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Las Vegas with Children?

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Is it a good idea, or even possible, to turn sin-city into kid-city? I pondered this question during a five-hour road trip to Las Vegas last month. I knew the city’s usual activities – the gambling, the shows, and the bar-hopping – would not be the focus of a trip with a four-year-old and a one-year-old. I did not realize, however, the “child-friendly” entertainment on the Strip was geared almost entirely toward older kids and teens.

My preschooler, Karissa, was thrilled when we pulled into our new “home” – the blue and red turreted castle, Excalibur. The magic ended there. Since Excalibur is one of the older hotel casinos, the air filtration system seemed woefully less efficient than that of other casinos. The scantily-clad female dancers gyrating on a low stage near the front entrance forced us to take the long route through the cigarette-smoke-filled casino to our room each night, which worsened toddler Leo’s asthma.

There are kids’ carnival games located one floor below the casino, but our visit to the Fantasy Faire Midway was brief due to the carcinogenic smoke wafting down the stairs. Visiting Krispy Kreme each morning at the Castle Walk was the highlight of our Excalibur stay. My daughter enjoyed witnessing the circles of freshly-fried dough being doused with glaze even more than eating the donuts.

Our first night’s dinner at the Rainforest Cafe at MGM Grand was fun but a wee bit scary for my young kids. The indoor waterfalls and animatronic elephants provide a happy diversion for the kiddies while parents nibble on coconut crusted shrimp or spicy pastalaya, a cajun-style pasta dish. Beware of make-believe tropical storms, which boom and flash menacingly throughout the restaurant from time to time. Entrees range $11.99-$31.99. Kids’ menu items are $9.99-$10.99, including a drink.

The next day we followed our guidebook’s recommendation for kid-friendly activities and drove to Circus Circus. Of course, the guidebook also recommended Excalibur for children, so we should’ve known better. We wound our way through throngs of people to the Adventuredome, an indoor amusement park that charges $4-$5 per ride. I admit my daughter loved the carousel and mini Ferris wheel, but I found their selection of rides for children under 42 inches meager and ho-hum. As a Disneyland Annual Passholder, perhaps my expectations were a tad high.

If carnival games are imperative for your family, preschooler-friendly attractions are available at a more affordable price in a smoke-free environment at Chuck-E-Cheese in three Las Vegas locations. Visit their website to join the Chuck E-Club for discounts on food and tokens before you go.

After hotel room naps, we toured the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes. My daughter delighted in placing a dollar at the foot of one of the “living statue” street performers. The gondolas and their often-singing gondoliers fascinated my children. The live opera performance in St. Mark’s Square enchanted the kids. My one-year-old laughed and clapped as he watched the performers sing and juggle. He shook his head vehemently saying, “Nay, nay, nay!” (his version of, “no”) when it was time to leave. Live performances are free. Tickets for gondola rides are $16 per person, with children two and younger riding for free.

That night we dined at Celebrity Chef Mario Batali’s Enoteca San Marco, the less expensive of Batali’s two Italian restaurants at the Venetian. To start, my husband and I split a salad of mixed greens served with pomegranate seeds, shaved parmesan, and prosciutto. It was just a salad, but wow, what a salad! Then I gobbled up my entire plate of spaghetti carbonara, a creamy pasta dish made with eggs and pancetta that I discovered during my travels through Europe as a foreign exchange college student. I can rarely find prepared properly stateside. No wonder Mr. Batali is an Iron Chef! Salads are $14; dinner entrees are $16-$30. While there is no children’s menu, Enoteca will happily prepare a small plate of pasta with butter or marinara sauce for your little one. However, with a pricetag of $15 you may want to pack a sandwich or feed the kids elsewhere beforehand.

We asked our friend, Frank Seidman, a Las Vegas resident and father of four children, where to go for off-Strip affordable family fun. Per his instructions we steered clear of the Southern Nevada Zoological-Botanical Park, about which he said, “Only go if you want to see a handful of half-dead animals in tiny cages.” No thanks!

Instead, we followed Frank’s advice to drive the 15 minutes to Ethel M’s Chocolate Factory and Botanical Cactus Garden in nearby Henderson. During a brief walk-through tour we witnessed workers swirling apples in tubs of caramel and boxing up chocolates. Then we indulged in a few sweets from their chocolate shop. Don’t miss the PB & J-filled milk chocolate, Ethel M’s tasty bestseller. Roaming the four acres of neatly manicured cacti and succulents that surround the factory was a welcome breath of fresh air after the artificial, indoor activities of the Strip – literally! Entrance to the factory and garden is free. Individual chocolates start at $1.50.

Afterwards we stopped by another Seidman family favorite, Silverton Casino, just a few minutes from the Strip. Silverton’s aquarium of colorful fish, stingrays, and sunken pirate treasure mesmerized the kids. Attached to the casino is Bass Pro Shop, a huge sporting goods and outdoor recreation store featuring an indoor waterfall and live ducks. The aquarium and shop provide a pleasant, free diversion for all ages.

That night we drove to Caesar’s Palace for more shopping and food. A giant fountain in the style of Rome’s Trevi Fountain impressed my children, if briefly. For dinner we chose another restaurant owned by a celebrity chef, Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. Our German waiter was a delight, chatting up my daughter and providing multiple spoons for my son’s entertainment. Adult entrée salads and pizzas start at $12, with more fancy-schmancy items going for up to $52. Mickey-Mouse-shaped pizza and other kid favorites are available for $7. Noisy families (like ours) may feel more comfortable seated on the patio than in the upscale dining room.

After dinner we visited FAO Schwartz, one of Caesar’s Forum Shops. A two-story wooden Trojan horse juts forth from the store’s entrance. An array of toys, including a nursery of adoptable lifelike baby dolls, provides entertainment for the kiddies at no cost, if you can resist making a purchase.

I have visited Las Vegas numerous times, and while I enjoy the city of a million lights, I am always ready to head home after a few days. Not so for Karissa, who cried the morning of our departure, “I don’t wanna leave Las Vegas!”

Apparently, Las Vegas is for children after all.

What are your favorite attractions, restaurants, and accommodations when traveling with children in Las Vegas? Let us know in the comments!

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments
  1. Shawn Evanko says

    We just came back from Vegas with our two kids – ages 8 and 6. What a different experience for us! Most of our hard earned cash was spent at the arcades winning stuffed animals(AHHHH!). We stayed in a timeshare at Tahiti Village (which was nice – we didnt have to deal with the casino smoke, crowds, etc). Plus we has a full kitchen in our room so we could have breakfast and lunch instead of going out for all meals. Overall,it was a fun trip but Vegas is just not geared towards kids. Actually, I may be growing tired of it myself.

  2. I love the off-Strip recommendations. They sound like fun for adults, too!

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  7. Sounds like a bummer of a vacay. 🙁 Of course, you know my hubby & I love Vegas & are always looking for new spots to explore with our kids (7 & 3.5). We’re partial to nature activities like Red Rock Canyon, Shark Reef Aquarium & the Secret Garden. We usually stay at The Hotel (w/in Mandalay Bay) because of the amazing pools & spa (for us grownups). Here’s a link to some of the posts I’ve written about our fun: http://www.goexplorenature.com/search/label/Las%20Vegas

  8. Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

    Debi – You’re not kidding; this WAS a difficult vacay for us. I love your tips for finding the “natural” side of Vegas, though!

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