Over the years Las Vegas tourism officials have spent a lot of money to convince travelers that their town was not only the perfect place for a bachelor party, a blow-out gambler's weekend, and the ideal escape for the rich and reckless, but also a great destination for families. For our family, Las Vegas seemed convenient and centrally-located to most relatives for a reunion this past October, so my wife and I decided to put this notion to the test with our toddler, our pre-teen -- and nary a hope of dropping one quarter into a slot.
After our early morning Fridayt flight on Continental from Liberty International in Newark to McCarran International Airport in Vegas, we were all anxious to get to our hotel and decompress. Our destination was THEhotel at Mandalay Bay (tel. 877/632-7000; www.thehotelatmandalaybay.com; rooms from $159). If you are not familiar with the Mandalay Bay "complex," this notion of "THEhotel" might be somewhat confusing -- as it was to our cab driver. THEhotel (all one word, always spelled just like that) is a new annex of Mandalay Bay. The entrance to THEhotel is on the opposite side of the complex from the entrance to Mandalay Bay, where we were dropped off by our confused cabbie. Nevertheless, we snaked our way through the beautiful Mandalay lobby, around the outskirts of the expansive casino (much to our kids' delight), past the Mandalay Theatre where Mamma Mia! is in its current Vegas run (more on that later), and into the sleek entranceway that leads to THEhotel.
Only in Vegas can you experience two drastically different worlds so quickly. Where Mandalay Bay is bright, airy and tropically inspired (think Bali) -- THEhotel, catering more to business travelers, is the epitome modern, sleek and sophisticated. Shiny with dark marble and defined by lots of clean lines, the lobby seemed quite serious compared to the breezy feeling one gets throughout the Mandalay Bay areas. There also happened to be the most wonderful smells coming from THEcafe, the 24-hour restaurant located in the lobby. Think Belgian waffles and bacon doused with butter and syrup -- the scent was heavenly, and we remarked on it each and every time we passed through the lobby, day or night.
Since we were too early for check in, we decided to grab a bite there at THEcafe. Coming from the east coast, we were ready for lunch, so it was burgers all around. There is no kids menu at THEcafe, so we had to order adult size portions for everyone (the portions were quite large, so my wife was able to share with our toddler). The burgers were juicy and delicious, and cooked to perfection. And it was fun for the kids to be there in the midst of the lobby watching people come and go. After all, in Vegas you never know what you might see, and we saw everything from guys dressed like cowboys headed to the casino to a top model and her entourage lugging bags and checking in.
The front desk was very helpful in getting our bags from the Mandalay check in area, and had everything sent up to our rooms when we were able to check in.
Our son was delighted with the room -- anything ultramodern is deemed cool to him. And I have to say, the adults were quite impressed too. All the rooms within THEhotel are suites with separate living and sleeping areas. At 750 square feet each, they are the largest standard rooms you'll find in Las Vegas. The furnishings are sleek and modern, yet comfortable, and much to my son's delight, there was a TV almost everywhere you looked. "We can watch sports in every room -- even the bathroom!" he announced after being the first to inspect the place thoroughly.
My wife was quite pleased with the beds, two queen sized in the bedroom, both with impossibly fluffy down pillows and comforters to match. And the full bathroom (there is also a half bath in the living room) impressed her as well. Elegantly outfitted with marble and granite, there was a double sink, giant bathtub and separate stall shower. Great smelling "baTHE" toiletries made exclusively for THEhotel (and also for sale in THEstore in lobby), had her counting the moments until the kids went to bed and she could take a nice long soak.
From our perch on the 37th floor, we had a fantastic view of the Mandalay pool area, the next stop on our itinerary. As soon as the bellman brought up the crib (a standard issue Pack-n-Play -- not a rickety little wooden number like we've found in many other hotels), we put on our bathing suits and headed down.
Be forewarned: the lobbies are quite chilly. The air conditioning is kicked up to high to keep all those gamblers awake and alert, but it also puts the freeze on little kids in bathing suits. Be sure to bundle them up just for the trek through the lobby to the pool.
