Yes, Vegas is known for late nights, big shows, drinking and gambling, the strip often populated with stagettes and twentysomething revelers wanting to live the extreme party you so often see in movies and on TV. But Las Vegas has so much going on – between the bright lights, big pools, rides and aquariums and buffets and neverending stuff, that it’s not a bad place to bring the family, either. I think there are two distinct Vegas experiences out there – with kids and without. (And yes, certainly far more variations within.) This time, in the midst of an especially cold winter, we were chasing sun and a change of scenery rather than late nights and cocktails, and wanted to bring our 8 year old son along to have fun.
There are a lot of choices in Vegas, both on and off the strip. With just 2 ½ days to spend, I didn’t want to have to worry about getting back and forth or renting a car. After hours (and hours) spent online going through packages, tracking deals and checking flights and hotels, trying to get a good price with a direct flight on days and times that would work, at a hotel that wasn’t too party-focused and had a pool (not an 18+ one) that was open year-round, I chose Hilton Grand Vacation Suites on the Las Vegas Strip (turns out there are two – this one is between Circus Circus and the Stratosphere). It got high ratings and is a non-gaming hotel, so not as rowdy.
The room was cheap (packaged with the flight) and was a good-sized one-bedroom suite with a full kitchen, living room area, dining room table and a washer and dryer, which really comes in handy when traveling with kids. (And grownups.) The kitchen meant making our own coffee (even Starbucks is pricier on the strip), being able to store and reheat leftovers, and breakfast for the boy who wakes up starving; I brought a zip-lock bag with oatmeal, raisins and a shake of cinnamon, and bought milk downstairs. Perfect when there are hours between waking and arriving at our first food destination – and we need time to build up a buffet-sized appetite.
There was a deep jetted tub in the bedroom (Vegas!) and a big bathroom with a shower that opened into the bedroom and the front room. It was nice to come back and have some down time in a real space, rather than sit on the bed in a tiny hotel room between excursions. It looked on the map as if it was right in the middle of the action, but in reality the north the end of the strip has a whole lot of nothing – big empty lots and a few buildings half built with construction ground to a halt – and in many ways it was nice to get away from the action without leaving the strip (and the easy bus route) entirely.
I know everyone says this, but I must reiterate, because even I didn’t follow orders: good walking shoes are vital. I thought I had this covered, but was punished with a blister bigger than my toe itself, and on day 2 walked for 12 hours in my only alternative: dollar store flip-flops I had brought along for the pool. It’s impossible not to cover lots of ground here – even just walking between two hotels right next to each other. (Forget Texas – everything’s big in Vegas.) Most often you have to cross the street via overpasses, not at corner crossings, so even going to a store you can see across the street equals six blocks of walking. And because taxis can’t stop on the strip, to catch one you have to 1) locate the entrance to a hotel, and 2) make the trek up into it before 3) getting into the taxi queue. For the most part, we got around on the Deuce, a bus that runs up and down the strip (and all the way downtown to Fremont St) with a stop every 15 minutes (or less, we found) at almost every hotel. It’s $6 for 2 hours or $8 for 24, and it’s a double decker, which W loved.
Vegas is known for its buffets, which are a great way to feed kids. But although the quality has increased, so have the prices. Gone are the days of the ultra-cheap Vegas buffet; these days you can expect to spend $15-$20 for a weekday breakfast to $30-$90 for a weekend dinner. Perhaps the most famous buffet on the Las Vegas strip is at the Wynn; it’s massive, housed in a big garden/atrium with 15 live cooking stations. The new Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace is very cheffy and extravagant (and pricey) but comes highly recommended, as did the Spice Market at Planet Hollywood and the Paris. The latter two are on the buffet of buffets, a $49 24 hour pass to a short list of buffets (you can pick up a pass at any one of them, or Google Las Vegas buffet of buffets); the trick is to go for dinner late the first night and finish your 24 hours with an early dinner the second, getting two dinners (and everything in between) for your dining dollar. We decided to check out the Wicked Spoon in the Cosmopolitan hotel, which is centrally located, nice and modern but not too stuffy, and differs in its serving style; most items come in their own little ramekins/teeny pots/Chinese takeout containers rather than served up from a steam tray. The wee individual dishes are great for kids, and they’ll love the dessert and gelato bar; just choose a flavour and they’ll scoop it up for you.
