Kids in Vegas? Are you kidding? Teenage boys in Vegas? Seriously? That’s the reaction I mostly got when planning a little getaway with the family to Sin City. Even the travel bureau there suggested it was a 21-and-up destination. So what made me do it? Well, my 13-year-old was in a hockey tournament there. But we went a few days early to take in all the wonderful things the strip has to offer — yes even for kids.
I’ve been to Vegas nearly a dozen times. During the years, I’ve seen more and more kids walking around with their parents (or maybe, having kids, I just noticed them more). Look at it like they do: My kids were wowed by the Eiffel Tower at the Paris resort, half the size of the real thing. They couldn’t wait to do the gondola ride at the Venetian with its singing gondoliers. The sphinx of Egypt at the Luxor captivated them, as did the giant pyramid with its zooming lights. They (especially the one taking ancient civilizations class) wondered at the sculptures in Caesars Palace (and yes, some were nudes, but that’s art).
What we didn’t see were real nudes. A few scantly clad flamingo dancers, Batman, some Transformers and a bunch of monks, yes, but no pasties, and no ladies of the night. Of course, we did most of our exploring in the day, preferring to spend the evenings at a show or in our own hotel.
Some of the best things for kids to see in Vegas are free. We spent our first full day walking up and down the strip, mostly taking in the free attractions.
The Conservatory and Botanical Garden, just inside the Bellagio entrance, is a sight to behold no matter how old you are. About 120 gardeners and botanists maintain the 14,000-square-foot space with soaring glass ceilings. It’s free to walk around, smell the flowers and take in the ever-changing exhibits. Right now, it’s a celebration of Japanese spring; on our visit, the garden honored the Chinese new year.
Next door to the Bellagio is Caesars Palace. Take a walk around the adjacent Forum Shops to find fun stores kids will love: there’s Field of Dreams, a sports store; National Geographic and Disney fine art galleries; and Kalifano, which sells metal art replicas of Transformers, pirates (of the Caribbean) and even Golum, from “The Lord of the Rings.” As you walk around the mall, take in the replica Roman art. And stop by the revamped Fall of Atlantis show, with talking statues and pyrotechnics. It plays every hour on the hour starting at 11 a.m. And don’t miss the nearby 50,000-gallon aquarium.
The Mirage volcano: Every night at 7, 8 and sometimes 9 p.m., catch a volcano erupting outside of the Mirage. Feel the heat and hear the blasts of the show set to a driving soundtrack from the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart and Indian tabla artist Zakir Hussain.
At Circus-Circus, you can catch (for free) stunt shows by unicyclists and acrobats above the casino floor every half hour. (Note: Kids can walk through the casinos on the walkways.)
Hershey’s and M&M stores: Need some chocolate? Kids (and parents) will delight in Hershey’s Chocolate World in the New York-New York hotel, with an 800-pound chocolate Statue of Liberty sitting front and center. Just down the street, M&M’s World is a 28,000-square-foot, four-level monument to the colorful candies and a place you can create your own personalized ones.
Once you’ve taken in all the free attractions, circle back to the Bellagio after 3 p.m. weekdays (11 a.m. Sundays; noon Saturdays) and your kids will ooh and ahh at the famous Fountains of Bellagio. Water, music and light come together for an enchanting show. The choreography is set to music that changes all the time, from classical and operatic pieces to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Uptown Funk.”
Adventures and shows
New York-New York’s Big Apple roller coaster: You can see the coaster’s red tracks and speeding taxi cab-looking cars from resorts away, twisting, turning, going up and down. The track is nearly a mile and hits speeds of 67 mph. It’s a fun — albeit fast — way to see the strip. Just recently, they added a virtual-reality experience to the coaster, which takes you through the desert and over the strip. The coaster ride is $15; $20 for the virtual reality. When you’re done, stay and play at the resort for a bit; the roller coaster’s entrance is through a fully stocked arcade.
Stratosphere: At the far end of the strip, the Stratosphere has become known as the place for the truly adventurous. There’s a Sky Jump (like sky diving), a ride that dangles you off the edge of the tower, 900 feet in the air, and more. I’ll admit, I wasn’t adventurous enough for these, but teens may find this a must-see stop.
Gondola ride: I’ve always wanted to go to Venice, so the next best thing, of course, is the opulent Venetian hotel in Vegas. There you can dine at Italian restaurants, walk the streets, seeing mimes and other street performers along the way, stroll on the promenade with a clear (fake; it’s a ceiling) sky above you and watch gondolas go down the canal. You can ride one for $29 a person (indoor or outdoor), sit back and listen to your gondolier serenade you as you cruise though the water. Ours had worked for years in Branson, Mo., so we chatted as much as he sang.
You won’t be able to miss the 550-foot High Roller Ferris Wheel, and neither will your kids. Daytime tickets for kids are $9; adults are $22 or $35 if you’d like to drink from the bar on each car.
When kids need to let off a little steam there’s always the Adventuredome inside Circus Circus. It’s a five-acre indoor amusement park with rides, coasters, games, a laser maze, rock climbing, mini-golf and more. An all -day ride pass is $32.95 for those 48 inches and up or $18.95 for the littler guests.
Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat: This was my kids’ favorite part of the trip. We got there as it opened at 10 a.m. and went straight to the dolphin pools. There, trainers helped the mammals show off their skills — jumps, spins, back swimming, shaking their head. At most dolphin shows I’ve been to, you sit and watch something choreographed. On this you could stand poolside. And the dolphins were often within arm’s length. After they show off their skills for about 20 minutes, head below to get a glimpse of them (including a 7-month-old baby) swimming and playing. The adjacent Secret Garden features gorgeous white tigers and lions and videos of their former lives on stage. Tickets run $17-$22 (mirage.com).
Shark Reef Aquarium: After a long walk though Mandalay Bay you will reach the aquarium. Much like the aquariums in big cities all over the U.S., this one has tank after tank of a variety of fish and other sea creatures, 2,000 of them. It also has a touch tank, always a favorite of kids. Most of it is pretty standard until you get to the 1.3 million gallon shipwreck area, where a dozen or so species of sharks swim under, above and to the sides of you. Tickets are $19-$25 (sharkreef.com).
You really can’t go wrong with a Cirque du Soleil show for kids. They mesmerize with their acrobatics and stunts (and the minimal sexual innuendo will probably go over their heads). But you are usually talking $100 and up for a ticket. There are also magic shows (Mat Franco came highly recommended, but we couldn’t fit it in) that kids will love. Our family, fans of the work of Baz Luhrmann, opted for a bit of a different show, “BAZ — A Musical Mash-up,” featuring songs from “Moulin Rouge,” “Romeo + Juliet” and “The Great Gatsby.” It was an attention-grabbing show for the kids, with cast members often coming into the audience. The Palazzo Theatre, part of the Venetian complex, has a number of fun options for seating; we sat on sofas in the middle of the theater. Tickets start around $64 (palazzo.com/entertainment/baz.html).
Where to stay
One of the first questions you get when you tell people you are going to Vegas is where did you stay? That’s probably because most people have walked through (or gambled in) so many hotels on the strip, so they feel they know them. New York-New York and Circus Circus are probably the most kid-friendly. But you also want to consider the pool situation for kids. Mandalay Bay, where we stayed, had a huge pool complex with a lazy river and a wave simulator.
Make no mistake, it’s a big hotel, with 3,211 rooms (a total of 4,752 if you consider that the campus technically includes the Delano and the Four Seasons). But even the basic room we had was large and luxurious, and the hotel amenities (so many restaurants and bars and shops — and that pool) are worth it. You can get a room for as little as $90 (mandalaybay.com) depending on what night and what’s going on in town, but suites can soar into the thousands.
We booked the hotel months before a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of the hotel, killing 58 people. We saw no signs of the tragedy at the packed hotel, but the concert area across the street is fenced off and shut down. #vegasstrong is a sentiment that runs deep through the town.
From the fanciest restaurants of celebrity chefs to the cheapest West Coast icon ( In-and-Out Burger), Vegas has every kind of food you can imagine. My recommendation is to hit one mega buffet (your kids’ eyes will light up at the dessert table alone), one fancy place so they get a taste of Vegas culture and one fun burger-and-shake joint.
We went to two big brunch buffets and both ran about $175 for all four of us. Wicked Spoon, in the Cosmopolitan, and the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars both offered stations of seafood, prime rib, Asian cooking, Mexican, sushi and desserts. Both also offered unlimited mimosas (probably other things too; that’s just what we were ordering). Wicked Spoon’s Oxtail broth for Pho and the eggs benedict were winners for me, while the made-to-order crepes with bananas foster were a favorite at Bacchanal.
For fancy, you can always go to the restaurant of a celebrity chef they know. But I loved taking my kids to a supper club-type place. The new Libertine Social inside of Mandalay Bay has a menu created by James Beard award-winning chef Shawn McClain. The restaurant, which calls itself a next-generation gastropub, is as trendy as it is delightful. We ordered a variety of small plates, and none disappointed. The highlights were the Crispy Spanish Octopus ($19) with eggplant puree and the Spicy Hamachi Cones ($19), yellowtail with yuzu crème fraîche served in a tiny, savory cone.
If you want to go more traditional in décor (Libertine Social’s has a giant bunny mural with human body-part sculptures protruding from it) but just as forward-thinking in food (and much quieter), try Veranda, which, as the name implies, has a beautiful outdoor area. There, chef Michael Goodman creates a menu of authentic Italian cuisine with modern influence. The Ora King Salmon ($37) with puttanesca, cauliflower, almond and lime was sublime. But what kid could resist the signature dessert: tiramisu topped with a hazelnut basket with gelato and the lightest, most delicate orange-flavored cotton candy you can imagine to top it all off.
For more affordable fun, upscale burger joints can be found in nearly every resort. We opted for a new one. Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer, straight out of New York City, makes great burgers, but it’s their signature “CrazyShake” milkshakes that have garnered worldwide attention. Take the Sweet n Salty, a peanut butter shake with a chocolate-peanut butter rim covered in M&Ms and mini peanut butter cups, topped with a sugar daddy, pretzel rod, chocolate covered pretzel, whipped cream and chocolate and caramel drizzle ($15).
A trip to Vegas can take you and your family around the world — to Paris, to Venice, Egypt and more. It won’t cost as much as as a trip around the world, but it won’t be cheap either.