGM Grand, which also had an animatronic reenactment of key scenes from the Wizard of Oz in its lobby, the ocean-wave pool at Mandalay Bay or the roller coaster roaring around and through New York New York?

The truth is the Vegas is For Families concept was never a rousing success, and the collective industry backed off it within a short amount of time. More significantly, the city as a whole is going the opposite direction, reminding potential travelers that sin is in, and suggesting that Vegas is a mighty fine place in which to commit some. Formerly wholesome MGM and New York New York have two of the raciest shows on the Strip (classy nudie burlesque revue “La Femme” and artsy ode to human sexuality “Zoomanity”, respectively), nightclubs with names like “Tabu”, “Risque” and “Bikini” flourish, and the world’s largest strip club recently opened. The hotels in turn emphasis their sybaritic pleasures, with restaurants offering expensive, multi-course gourmet meals, lavish spas and so forth. None of this is cheap, which is generally the opposite of what families are looking for in vacations.

If you aren’t convinced that Vegas isn’t eager for your children to come visit, just know that when one writer, trying to research a guidebook on family-appropriate Vegas, was asked by most of the major hotels not to include any reference to them in the resulting volume.

But you may still want or even need to bring your kids to Vegas. It’s on the way to a number of popular destinations, and many a grandparent has retired there. And while you have to be cautious when walking down the Strip, given the number of flyers handed out for, um, “escorts”, there are still plenty of diversions that don’t call for the participant to be above the age of consent. Finding ones that can be accommodated within the constraints of a typical family budget, that may be a bit more challenging.

Free family fun

Let's begin with the most famous of Las Vegas' attractions, the extravagent spectacles along the Strip.

The bad news is that the TI at the Mirage (the former Treasure Island) pirate battle, long the most kid-friendly and ambitious of the free shows some of the grander hotels display, has been revamped. The pirates are now sexy siren women, but they still lure the hapless British in a display of pyrotechnics and stunts that will certainly please slightly older boys. It’s not really racy, but the elevation from G to PG-13 may dismay some parents. Better is one viewing (only really young kids will care to see it again) of the “exploding” (smoke and lights) volcano outside the Mirage, and the fantastic dancing fountains of Bellagio, which rise, fall and frolic to various tunes throughout the day and night. In Downtown, the Fremont Street Experience offers an overhead light show as 2.1 million bulbs and some lasers flash pictures in time to music.

Not outside, but inside the MGM Grand is the free Lion Habitat, where guests can walk through a short glass tunnel and get nearly up close and personal with some big cats. A couple of Seigfried & Roy’s white tigers are on regular display in the less attractive White Tiger Exhibit at the Mirage, but at that point, you ought to start shelling out money for one of Vegas’ truly fine attractions, the Dolphin Habitat and the Secret Garden of Siegfried & Roy. The latter is just a small, but nicely maintained zoo (or really, exhibition area, since the critters within live elsewhere when not on the day’s display agenda) but it does let one get some nice views of the kitties. Yes, Montecore, the cause of Roy’s recent stage accident, has been regularly displayed here and may be so in the future.

But it’s the dolphins (there is a combo ticket) you must make time for, whether or not you have kids. A fantastic exhibit of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins (all born in captivity), it’s a delight to watch dolphins anyway, more so because these have trainers constantly working with them, to keep them busy and entertained. If you are lucky, you will get to play ball with the sleek sassy mammals. Watch yourself shove your children out of the way to get your chance to toss a wet ball so a dolphin snout can take a shot!

More fish, fowl and even dinosaurs

If their aquatic fantasies haven’t been satisfied, next for the kids might be the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. Designed to look like a sunken temple, with a short glass tunnel to allow for a bait-eye view of the eponymous fish, this is a little over-priced, but it is free for kids under five.

Children totally enthralled with wild-life might like a fast stop at the Majorie Barracks Museum, where they will be bored by the Native American craftwork and pottery, and delighted with the small poisonous reptile exhibit. And in keeping with the educational line, there is also the quaint Las Vegas Natural History museum (dinosaurs! Taxidermy animals!) and the excellent Lied Discovery Children’s Museum, where kids are encouraged to get deep into all sorts of hands-on exhibits from learning how it feels to play basketball in a wheelchair to exploring the inside of a giant soap bubble.

Art for tots

If you are really determined to make this a cultural vacation, and more power to you if that’s the case, there is the joint Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum at the Venetian, where masterpieces from Russian’s great state museum, rarely seen outside that country, are on rotating exhibit. It’s only two small rooms (which makes the ticket price a bit high for what you get) but that does mean even the most attention-short child can handle that amount  of art. Or you could explore the King Tut’s Tomb exhibition at the Luxor; it’s a remarkably accurate copy of that great archeological find.

