Las Vegas Vacation with the Kids

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After "The Hangover" you may not think of Las Vegas as a family destination, yet this glittering city has a lot of unusual activities that appeal to the younger set. Does that make Las Vegas a family-friendly city?

Depends on your family. First of all, what happens in Vegas won't stay in Vegas -- it's really the kind of vacation your kids will want to photograph, Facebook and talk about for a long, long time. Anyone who wants to gamble (strictly for ages 21+) and brings kids to Vegas has to balance time at the tables with taking them sightseeing. (Otherwise you should stay at home and play casino games.)

Is Las Vegas a fun family vacation for parents who aren't interested in gambling? Between the animal shows, museums, windowshopping, dancing fountains, costumed characters from every era in history, pirates and themepark rdes, there are lots of family-together activities --many of them free. And unlike many cities where parents have to force "culture" on their kids, in Vegas just being and seeing are enough. So, you'll get a big bang for your buck on a Vegas vacation.

On the down side, a lot of the free entertainment is designed to lure passersby to try expensive VR thrill rides and arcades or enter casinos and novelty shows. Some parents are uncomfortable with the glamorization of gambling and the X-rated adult fare that's impossible to avoid. Just know what you're getting into and you'll make lifelong memories, guaranteed!

Making the most of a Las Vegas Family Getaway

To make the most of your Las Vegas family vacation, pick a hotel with a pool so you can relax or nap in the heat of the day. Vegas is all about the night. An air-conditioned, elevated monorail runs back and forth along the central hotel zone known as The Strip, and many hotels also offer free shuttles to partner casinos. It's a great way to windowshop the live shows, dancing fountains and sidewalk entertainers you may want to return to.

The dapper poker professional Ron Wall, known for pinstripe suits, spats and a tipped fedora, was nicknamed "The Duke of Fremont Street" after the Old Vegas boulevard that's home to the classic Golden Nugget casino. The "Fremont Street Experience" is another fun evening destination: a five-block-long pedestrian mall that celebrates ca. 1950s gambling with live concerts, millions of dollars worth of lights and classic Vegas neon -- all free. Go at night for the "Sky Parades," a popular light and sound show played on the mall's electric roof canopy.

Casino Hotels have Free "Family" Entertainment

Most of the casino hotels appeal to the young at heart with free and frequent shows on their property. The swashbuckling pirate battle held in the Treasure Island casino fountain of yesteryear has evolved into “The Sirens of TI,” a pop rock show of bikini-clad vixens wrapped in pyrotechnics, music, acrobatics and dance.

Las Vegas' volcano erupts hourly in a peaceful lagoon outside the family-welcoming Mirage Hotel. Expect the earth to shake as flames shoot into the sky 60 feet above the water. The Bellagio Fountains, another water show outside one of the city's most upscale casino hotels, is programmed to music with 1,000 combinations of more than 4,000 lights.

There's great theming at the New York, New York with its Empire State Building, Lady Liberty statue and better than Coney Island roller coaster. On the second floor is a huge video arcade with tons of prizes to win, bumper cars, and a lazer tag arena. Far more contemporary is the new Crystals section of the City Center mall, illuminated by glass light columns, unusual sculpture, hanging gardens and European designer shops.

If you're traveling with younger kids, they'll be super impressed by the knights and castle style of The Excalibur Hotel and its medieval themed decor and fun arcade. Little historians will like Caesar’s Palace shopping arcade, with its hourly Talking Statues show in which the Roman gods Bacchus, Venus, and Apollo come to life.

Paid Entertainment around The Strip

Las Vegas is always growing and changing with the times, rolling out terrific entertainment for its many repeat visitors. Paid attractions include the staid Imperial Palace Auto Showcase, a must-see for anyone who loves celebrity cars. The more participatory Las Vegas Cyber Speedway at the Sahara Hotel has a 3D motion theater where visitors can choose between being a passenger in a race car, or a driver in the Grand Prix.

Cirque du Soleil, an acclaimed circus troupe who uses acrobatics, dance, music and visual effects, performs at several hotels.  Among other live theatre options, families will enjoy "Blue Man Group" at the Venetian Hotel and, of course, "The Lion King" at Mandalay Bay. Teens who are into showmanship will get a kick out of master illusionist Criss Angel who performs at The Luxor, itself a wildly themed Egyptian pyramid of glass that illuminates a whole section of The Strip.

For culinary sightseeing, start small. The four-story M & M World is one of the first free sights kids want to visit, because the candy is celebrated in film and a museum. The Paris Las Vegas has cobblestone streets, an authentic French bakery and an outdoor cafe that are perfect for a break. Holsteins Shakes and Bun is in the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, and teens will appreciate its tongue-in-cheek menu of burgers, fries and creative milkshakes ("bamboozled" for adults).

Touring The Strip Hotels & Choosing a Family Favorite

Hotels located in the heart of The Strip are the most expensive, and upscale families really go for The Mandalay Bay. It's very classy and has a beautiful swimming pool surrounded by a sand beach, as well as a casino-free Four Seasons Hotel on its upper floors.

Tiny travelers can play all day at Circus, Circus or go for a thrill ride on one of the roller coasters in the indoor amusement park. You might catch trapeze artists, tightrope walkers or jugglers in one of the free, ongoing circus acts, then clowns and animal acts in the next show.

Kids will love the "Lion Habitat" at the MGM Grand Hotel, where they can watch these majestic cats through protective glass covering the sides and roof of the walkway. The MGM Grand is also known for its expert children's nursery (which used to be open 24 hours a day!) and the popular "CSI The Experience" forensic game. At the nearby MGM Mirage Hotel -- also popular for its large pool -- there's a "Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat" training center where educational trainer-for-the-day programs can be booked in advance.

Hotels that appeal to families with teens include the Hard Rock Las Vegas, a super themed rock n' roll palace with excellent service, and The Stratosphere, whose needle-like spire and observation are used for bungee-jumping and other thrill rides. The Monte Carlo, at one end of The Strip, has a fun food court and a pool with a lazy river that's perfect for school-age kids. Families who want a little peace and quiet should consider the Bluegreen Club 36, located near enough to exciting Las Vegas but remote enough to be a relaxing vacation getaway.

What's a Winning Vegas Strategy?

Before you cross the Nevada border, talk to your kids in an age-appropriate way about the perils of gambling and how to be responsible players. Discuss the scantily clad men and women seen about town, and why they work in what's long been called "Sin City." Choose a family-oriented hotel where your kids will feel at home and may even make friends at the lavish breakfast buffets.

Surprisingly, during the winter holiday break between Christmas and New Years -- when the weather is great -- Vegas can be pretty quiet.  The summer is a popular time to visit but very hot; September and spring are good months weather-wise. At any time of year, visiting midweek means the cheapest room rates and the fewest crowds. The Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority site is one helpful resource. Don't forget to check AAA discounts, AARP discounts for grandparents, and online coupons before booking hotels as rates can be astonishingly low.

And enjoy making some unusual family memories!