Take a Las Vegas Family Vacation

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

Family vacation JACKPOT! Where in the world can the whole family travel to find 24-hour-a-day vacation excitement, swim nearly year round, and see exciting bits of "Americana"? The answer is Las Vegas, Nevada.

Whether your family comes to Las Vegas for the spectacular Broadway style shows, the mesmerizing strip of resorts, or the never-ending family amusement, this is the place to be. Although area hotels rarely bill themselves in family travel terms anymore (think of the slogan “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”), Las Vegas can be a great place for a family vacation you’ll all remember.

Where to Stay

If you’re heading to Vegas, your first question is probably where to stay.  Luckily (and Vegas is all about luck) you’ve got a bunch of options, from luxury hotels, to hotels that cater to families, to hotels that are family-friendly but not specifically geared to the family crowd.

If you’ve got little kids, your best bets are Excalibur or Circus, Circus - both located right on the Las Vegas Strip.  While not the choice of most high rolling gamblers, Circus, Circus is a favorite for family travelers because of its family-centered theming and its world-renowned indoor theme park, the Adventuredome. Although an older property, Circus, Circus still maintains its elegant features and fun for all ages. Excalibur, also an older property, boasts a medieval theme of gallant swordsmen, minstrels and jugglers that will delight your entire family. If you stay at Excalibur (or even if you don’t) be sure to check out the  Tournament of Kings, a nightly dinner event in an arena that seats over 900.

Off the Strip, check out Orleans, a Big Easy themed hotel that’s the only major resort with a kids’ center.  At Kid Tyme, kids aged 3-12 can climb on a multi-level jungle gym, watch movies, and play at interactive play stations.  The center’s staffed with CPR-certified sitters, and parents pay by the hour.  Orleans also boasts a movie theater and a bowling alley for non-casino fun.

If your kids are over 10, you might prefer a hotel that’s comfortable for families but isn’t themed especially for kids.  These hotels tend to be more updated and offer more in the way of great restaurants, shops, and activities.  Our pick for families? The MGM Grand, one of the largest of Vegas hotels, located right in the middle of the Strip.  It’s especially great because of its five beautifully landscaped pools (plus a lazy river with inner tubes) and the lion habitat, where you can see real lions roaming.  Another good bet is Luxor, complete with Nile River ride, pyramid entry way, and an elevator or, as the resort calls it, the "inclinator" ride to your room that will leave you wondering which way is up.  Finally, check out New York, New York and Paris, two city-themed hotels that recreate the look and cuisine of the destinations they simulate.  

Interested in a luxury experience?  Then you can’t beat the Wynn Las Vegas, at the end of the Strip.  The rooms have an incredible view of the mountains, and the service is impeccable.  It comes with a matching price tag – meaning that you’ll have to win a little moolah while you’re here.  Slightly less tony but also less expensive is the Bellagio, where kids will love the fountain show accompanied by classical music.

Family Friendly Shows

When my family visits Las Vegas, it’s all about the shows.  Even Broadway can’t beat the incredible productions that play in Vegas, often twice a night.  Essentially, you’ve got three choices if you want to take the kids:  magic shows, musicals, or acrobatics.  For magic, check out the iconic Penn & Teller at the Rio.  Their juggling and disappearing tricks will amaze you – no matter how many times you see the show.  For musicals, try Lion King, opening in Spring 2009 at the Mandalay Bay.  If your kids loved the movie, they’ll find the stage show even more fun, especially if they know the music (you know you do).  And for acrobatics, you just can’t miss Cirque de Soleil.  Be careful – these unmatched acrobatic shows are expensive, and some have adult themes.  But shows like O at the Bellagio, where acrobatics dive and twist into a center stage pool, are events you’ll never forget – my husband and I are still talking about the performance we saw six years ago.  None of these fit the bill?  Blue Man Group, David Copperfield, and Stomp Out Loud all have permanent gigs on the Vegas Strip.