We wound our way back through the lobbies and down to Mandalay Beach -- an 11 acre pool complex with sand, a wave pool, freeform pool surrounded by cabanas, and the Lazy River, where you can rent inner tubes and float relaxedly as the moderate current takes you past armies of serious sunbathers, through grottos and waterfalls and past lush tropical foliage. (Above the main pool and behind frosted glass walls, there is a new topless sunbathing area, which my brother-in-law and I were selflessly going to check out for the purposes of this article until my wife pointed out that the topic was about Vegas for families. Nuff said.)
The Mandalay Beach area, with its tight security (nobody, not even kids, can enter the pool area without their own room key), variety of pools, and several places to grab a bite, is one of the best water complexes on the Strip for families. While our son spent hours riding the waves at one end of the wave pool, our daughter sat and played peacefully with my wife on the other side of the same pool, with gentle laps of the waves tickling her toes. Waitresses come around often to take drink orders, and towels are plentiful at the entrance. The only thing that would have made the pool area better for us was if we had been able to rent one of the coveted cabanas (which run $200 a day). To lay claim to a cabana, you have to call exactly a week before you check in, starting at 8:30 a.m. Vegas time. My calls, at the precise time, were met with 10 minutes of hold music followed by "sorry, they're all booked up." Luck of the draw -- such is Vegas. Had we been able to secure one, it might have been a bit easier for our daughter to take a nap or play in the shade, and also for us to tend to dirty diapers. The general restrooms for the pool area were fine -- clean and well stocked, and there were surfaces suitable as diaper stations, so if you don't luck out with a cabana, you'll be just fine.
After all the family members had arrived and spent time catching up at the pool, we decided on an early dinner. The House of Blues (tel. 702/632-7607), in Mandalay Bay proper, seemed like a fun and easy option for all, especially since they had a kids menu and live music. The décor to the the southern bayou backwater theme a little far for my tastes, but the kids enjoyed it. There was some live music going on -- a guy doing an acoustic guitar set, which sounded great as we waited for our table, but it was a bit loud for any conversation to take place. If you do come for dinner with family during a live set, I suggest requesting a table in the back, so that you will be able to hear your child's inevitable request to go to the bathroom. As for the menu, it features down-home southern favorites such as Jambalaya, Chicken File Gumbo, and Slow Smoked Tennessee Style Baby Back Ribs. However, it was the Spicy Buffalo Chicken Tenders with Blue Cheese Dressing that was the favorite around our table, so much so that we ordered a second round. The kids enjoyed standard kids menu fare -- chicken fingers and hamburgers, with decent fries. We were all too tired to stick it out for dessert, but I would have gone for the Chocolate and Walnut Brownie served with Caramel Sauce and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. A guy at the table next to us seemed to be enjoying his, and had I enough energy to lift a fork, I might have asked for a taste.
After a great night's rest, the clan was ready to hit the pool area again, but only after a quick breakfast bite at THEcafe. Again, there is no kids menu, but the portions are so big, it's easy to share with toddlers, and older kids will love to dig into the delicious pancakes or giant, fluffy waffles. There are several other places to grab breakfast within the Mandalay Bay complex, including the Bay Side Buffet -- with a giant selection of breakfast and brunch type items and a view of the water garden, or 24 hour Raffles Café, with a view of the beach area and also a diverse, diner type menu. Both are equally pleasing to kids, and just fine fueling up in the morning.
We had a busy day of activity planned (no gambling included), so our Mandalay Beach time was limited to the a.m. hours. The kids enjoyed every second though, and had to be dragged away so we could keep to our schedule -- next up, a visit to The Secret Garden of Siegfried & Roy and the Mirage Dolphin Habitat. Located in the Mirage Hotel, this small zoo was actually a lot of fun for everyone. The Secret Garden had just enough animals to be interesting -- white lions and tigers, an elephant, leopards, etc. -- all the biggies you'd expect from Siegfried & Roy. The Dolphin Habitat was what really entranced the kids though. You can watch them in training, playing and feeding from both above and below the water. We spent at least an hour watching them do their thing. The concession stand by the dolphin habitat is kid-perfect, offering hot dogs, pretzels, frozen drinks and the like -- a quick and easy lunch for all. At $12 for adults, and free for kids under 10, this quick trip to the zoo was probably the best bargain of the weekend.