Kids (and grownups) will love to seek out the secret pizza place in the Cosmopolitan. Hint: it’s on the 3rd floor, above the Chandelier, behind a big brown door. Out front there’s a vintage pool table, and you can stop and shoot some pool while you eat your slice (or whole pie) – teenagers will love this. Once you find the unmarked door, the narrow hallway behind it is covered with album covers, and at the end you’re rewarded with fantastic pizza – thin crust, with a chewy, bulbous edge, dolled up in red or white sauce, served up by friendly guys covered in a thin layer of flour and bits of dough. There are a few stools, a narrow counter, and a couple video games, and hefty slices for under $5.o Do:
Vegas is such a spectacle; there are crazy things and totally-out-there people to see everywhere you go – and gets a bit more nutso over the course of the day. There’s no shortage of things to see and do – enough to wear everyone out long before it gets dark and the strip turns into a party.
It’s pretty sleepy in the mornings-we were wide awake at 5:30 the first day (thanks to an alarm going off in our room) and out by 8; the second morning it was just after 9 and surprisingly (for a city that never sleeps), most stores didn’t open until 10 or later. Besides the casinos (which kids are not allowed in, but can walk around), most hotels on the strip have something interesting to check out. I thought Treasure Island – where the big pirate ships are – would be a bigger hit than it was; the cannon show has long since been discontinued, and the rebranding to TI is an attempt to reverse their earlier decision to appeal to traveling families, who apparently don’t spend as much as young adults who go to drink and gamble. Cool to see, but the visit lasted about five minutes.
At the very south end of the strip, Mandalay Bay has the Shark Reef Aquarium (sharkreef.com), with over 2000 animals (including piranhas, jellyfish and a rare golden crocodile) a touch pool and diver’s view of a shipwreck inside a 1,300,000 gallon tank of sharks, sawfish and giant rays – one of the largest tanks in North America. If you decide to go, MGM offers a pass to your choice of 3 attractions for $57; choose from the Shark Reef Aquarium, Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage, CSI at MGM Grand, The Roller Coaster at New York New York, the BODIES The Exhibition at Luxor (which I think it better suited to older kids), Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at Luxor, SCORE! at Luxor, and The Adventuredome Theme Park at Circus Circus.
A long walk (or short cab ride) off the strip toward the Hard Rock Hotel (which is full of interesting music memorabilia) you’ll find KISS mini golf (monsterminigolf.com/kiss) – 18 holes of black light fun with a live DJ in the back corner spinning KISS songs, arcade games, a gift shop and even a wedding chapel. The super cool Neon Museum (neonmuseum.org) (a 10 minute walk just a bit further than the final Deuce bus stop) is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the city’s most iconic art form – the neon sign. You have to book a tour – you can’t just drop in – and they take about an hour. It’s all outdoors and in a small group; not much walking, but plenty of standing around old metal signs, so they recommend it for kids 10 and over only. (There was a lot of sighing and “can we go now?” from our 8 year old.)
Downtown, Fremont Street (vegasexperience.com), 5 covered outdoor blocks of shops, casinos and a few restaurants, is worth a visit for the neon signs and the ceiling lightshow, but gets a little more adult-oriented late at night, with plenty of scantily-clad women on billboards up and down mall. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ll come across plenty of street performers dressed as superheroes, transformers and Disney and Sesame Street characters, most of them just standing around, waiting to have their photo taken for tips.
Fremont Street is also home to the Las Vegas Shark Tank at the Golden Nugget (goldennugget.com), where you can get up close and personal with the resident sharks and other amazing underwater creatures; swim right up to the glass tank (in a pool that also offers half-submerged lounge chairs for cool sunbathing) or climb 3 stories (or take the elevator) and take a ride on the waterslide – right through the shark tank! How cool is that? They also offer behind-the-scenes tours conducted by their staff marine biologists, who are there to show off the inner workings of the 200,000 gallon shark aquarium – guests go home with a souvenir shark tooth. (Tickets are $30 per person and tours begin at 3:30pm Thursday through Saturday. Make your reservation by calling 866.946.5336.)
On the morning of our flight home, our son didn’t want to leave, and asked when we’d be back – considering how inexpensive a getaway this was (from Calgary, anyway), I’m sure it will be soon.