March 3, 2003 -- Las Vegas was designed for the kid inside us all, so it's no wonder that children adore this desert destination. And why not? The city is full of flashing neon, blinking bright lights, chimes, bells, sights, and smells to stimulate the senses. Now, granted, most of this man-made madness is aimed at adults, but that doesn't also mean that there's not plenty for those under 18 to see and do.
Originally created as a gambler's getaway, for decades, Las Vegas reveled in its role as Sin City, supplying cheap buffets and shrimp cocktails as well as a variety of nightlife, both clothed and semi-nude, to those who spent their bankrolls at the casinos. Las Vegas became synonymous with fast living, quickie marriages, and fast divorces, as well as gangsters, mobsters, and their molls.
But in the early 1990s, as the casinos became firmly entrenched in the hands of corporations, visions of higher profit margins birthed the idea of marketing Vegas as a family-friendly destination: Landmarks were unceremoniously redecorated or simply demolished; amusement parks sprung up on casino backlots; topless showgirls were replaced by magic acts; and a whole slew of hotels with absurd Disney-esque themes sprouted up like mushrooms. Where once Caesars Palace was the Vegas showcase of high concept hotels, there was now an Egyptian monument, a medieval palace, a "pirates of the desert" hotel, Oz's Emerald City, and replicas of Venice, Paris, and New York.
However, almost as quickly as Vegas had begun urging families to come visit, the hotels changed their tune. Casino execs had discovered that there was more money to be made off of slot machines than log rides and that many vacationers resented the presence of kids around town. For some, kids were what they were trying to avoid at home by coming to Sin City; other vacationers just weren't comfortable with the idea of kids being exposed to the very temptations they were enjoying. So, once again, Vegas started marketing itself as an adult location -- a hip destination for hep cats and cool kitties, a sophisticated resort location for those with disposable income, and a vacation getaway for anyone over drinking age. The people in charge took measures to restore their reputations by bringing back the topless showgirls, adding some raunchy comics, closing the amusement parks, and even going so far as to create resorts that discouraged or even banned most children from being on-site.
But just because there's been a costume/attitude change doesn't mean that there still isn't plenty of neat stuff for families to do in Sin City. After all, lots of families live in Vegas, and not all of them -- in fact very few of them -- find their recreation at the casinos/resorts. You can actually stay in Las Vegas and experience plenty of cool things without ever setting foot in a Strip hotel -- though why would you want to miss out on seeing all they have to offer, such as lions, tigers, pirate battles, talking statues, bird shows, clowns, magicians, jugglers, and so much more? So, though some of the casinos downplay, if not bury, their family-friendly past, some vestiges do still remain -- at least the vestiges that make money or lure more folks into the resorts, and, inevitably, toward the tables and slot machines.
And you must never forget that Las Vegas is designed to separate you from your money, whether by gambling -- the preferred manner -- or spending, which does not offer quite as high a profit margin for proprietors. The malls of the resorts/hotels are, for the most part, over-the-top castles of commerce. For though the city's exotic hotels are very low priced in comparison to rooms in other destination locations, there are attractions such as roller coaster and gondola rides, aquariums, dolphin habitats, IMAX movies, arcades, Humvee tours of the desert, simulated weightless flights, and so many more (kid and adult) magnets that will nibble away at your vacation budget. However, while some of Las Vegas's memorable experiences aren't exactly cheap, you can definitely have an amazing time whether you are on a budget-conscious vacation or a price-be-damned adventure.
Along with visiting the glitzy tourist attractions, consider discovering the city's past and present through its cultural offerings, many of which are offered in settings that are a pleasant change from the man-made environments of the hotels/casinos. Hoover Dam, the Mormon Fort, and the Clark County Museum obviously provide very different views of the area than what you can garner "just" from the Strip.
The history and culture of Las Vegas are explored not only in museums and monuments, but also with diverse outdoor happenings. Rodeos, recreations of posse shootouts, and festivals celebrating the different traditions of the area's settlers help families explore Las Vegas's past. During the summer, there are opportunities to see classic family films screened outdoors under the stars. Nearby Nellis Airforce Base provides a chance to watch fighter jets up close, while those inclined toward the terpsichorean arts can see the ballet and/or a luau. Athletically inclined families can race BMX bikes and sports cars, or participate in or simply watch any number of indoor and outdoor sports. We were reminded by several locals that "kids under twelve fish free," meaning that fishing licenses are not required for that age group to try their hand at the fishing holes around town as well as at giant Lake Mead, which features fishing along with a slew of other water recreations.