What to Do

Although Vegas has moved away from a lot of the family theming that predominated in the 1990's, there’s still plenty to do in this city that’s always awake.  The Secret Garden of Siegfried & Roy & Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage features Royal White Tigers, Tibetan white lions, and bottle-nosed dolphins.  It’s a must see for the shows, aquarium, and exotic animals.  While you’re at the Mirage, be sure check out the Mirage's volcano (which erupts nightly).  And if you’re checking into the Mirage for a hotel stay, don’t let your kids miss the 20,000-gallon saltwater aquarium behind the front desk:  It’s home to angelfish, puffer fish, tangs and other exotic sea creatures.

If your kids love animals, you’ll also want to take in the Shark Reef at Mandalay BayThis 90,560-square-foot aquarium specializes in dangerous predators like sharks, crocodiles, sawfish, piranhas and a rare Komodo Dragon. The Shark Reef Aquarium holds nearly 1.6 million gallons of fresh and seawater in 14 major exhibits. A total sensory experience, Shark Reef Aquarium transports visitors to an undersea ocean of fantastic sights, sounds, and encounters. Unlike other aquariums and zoo exhibits in the U.S., Shark Reef Aquarium allows guests to experience a themed journey through an ancient temple that has been slowly claimed by the sea and onto the deck of a sunken ship in shark-infested waters.

Heading down the Strip, stop in at M&M's World, a 28,000 square-foot dream that’s filled with chocolate from top to bottom. This is a sure fire hit for children of all ages. Also showing daily is a  free 3–D movie, "I LOST MY "M" in VEGAS, starring RED and YELLOW M&M’s!  Enjoy the tour and pick up a treat upon your exit. Its location is convenient, near the MGM Grand Hotel. Then take in Coney Island at New York-New York Hotel.  You’ll think you’re really in New York City - check out the Statue of Liberty and take a ride on the Roller Coaster, a ride that twists, loops and dives around the resort's perimeter.

If you’re into NASCAR, stop in at the Sahara Speedworld, where you’ll find virtual reality three-quarter scale Indy style car racing.  With over 25 interactive rides, two 24 seat 3D theaters, and numerous games, there is something for everyone.  You’ll also want to hit the NASCAR Entertainment Center's Pit Pass Arcade, which is packed with more than 120 player stations, redemption and standard video games.

For theme park adventures, head to the Stratosphere or Circus, Circus.  At the Stratosphere, the United States’ highest observation tower, you’ll find thrilling rides, freefall jumps, and two of the world’s highest and quickest roller coasters.  At the Circus Adventuredome, everyone in the family can get involved on rides from tame rides like FrogHopper to wild and crazy adventures like the double-loop, double corkscrew roller coaster.  Spend the day riding the water flume, bumper cars, and swinging ship, and rest by hitting the main stage for a free clown show.  Finish up at the Excalibur, home to a medieval castle right on the Las Vegas Strip.  Check out the 4-D SpongeBob ride, or test your skill at the Fantasy Faire Midway, which features carnival and arcade games.

At the end of the day, try the Sunset Stampede at Sam’s Town in downtown Las Vegas.  The 25,000 square-foot indoor park offers a free, mesmerizing laser, light, and water show four times daily.

Outside of Las Vegas

Want to escape the city, especially when it’s hot and crowded?  Consider heading to the Red Rock Canyon, the Hoover Dam, or (best of all) the Grand Canyon!  At Red Rock Canyon, just an hour away from those flashing Las Vegas lights, you’ll find a slice of natural heaven, with tortoises, lizards, and wildlife galore. As the sun sets, you will see the cliffs and mountain ranges turn various hues of red and orange. Simply beautiful!! The Hoover Dam is less than an hour outside of city limits, and your kids are sure to take away some important info about engineering and energy.  This dam was built over 60 years ago, is now a National Historical Landmark, and is rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of the America's Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.

