Las Vegas: Glitz, Glitter And Family Fun

Las Vegas is maturing much faster than its family audience, but it’s still great fun for parents who don’t mind “minding” their kids. Las Vegas is maturing much faster than its family audience, but it’s still great fun for parents who don’t mind “minding” their kids.

There’s only one Las Vegas, and it’s a wild adventure for the entire family. Before you even land at the airport, you can see for yourself that the city is bigger than life. There in the distance, out your airplane window, you spy a giant pyramid, an outdoor roller coaster, the Eiffel Tower, and if you’re arriving at night, more lights than Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

For us, Las Vegas was a starting point for a Western vacation that included the Grand Canyon and Sedona in neighboring Arizona. We didn’t know what to expect in this land of gaming, gambling and girls, but we were pleasantly surprised by the fun we had.

And although it’s no longer being touted officially as a “family vacation” location, we discovered it really is a perfect place to spend three to five days with kids, especially if you do your homework, and know where to go and what to see.

Your Family Base Camp

The world famous Las Vegas sign.
The world famous Las Vegas sign.

One great thing about Las Vegas is that most hotels have amazing pool areas. The Flamingo (702/733-3111), where we stayed, was a big hit with my kids with its multiple slides (their parents loved them, too), hot tubs and numerous pools. This comes complete with a waterfall you can stand under as thundering cold water pours down on you. During Happy Hour, there are usually contests and special events poolside, complete with loud music blasting from speakers — don’t expect a quiet spot to mellow out. It can be hard to find a lounge chair during the height of the day, but you’ll have the place to yourself if you go for an early morning swim. By late afternoon, the place also clears out as people head off to stuff themselves at the myriad buffets.

Another great thing about the Flamingo was its central location on The Strip; there was lots to see within walking distance and easy transportation to everything. It’s also on the monorail, the city’s multi-million-dollar system that runs from the north end to the south end of the Strip, and vice-versa. It’s a fun ride for kids who don’t live in a city with a subway and it can get you from one area of The Strip to another quickly, without battling taxi traffic. There’s also a free shuttle that connects a couple of hotels and will save your exhausted feet. (Taxis can be pricey, but sometimes at the end of the day it’s worth it to take a load off).

Prepare to eat a lot in this city of big, bigger, and even bigger. No dieting allowed! We asked our cab driver to recommend a good buffet and he suggested The Rio Hotel. There we found tables and tables of everything from sushi to Chinese, ribs, and salad. We stuffed ourselves silly and then made room to try the gelato, cake, cookies and more.

Read up on the different buffets and their specialties and hit a couple while you’re there. Save money and your waistline by eating smaller meals at either lunch or dinner and have one big buffet a day. (I admit, I did keep a plastic bag in my purse to take a few cookies for hotel room munchies late in the evening). 

Las Vegas By Night – Families Beware

Nighttime is when you’ll really feel like you’re in Las Vegas, so it’s a must to stay up after dark and take a stroll on The Strip. There’s so much to see (in addition to people-watching), including pyrotechnics, fake lava, and dancing waters.

Start by heading over to the Stratosphere Tower (800/99-TOWER). Try to get to the observation deck just before sunset for panoramic views of the entire Las Vegas Valley. Then watch as the sun sets and the lights come on. It’s like someone turned on a giant switch in the sky as the entire world below is suddenly bathed in colored lights.

At the Stratosphere we bought an American Superstars package that included a dinner buffet, a trip to the observation deck and an impersonation show with good imitations of Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Britney Spears. For the really brave and adventurous, after desert, take a turn on the Big Shot, a thrill ride that shoots you off the top of the building. I was scared enough just watching it!

At the Mirage Hotel, you’ll find the famous volcano spewing smoke and fire 100 feet into the air, every hour after dusk. For the best views, position yourselves to watch the Light ‘n Lava show from The Strip side, not the hotel side.

Then head towards to fountains in front of the The Bellagio, which dance nightly to the music of masters such as Pavarotti and Sinatra in an amazing show your kids are bound to want to see over and over.

A few years ago Treasure Island replaced its G-rated pirate ship battle show with a more sensuous pyrotechnic battle show called ”The Sirens of TI,” complete with sultry sirens seducing pirates. Decide for yourself if it’s right for your children. Another caution for parents of young ones: everywhere you walk you’ll be handed (sometimes graphic) cards and flyers for topless shows and girls on call. They try not to hand them to kids, but occasionally they did give them to my 15-year-old son. Explaining what services they offer may be a little more than you bargained for with young children.

