Vegas for families

Sunday, October 16, 2005

LAS VEGAS -- It's been about a decade since some Las Vegas resorts tried to market themselves as family destinations. The emphasis on fun for the kiddies has since given way to marketing dance clubs and $300 bottles of liquor to 20-somethings -- not to mention selling golf resorts and celebrity chefs to 50-somethings. For a mother of two, the line "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" can only mean that you'd rather forget that your kid threw up on a thrill ride here.

But while the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has found that visitors with children make up only 10 percent of tourists, the city remains on the must-see list for many families. It's also near enough to places like Disneyland (265 miles away) and the Grand Canyon (275 miles away) to be included on itineraries for regional family trips.

And even though there are plenty of ways to blow your money here, Las Vegas can be surprisingly affordable for a family vacation. Good deals abound for airfare and hotels, and many attractions are free. Besides, it's illegal for anyone under 21 to "loiter" in a casino. That means families can walk past slot machines to get to a restaurant, but Mom and Dad can't gamble the college funds away with Junior in tow.

After friends raved about the fun they'd had in Vegas with their kids, my husband and I decided to check it out. But we were skeptical. Our mental images of the place were a patchwork of old Vegas -- a boozy, smoky, tacky place populated by losers in plaid jackets -- and new Vegas, where we assumed we'd scoff at the faux Brooklyn Bridge and absurd Eiffel Tower. After all, we live a mile from the real bridge in New York. We'd climbed the real tower in Paris. How could Vegas be anything but a joke?

Surprise! The real Las Vegas was beautiful, sparkling, and thrilling. As New Yorkers, we are not accustomed to walking around other cities with our jaws open and our eyes fixed upwards saying "Wow!" That is a reaction we have only observed in other people visiting Manhattan. But that's exactly what we did as we toured the Strip with thousands of other tourists taking in one dazzling extravaganza after another.

We walked across the mini-Brooklyn Bridge at the New York-New York hotel-casino and took pictures of the mini-Eiffel Tower, a perfect golden jewel outside the Paris Las Vegas hotel. We were hypnotized by the dancing fountains at Bellagio and loved the pyrotechnics of the volcano that blows up periodically outside The Mirage. The kids would have watched the lions in the glass cage at MGM Grand hotel all night if I hadn't pulled them away.

The pirate battle staged outside Treasure Island was free and as entertaining as some Broadway shows I've seen -- only we didn't have to pay $60 for lousy seats. Sexy dancing girls on one ship faced off against cute pirate boys on another ship in a mini-operetta that includes fireworks and choreographed diving maneuvers worthy of the Olympics. (Some parents, however, may judge the bump-and-grind dancing and innuendos too racy for a family audience.)

Dare I admit that we liked the ersatz black pyramid and statue of Pharoah at the Luxor as much as the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum? And the indoor roller coasters at the Adventuredome inside Circus Circus proved thrilling, even though we'd visited Disneyland and Universal Studios a week earlier. P.S., at $22.95 for an all-day pass, Circus Circus was a lot cheaper. The hotel also offers free live shows by circus performers.

For those with bigger budgets, there are plenty more ways to empty your wallet with children at your side, including the Eiffel Tower Experience ($7 for children, $9 adults); the Manhattan Express Roller Coaster at New York-New York ($12.50); "Star Trek: The Experience" at the Hilton ($33.99 children, $36.99 adults), and the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay ($9.95 children, $15.95 adults).

Choosing where to stay is one of the hardest decisions visitors to Las Vegas make. Every hotel offers something special. We went with the Monte Carlo because of the pool complex and because of its accessibility. You can walk to many other attractions from there, and its layout makes it fast and easy to get from your room to the street, garage or pool. This is no small consideration in Las Vegas, where people can miss their flights because it takes so long to exit massive hotels with multiple wings and thousands of rooms.

Our game plan was to spend daylight hours poolside, then to see the Strip lit up at night. We spent hours in the Monte Carlo's lazy river -- the water feels marvelously cool when it's hot outside (it was 109 degrees when we visited in August), and it's heated in winter. And the current in the river is so strong you don't even need a tube -- you just float along. You can rent or buy tubes at the pool, but like other budget-conscious families we saw, we brought inflatable tubes from home.

Fine cuisine is wasted on small children, so dining in the fabled restaurants at Wynn Las Vegas or Bellagio was never on our agenda. For lunch, we grazed from the poolside concession. A fruit platter -- a cornucopia of fresh pineapple, luscious berries and perfect cantaloupe -- was a welcome change from the usual junky snacks we eat on vacation.

For supper, we went to the Peppermill, a diner that dates all the way back to 1972 -- an eternity in Vegas years. Compared to the rest of the city, the glitz here is low-key, yet it's sparkly and fun. Good service, reasonable prices, and the kids found plenty they liked. Order sparingly -- portions are enormous.

For breakfast, the two-for-one buffet at our hotel was good, and the performance by the omelet chef was amazing. Part artist, part machine, he juggled four or five orders at once and executed each to perfection within moments.

Our hotel front desk said we could keep our hotel room key card, now deactivated, as a pool pass for the day after we checked out, or as a memento. It's now a treasured part of my 12-year-old's Vegas keepsakes -- along with a "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" T-shirt.

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