We are continually amazed at the number of fun activities for families in Las Vegas and even more impressed with the educational opportunities that could be cleverly disguised as fun. A trip to one museum lets you examine live, exotic desert creatures from just inches away, while a visit to another lets you explore sound waves and soap bubbles. In one casino, you can take a quick trip to an Egyptian tomb, while others transport you to other distant times and places: Renaissance Venice, ancient Rome, the New York of the 1930s, a perfect Paris, and exotic deserts. Here in Vegas, you get quite a bang from your vacation buck!
When in Vegas, you won't be able to help noticing the number of tourists (from around both the country and the world) who have traveled to Vegas, kids in tow, to take advantage of both the adult- and child-oriented attractions the city offers. They know what you're about to find out: You can't help but be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff to do and see in Las Vegas, but, then again, if all you like to do on vacation is relax and lounge around the pool, that, too, can be accomplished with minimum effort in this city, because, in reality, Las Vegas is a great family-oriented vacation spot, with something for everyone -- just don't let the hotels/resorts in on the secret!
Frommer's Favorite Las Vegas Family Experiences
Watching the Free Bird Show at the Tropicana. Joe Krathwohl, the Birdman of Vegas, performs amazing stunts with his exotic birds (all endangered) who pedal mini Ferraris, imitate Valley Girls, fly through hoops, and keep kids and adults amused with their stunts. With his easy patter, Krathwohl informs and educates the audience about these endangered species; (tel. 888/826-8767, www.tropicanalv.com).
Watching Statues at Caesars Palace. The "statues" come astoundingly alive at two locations in Caesars Palace in the Forum Shops, accompanied by music, lasers, and fog, enthralling everyone around them. The Fountain Festival, the original statue show, stars Bacchus, the god of wine, and might actually get your children interested in Greco-Roman mythology. The newer show, more loosely drawn from classical literature, is full of explosions, thunder, and lightning. Both are huge favorites with children of all ages; (tel. 800/634-6661, www.caesars.com).
Lighting Up the Night at Fremont Street. Fremont Street, the site of U2's video for "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," is now closed to cars, and a mesh canopy of over 2.1 million lights electrifies the evening sky with brilliant changing colors. A 54,000-watt stereo system accompanies the light-and-laser show. Between shows, which run four times a night, there's live music and entertainers performing along this five-block-long promenade lined with shops and cafes. The Neon Museum provides additional glow with the original lamp from the Aladdin and other classic Vegas signs (www.vegasexperience.com).
Exploring Lied Discovery Children's Museum. Your entire family will have a blast piloting the Space Shuttle and composing tunes with your feet at this museum where over 100 exhibits are designed to be touched and played with; (tel. 702/382-3445, www.ldcm.org).
Seeing the Pirate Battle at Treasure Island. Every hour and a half from 5pm, cannons boom as Her Majesty's Navy takes on pirates in this 10-minute staged battle. Swords are drawn, swashbucklers swash and buckle, plus there's fire and a sinking ship. All in all, it's a very satisfying experience (watch it from the simulated docks outside Treasure Island), and, for fun after the crowds have cleared, you can watch the sunken ship rise from the watery depths to do battle again. Alternatively, you can have dinner at Buccaneer Bay and see the whole thing from above; (tel. 800/944-7444, www.treasureisland.com).
Picnicking at the Family Film Fests. You'll feel like a real local family when you grab some sandwiches and drinks from Capriotti's and, with a blanket wrangled from your hotel's housekeeping department, head out to one of several festivals held outdoors Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at various park locations throughout the summer. The film fare tends toward newer releases, but they also screen Gen X adventure classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and musicals. And, if you tire of watching the stars on screen, you can lean back and count the ones in the sky.
Watching the White Tigers. While visiting the Mirage, Siegfried and Roy's big cats stay in the White Tiger Habitat, which is climate controlled and designed to replicate the tigers' natural environment. You can stay as long as you like waiting for the big cats to romp, roar, and roll; (tel. 800/627-6667, www.mirage.com).
Tossing Balls with the Dolphins at the Dolphin Habitat. There is nothing cooler than playing ball with a water mammal. These dolphins don't do tricks, per se, but they will bounce balls back to you and their trainers, stand up on their tails, and do flips, not because they're trained to, but because they want to; (in the Mirage, see above).
Counting the Moray Eels at Shark Reef, Mandalay Bay. Supposedly, there are over 20 of the slinky, spotted sea creatures living in the vast coral reef here, but we only managed to count 8. It's also fun to give them names, because each has a distinctive look. Ella Eel, Elvis Eel, Irwin...you get the idea; (tel. 877/632-7000, www.mandalaybay.com).