And remember, although kids are allowed to walk through the casinos – actually it’s impossible not to do so on a regular basis to get to your room, restaurants, the pool, etc. – they aren’t allowed to gamble or be with you if you are gambling. When we stopped to put a few quarters in a slot machine, they kindly asked our kids to keep moving. Another hazard is secondhand smoke – if you spend anytime indoors you’ll be breathing it in constantly because “No Smoking” laws haven’t yet hit the casinos. Meanwhile, Las Vegas has banned smoking in restaurants and bars that serve food.

Las Vegas By Day Must-Sees

Buskers in Las Vegas
There’s free street entertainment all over Vegas.

The Imperial Palace Auto Showcase is a must-see for young boys or anyone who loves cars. Although the hotel is kind of seedy, the cars -some of which are owned by the rich and famous (think Elvis and Frank Sinatra)- are lots of fun to see. My sons were in heaven, taking dozens of pictures of almost everything with our new digital camera. (Look for coupons to get you in free.)

Spend time strolling the cobbled streets of Venice, Italy, at The Venetian, where you’ll likely see a bride and groom (or several) floating by in authentic gondolas, hear singers belting out tunes from a balcony over the crowds in an indoor plaza, and generally feel like you’re actually on the streets of Italy (complete with expensive shopping).

Visit the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace for the Talking Statues show in which Bacchus, Venus, and Apollo come to life on the hour. Or just walk around and admire the expensive clothing for sale and the beautiful tropical fish in the 50,000-gallon saltwater aquarium.

Kids will love the Lion Habitat at the MGM Grand Hotel. You’ll have to pry them away from the huge protective glass windows where they can stand practically right next to these majestic cats. Sometimes they’re merely taking a nap, but at other times they play with their toys or walk right overhead in the glassed-in passageway. (When they did this, suddenly 50 cameras and smartphones popped out and began clicking as if on cue!)

New York, New York was fun even for us native New Yorkers. Adjacent to the gaming floor is a whole area that feels like you’re walking on the streets of the city complete with hydrants and fire escapes, manhole covers that emit steam and lots of New York food served at outdoor cafes (although they’re really indoors) where you’ll find everything from hotdogs to pastrami sandwiches and everything in between.

My kids loved the Manhattan Express roller coaster, even though the ride was over in minutes. With heights of 203-feet, drops of 144-feet and speeds of up to 67mph, you’ll be twisting, diving and rolling 180-degrees for some real white-knuckle thrills. But don’t close your eyes; you’ll have a great view of The Strip while zipping around.

There was so much we didn’t see or do that we’ll have to come back again soon. But by the end of our third day we’d had enough of the glitz and glitter of Las Vegas and were ready to see some of the natural beauty of the West.

Waving goodbye to the wonderful tackiness of it all, we drove out of town to the Hoover Dam on the way to the Grand Canyon, but that’s another story!

Family Tips for Doing Vegas Right

Check-in Kiosks: Many of the big hotels have kiosks right in the airport so be sure to check in there, where the lines are much shorter. To save time, let one adult wait for the luggage while the other checks in. You’ll be given your key and can go directly to your room at the hotel.

Comfortable Shoes: It’s a must to wear comfortable walking shoes or sneakers at all times. There’s so much to see here that you’ll tend to put on lots of mileage. And despite the heat year round, carry a sweater for the icy cold air-conditioned hotels and restaurants. You’ll never get too hot in Las Vegas because you can always pop inside somewhere for a break to cool off.

Clip Coupons: Check out all the free magazines you’ll find in your hotel and around town. There are discounts on almost everything, so look for coupons to save money at many shows, buffets, and attractions. If you see someone on line with a better coupon than yours, ask where he or she got it and try to get your own (sometimes they’ll have extras and offer to share). Many of the information desks in the casinos also offer discount coupons.

Map Out Plans: Focus on one area of The Strip at a time so you’re not overwhelmed. Tackle one area in the morning and then go back to your hotel for a swim; head in another direction in the evening. Ask your hotel for a free map to see where everything is located, but don’t be fooled, everything is a lot further than it looks. A hotel that looks right next door to another could be a half-mile or more away.

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