Games, games and more  games

For more active children of the electronic age, there is Gameworks, a multi-level wonder of the latest and greatest in video arcade games from motion-simulator rides to virtual batting cages. There is something here for just about all but the littlest of children, and even parents should find a diversion or ten. Note that prices are at their cheapest right at opening (two hours of unlimited play for $20, instead of one hour), when crowds are at their thinnest. Gameworks is the ultimate in arcade family fun, but just about every hotel has some kind of video arcade, with the top honors going to New York New York’s Coney Island, an indoor recreation of the classic carnival games. Circus Circus, of course, is known for its commitment to kid-friendly fun, with overhead circus acts and arcade games providing under-21 distractions.

But if you want to avoid all near-occasion of contact with casinos, not to mention pay a little less, there are three options. In downtown, it’s Neonopolis/Jillian’s, a spanking new, well conceived entertainment complex with as well stocked an arcade as you’ve ever seen (from air hockey to high tech video games), a bowling alley and billiards, plus access to a multi-screen movie theater. The café has a menu chock-full of remarkably tasty treats from hamburgers to jambalaya, all more affordable than at the hotels. Meanwhile, locals head to the Scandia Family Fun Center, where batting cages, mini-golf and bumper boats rule the day. It’s a bit worn about the edges, but the prices are considerably lower than anywhere else in Vegas.

Best of all is the Las Vegas Mini-Speedway, the finest family appropriate entertainment option in town. The little complex consists of a well-stocked arcade with a better quality of prizes, a small slide and a four-track go-kart area, each with its own level (both skill and age-wise) of racing skills. Go ahead, race your kid around the track—just let them win once or twice. This is a friendly, affordable place, complete with a food court offering enormous pizzas.

Adrenaline pumpers

If you’ve got kids who need more thrills, there is AdventureDome, the under-glass amusement park attached to Circus Circus, which offers a looping roller coaster, a log flume ride and laser tag, all nicely air conditioned and with some semblance of natural light coming through the dome. More nauseous-fun can be had on the New York New York coaster, and the one that screams around the Sahara, which also offers an excellent race car simulator ride. Best of all, assuming you dare to try it, are the thrill rides atop the Stratosphere, the tallest structure west of the Mississippi. In addition to their legendary Big Shot free fall ride (160 feet of falling without stopping or even slowing), they’ve got a roller coaster on the outside of the top of the tower. No, really. Both rides close during high winds, and thank goodness, we say.

While your stomach is in turmoil, you might as well continue the gut-churning thrills and take in the various 3-D simulator rides at Caesar’s Race for Atlantis, the Luxor’s In Search of the Obelisk, or the Hilton’s popular Star Trek: The Experience. The latter is by far the best in terms of quality and entertainment value, but the Trek mythology might not interest non-fan kids.

Get outta town

Want to get away from Vegas entirely? Tired of all things high tech and fast-paced? Take your kids on a hike from heaven over at Red Rock Canyon, a twenty minute, and worlds-apart drive away. The Visitor’s Center, where you must stop to pay a small per-car fee, will give you maps of the best trails, or you can just stick to driving the 13 mile loop of this moonscape canyon of marvelous views, wild critters of a variety of species, and strange geology.

Another five miles away is the delightfully old-fashioned Old Nevada and Bonnie Springs Ranch. The former is a combination ghost town and Wild West town as conceived by Hollywood, the kind of low-frills quaint attraction that is on the endangered species list. Wander through the dusty streets, admiring the old dentist office and other artifacts of an increasingly by-gone era, and watch all but the most jaded kids giggle uncontrollably over the goofy slapstick staged melodramas reenacted at various points throughout the day. Hiss the villain (he’s in the black hat) and cheer the hero (the one in the white hat) and wish it were all still that simple. The littlest kids will want a stop at Bonnie Springs for the petting zoo. You may want to ignore the rest of the “zoo” (wild animals in small cages) in favor of the less-uncomfortable aviary, including some glorious white peacocks. The Ranch also offers trail rides throughout the day.

Kid friendly eats

All of this activity will work up appetites, and while the simplest solution seems to be the buffets—feed even a bottomless pit teenager!—there are some alternatives, in addition to the couple listed above. Capriotti’s sandwiches features carefully constructed (out of mostly in-house cooked ingredients) monster submarines, with the large size measuring twenty inches and costing $11. Take a couple of those on a picnic or back to your hotel room and even your teenager’s stomach should be satisfied. The Monte Carlo Brew Pub, despite its name, has a menu of kid-friendly items, from bbq to pizza to brownie sundaes that come in enormous portions for prices more affordable than many of the buffets. Caesar’s Palace’s new Cypress Street Marketplace is a notably good food court, with something for every taste, from build your own salads and wrap sandwiches for waist-watchers to particularly good pizza and hot dogs for the kids with no imagination, to Vietnamese specialties and pulled pork sandwiches for those wanting a bit more interest.