And if you’re getting out and about, you just can’t miss the Grand Canyon – just like you saw it on the Brady Bunch when you were a kid.  This is America--and it's only 2 hours from Las Vegas!  The Grand Canyon is best seen from the south rim in the warmer months, as it gets pretty icy and chilly in the fall and winter.  If you want to do more than gaze and take photographs, try mule rides, biking, and hiking to the canyon floor.  

Where to Eat

Dining in Las Vegas is varied and plentiful – you’ll find fine dining, diners, and buffet restaurants for every palate.  Buffets work especially well for families, as every resort has at least one, and every buffet has a huge salad bar, lots of hot options, tons of desserts, and fast and easy walk-through service.  Even better?  Some, like the ones in Aladdin, Bally’s, the Bellagio, Caesar’s, Circus, Circus and Luxor, offer special prices for little ones – babies and toddlers often eat free, and young children might eat for half-price with a paying adult.

If you’re looking for sit-down that’s quick and tasty, try the Grand Lux Café at the Venetian.  Like its sister restaurant, the Cheesecake Factory, the Grand Lux is used to catering to kids, and the portions are big enough that you can take some back to the hotel room.  As for familiar chains, there’s a Rainforest Café at the MGM Grand, a Johnny Rocket’s at the Fashion Show Mall (right across from the Wynn), and a Nathan’s Hot Dogs in New York, New York.  And Wolfgang Puck’s at the MGM Grand has terrific pizza and pasta, while the Stage Deli at Caesar’s makes good old-fashioned egg salad and turkey sandwiches.

To try something a bit different, walk through the MGM Grand to see the lions, then hit the Grand Wok, a low-key Asian cuisine restaurant with terrific pot stickers and pad thai that you and the kids will enjoy sharing.  Or head to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, then have breakfast or a snack at JJ’s Boulangerie, where you’ll get the best coffee and croissants this side of the Atlantic.  Love Italian?  Il Fornaio at New York, New York has homemade bread, wood-grilled pizza, and amazing pasta, and you can sit on the “sidewalk” and people-watch.

For fine dining that’s still kid-friendly, check out Nob Hill at the MGM Grand.  The San Francisco-themed restaurant offers fried chicken and an assortment of mashed potatoes that will please even the pickiest kid. 

Best of Vegas

Place to StayCircus, Circus (for kids under 10); MGM Grand (for kids of all ages)

Place to EatGrand Lux Café (at the Venetian); Il Fornaio (New York New York)

Family Friendly Activity: The Secret Garden of Siegfried & Roy & Dolphin Habitat (at the Mirage)

Family Friendly Show:  Penn & Teller (magic), Lion King (musical), and O (acrobatics).

Destination Outside the City LimitsThe Grand Canyon

If You Go:

Save money by choosing to visit in the spring or summer.  Hotel rates in the hot and dry months of the year are often as much as 70% less.  On the other hand, in the winter, the city is full of conventioneers, who run the prices up.  

Keep the kids hydrated.  Even though the city looks like an oasis, it’s in the middle of the desert.  Luckily, you’ll find juice and soda stops all along the Las Vegas strip.

Bring a stroller.  The Strip will trick you every time – what looks close by is actually far, far away.  The hotels and casinos are massive – it can take you ten minutes just to get to the elevator from your hotel room, much less walk to the pool.  Pushing the little ones around will make your life much, much easier and keep them from wearing out in this city that’s up until all hours.

Wear a watch.  Las Vegas casinos don’t have clocks, because they want people to gamble without regard for how late it’s getting.  To get to your favorite show on time, you’ll need to bring your own timepiece.

Keep an eye on the kids.  There are two reasons why you’ll want to keep little ones close at hand.  First, there are lots of adult activities going on in Vegas.  If you’re not careful, Junior might inadvertently catch a glimpse of something you’d rather he’d not.  Second, casinos are the main source of business here, and kids aren’t allowed in alone.  As you’ll probably have to go through a casino to get to your hotel room, you’ll need to accompany your kids at all times.

Believe in the magic.  They don’t call it Disneyland for grownups for nothing – there are amazing things to do, see, and eat, if you suspend disbelief and enjoy the moment.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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