Las Vegas Family Fare

Casinos and "kids"—namely anyone younger than the legal gambling age of twenty-one—have long been at odds in Las Vegas. Even so, some resorts offer large arcades, thrill rides, elaborate swimming pools, and other youth-oriented distractions, hoping to attract parents toting tykes. But, following the more traditional approach, many newer hotel-casinos discourage parents who opt to bring their offspring along for a Las Vegas getaway. "No Strollers Allowed" is a common posting at upscale resorts, and a 10 p.m. curfew for unaccompanied minors is strictly enforced along the Strip.

Except for horseback riding, swimming pools, and the Last Frontier Village—an Old West-themed amusement park—Circus Circus became the first Las Vegas casino-hotel to provide a place where kids felt welcomed. It featured a second-floor midway of county fair-style games and almost round-the-clock trapeze acts and strolling clowns. Owners later added Grand Slam Canyon behind the hotel. These were the only family-oriented attractions until the Mirage opened in November 1989. The Mirage drew families just to watch its outdoor volcano hissing steam and spewing red-lighted lava at evenly timed intervals.

Suddenly, the hotel-casinos themselves had become attractions, and each new megaresort and shopping center offered something different designed to stop wandering tourists in their tracks. There were free pirate ship battles in a lagoon fronting Treasure Island; an enormous, Disney-like castle facade attracted visitors to the Excalibur; a roller-coaster wound its way around New York-New York; and a theme park tucked behind the MGM Grand gave kids something to do while their parents gambled. Las Vegas even marketed itself briefly in the mid-1990s as a "family destination," although that dubious moniker faded about as quickly as the MGM's theme park, which was replaced by a conference center. Still, it became clear that children would at least be tolerated if not embraced in the gambling Mecca, and free shows included animatronic statues coming to noisy life at the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace.

Las Vegas properties continue to offer entertainment for all ages. The show The Sirens of TT lures tourists to the entrance of Treasure Island four times a night. The Rio Hotel-Casino's Masquerade Show in the Sky features gondolas floating above audiences seven times a day as costumed performers toss down beads in a tame, choreographed tribute to New Orleans-famed Mardi Gras parades. Gondolas of a more traditional nature ply the man-made canals of the Venetian Resort-Hotel-Casino as they cruise past the Grand Canal Shoppes.

Only a few resorts, such as the Steve Wynn-built Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas casinos, dared open without a generous arcade to occupy youngsters while mom and pop were wagering. However, both of those upscale properties have conservatories and free water attractions in the spectacular Fountains of Bellagio and the cascading waterfall fronting Wynn Las Vegas. The biggest of the hotel arcades is New York-New York's Coney Island-themed area, packed with the latest electronic game wizardry. At the Excalibur, strolling performers add a human element to the free Fantasy Faire Midway. The aptly named GameWorks, a franchise with a Las Vegas location on the Strip, offers 47,000 square feet of space stocked with more than 250 games and a rock-climbing wall, all located near free "museums" dedicated to the histories of M&M's candy and Coca-Cola.

Other hotel-casino ventures for all ages include "Madame Tussauds Interactive Wax Attraction" at The Venetian, 3-D Magic Motion Rides at Excalibur, an IMAX theater and "King Tut Museum & Tomb" at Luxor Las Vegas, and the Las Vegas Hilton's interactive "Star Trek: The Experience," which draws slightly older fans of the cult television show.

The youth demographic is further lured and served by a bevy of brand name eateries such as the free-standing Harley-Davidson Cafe, the NASCAR Cafe inside the Sahara, and the groundbreaking Hard Rock Cafe adjacent to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The hotel's free-to-look exhibits include original guitars and get-ups worn by world-renowned rockers.

Children are never permitted to linger on casino floors, but they are allowed to pass through the gaming areas with an adult on their way to an attraction. That grants them free glimpses of an elaborate lion habitat at the MGM Grand, and although Siegfried & Roy took an injury-forced retirement, visitors may watch the residents of their big cat condo inside the Mirage. Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat are located at the back of the resort and both provide plenty of educational information to unassuming children. A smaller scale, free experience is the Wildlife Habitat at Flamingo Las Vegas, where kids can observe desert-adaptable African penguins along with rare swans, cranes, and hummingbirds.

Many kids are looking for heart-pumping thrills and can strap themselves in for a virtual reality spin in an Indy car at the Sahara's Speedworld, or they can make their way to the top of 1,149-foot-high Stratosphere Tower, where a trio of wild rides will leave them dangling, spinning, or shooting above America's tallest free-standing tower.

Still, a recent—and extremely successful—advertising campaign promotes the city as an adult destination. The provocative slogan "What happens here, stays here" has inspired a significant increase in tourism while reinforcing Las Vegas' historic roots as a playground for grownups.

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