The kids wanted to spend more time at the pool, and the grandparents were more than happy to hang out with them there, so my wife and I were able to catch the 5 o'clock performance of Mamma Mia! at the Mandalay Theatre. We had heard that the show was perfect for Vegas -- all flashy costumes and tourists dancing in the aisles. While that description was not so far off, the show really was a breezy delight. The production ingeniously works in all of Abba's big hits, without seeming overly contrived. The actors were musically talented and fun to watch, and sets were simple and effective. I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did, not being a big Abba fan.
That night we were celebrating my wife's birthday, so fancier fare was in order. We decided on Del Frisco's (3925 Paradise Road; tel. 702/796-0063; www.delfriscos.com/lasvegas) -- an upscale steak house just off the strip. If there was one night we wish we could have had babysitting available, it was that night. Del Frisco's is not for younger kids -- the décor is bistro lovely, but serious, and caters to an upscale chic crowd. There are no paper place mats to draw on -- no crayons given at the hostess stand -- but even our toddler's over-tired squirming and my son's falling asleep at the table could not detract from the fabulous food. The menu features USDS Prime beef aged to perfection, hand cut and perfectly prepared. The steaks are linebacker-worthy in proportion with selections including fabulous 12-ounce filets, tender prime rib, and a succulent 24-ounce Porterhouse. Sides are a la carte and include such crowd pleasers as fluffy mashed potatoes. And for those who'd rather skip the beef, you'll find seafood and fresh vegetable options.
The next day's adventure with the kids began with even more wave pool in the morning, followed by a trip to the Treasure Island Hotel to see Mystere, a Cirque du Soleil production. The moment you enter and take your seats, the entertainment begins with a kooky vaudeville standard, the buffoonish master of ceremonies, who leads people to their seats, gently mocking them for the entertainment of other audience memberse and generally makes a nuisance of himself before, during and after the show. The show itself is quite a buffet for the senses -- gorgeous music, brilliant costumes and amazing acrobatic, dance and theatrical performances. Our son was spellbound from beginning to end, and while, amazingly, our daughter was able to fall asleep in the middle of it, when she was awake she too was entranced with the sights and sounds. What made the show most enjoyable for us was the sprinkling of humor provided not only by the tuxedoed MC, but also the diapered "baby" -- a grown man in full baby mode, bouncing giant balls, engaging the audience, and generally getting himself into trouble. If you've never seen a Cirque production, Mystere would be a great place to start. It's fabulous sensory adventure for the whole family.
Our next dining experience was at Piero's Italian Cuisine (355 Convention Ctr Dr.; tel. 702/369-2305), again, right off the strip. The place had come highly recommended by a friend, but unfortunately, not a friend who dines out often with kids. While the décor was elegant yet cozy, the food was uneven, especially for the price, and the service was painfully slow. We ending up waiting nearly 2 hours for our food, and didn't see any wait staff for long stretches.
On our last day in town there was no time for Mandalay Beach, but we did have the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay to look forward to before our departure. Also located within the Mandalay Bay complex, this indoor aquarium features not only sharks but more than 1,200 different species, including tropical and fresh water fish, reptiles, marine invertebrates and rays. The golden crocodile exhibit was interesting because they are so rare (these are the only ones existing in the western hemisphere) and so beautiful, and "touch pool" was a hit because the kids were able to get their hands (gently) on Rays, a Port Jackson Shark and a Horseshoe Crab. As you wind deeper down in to the exhibit, you find yourself in the heart of Shark Reef, set up to look like a sunken treasure ship. You feel as though you are at the bottom of the ocean looking up at the circling sea life which includes giant turtles, rays, colorful fish and 15 species of shark. The Great Hammerhead was particularly scary to see close up, but the other sharks seemed peaceful and quite were quite graceful to watch. We all agreed that the Shark Reef experience was a nice way to top off the vacation. Admission was a tad pricey -- $15.95 for adults, $9.95 for kids 5 -- 12 (kids under 4 were free), but worth it for the up close and personal look at some of the sea's most amazing creatures. Be wary of the gift shop, as there are a lot of trinkets to tempt little hands, and these are pricey as well.
While my wife and I did not set foot in a casino, catch a showgirl review, or share a romantic dinner or a wild night out on the strip, we did hit the jackpot in terms of having a great time with our kids. While I'd probably prefer to hit the town adult-style, I wouldn't hesitate to bring them again if the situation arose.
Do you have recommendations for families visiting Las Vegas? Tell us on our Nevada Message Boards.