Feeling Brave After the Stratosphere Thrill Rides. You'll bond on the adrenalin rush before, during, and after a trip on the Let It Ride High Roller, the world's highest roller coaster, or a drop on the Big Shot, a 160-foot free-fall ride on the Stratosphere's spire. Kids under four feet tall won't feel left out if you go for a ride with them on the Sky Wheel, a Ferris wheel 80 feet above the Strip, or on Little Shot, a smaller version of the super scary free fall ride; (tel. 800/998-6937, www.stratospherehotel.com).
Exploring the International Market. This vast warehouse, a secret to most visitors, stocks thousands of different foods from around the world. Gooey Japanese fruit candies in neon wrappers share space with tarragon soda pop from the Middle East and purple yam ice cream from the Philippines. Open Monday through Friday from 8am to 6pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 6pm. 5000 Decatur Blvd. tel. 702/889-2888.
Seeing the Dinosaurs Dance at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Equipped with motion sensors, the recreations of T. rex and his dino buddies come alive, roaring and moving when you enter their display room. Live sharks swim in a nearby tank, and there's a cool collection of stuffed animals in displays designed to replicate their natural environment; (tel. 702/384-3466, www.lvnhm.org).
Traveling at Warp Speed. If a trip to Vegas isn't out of this world enough for your family, try blasting off into hyperspace with the crew of the Enterprise at Star Trek: The Experience. Beam aboard, then save the universe. Even if you pass on the ride, you'll still get a kick out the History of the Future Museum, Star Trek memorabilia and themed shops, and a Trekker meal of Hamborger or Glop on a Stick in Quark's Bar. Yum. Make contact at tel. 888/GO-BOLDLY (462-6535), www.startrekexp.com)
Watching the Local Team Hit a Home Run. Half the fun of going to a baseball game is eating hot dogs, popcorn, and peanuts. But at a Las Vegas 51s game, there's a good chance you'll see a budding baseball star hit his record-breaking run before he's called up to the majors; the 51s -- who take their name from the alleged UFO-sighting ground Area 51 and have an alien as their logo -- are the AAA (farm team) for the Los Angeles Dodgers; (Cashman Field, 850 Las Vegas Blvd. North, tel, 702/798-7825, www.lv51.com).
Ordering in a Pizza. Take a break from your sightseeing to relax in front of the TV and order up a pay-per-view movie. Then call out for a large pie from Metro Pizza, the city's best, who will actually deliver to your hotel room. Those ingredients should add up to decadent, silly fun that will help remind you of what being a family is all about. It will also hopefully revitalize you for your next adventure. (Metro Pizza, 1395 E. Tropicana Ave., tel. 702/736-1955).
The Rest of the Best
Best Place to Run Around: Providing a variety of outdoor diversions, from picnicking to skateboarding and in-line skating, plus a dog park, a radio controlled mini-boat area, and a horseshoe pitch, Sunset Park, 2601 Sunset Rd. (tel. 702/455-8200), located south of the Strip, near McCarran International Airport, is a welcome respite from much of the city's artificial atmosphere.
Best Bookstore: While both Waldenbooks in the Fashion Show Mall, 3200 Las Vegas Blvd S. (tel. 702/733-1049), and Virgin Megastore at Caesars, 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (tel. 702/696-7100), are easily accessed from the Strip, Dead Poet's Bookstore, 3874 W. Sahara Ave. (tel. 702/227-4070), has a huge selection of used books for adults and children, and is the perfect place to fill up on literature at a discount.
Best Toy Store: FAO Schwarz, located in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, 3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (tel. 800/634-6661 or 702/731-7110), is three stories of fabulous toys -- including a room of Barbies for girls, action figures for boys, and the store's trademark super soft stuffed animals -- stocked in a section that replicates Homer's Trojan Horse. Plus, they can hold a birthday party for your wee one, which could include a sleepover in the tree house section of the store, if you want (and can afford it).
Best History Lesson: Your child can join the posse and head out to hunt down the bad guy or watch the goofy Western melodramas that are staged ever half-hour in Old Nevada on the Bonnie Springs Ranch (tel. 702/875-4191, www.bonniesprings.com). Explore Boot Hill Cemetery -- and other locations that recreate pioneer icons -- with your family. Along with the Western town, cowhands, and petting zoo, there's a caged collection of rescued wildlife and the most reasonably priced horseback rides in the Las Vegas area.
Best Weird Science: Take a deep breath at the oxygen bars located in New York-New York, 3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (tel. 800/693-6763 or 702/740-6969, www.nynyhotelcasino.com), and MGM Grand, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S. (tel. 800/929-1111 or 702/891-7777, www.mgmgrand.com). Almost pure oxygen is mixed with aromatherapy scents like watermelon and lemongrass, which allegedly can help improve your mood and help your focus. It's a little wacky, but fun, for the whole family to sit in a row wearing neon nose plugs, inhaling deeply.