Let’s get one thing out of the way: Las Vegas is no kiddie theme park. But the city does fancy itself a magnet for kids—or it did. In the 1990s Las Vegas embarked on a tourism campaign to promote the Strip as a family destination, but the effort flopped when casinos realized that it would be more lucrative to keep Mom and Dad at the blackjack tables (where kids are not allowed) than to let them languish by the pool (with their wallets stashed away). So Sin City embraced its naughty roots, and the slogan “What happens here, stays here” took hold instead.
But the truth is, much of what happens in Vegas is PG rated. From the rides at the Adventuredome to the Nevada State Museum’s 36-foot ichthyosaur skeleton, the city and its surrounds offer all kinds of family-friendly -attractions. You just have to stick together—-unaccompanied children are not allowed in most areas of the Strip—and away from lustier landmarks. Here, a guide to Vegas’s sin-free side.
CRUISE THE STRIP
You don’t have to shell out a lot of money to enjoy the Strip when you have little ones in tow. Some of the most child-captivating sights are free, including the choreographed Fountains of Bellagio and the fire-blowing Mirage Volcano. Both these resorts also offer family fun inside. At the Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens, a team of 140 horticulturalists transforms the nearly 14,000-square-foot space into a spectacular—and free—garden with tens of thousands of flowers every season. (Bonus: The spring display, which lasts until May, typically includes a butterfly house.) And Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat, at the Mirage, is home to leopards, panthers and endangered white tigers and lions—among the rarest big cats in the world. You can watch the resident dolphins at play from the underground viewing area or, if you’re up for a serious splurge, sign the kids up for the Trainer for a Day program (13 and older; starting from $495).
Another great stop for animal lovers is the Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo, an oasis of koi ponds, burbling streams, waterfalls and—you guessed it—pink flamingos, as well as Chinese pheasants, pelicans and other birds. Farther down the Strip, Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay houses more than 2,000 creatures in 1.6 million gallons of water, including, of course, all kinds of sharks (look for the 9-foot nurse shark).
Though entry to M&M’s World is free, your wallet will take a least a little hit when the kids start begging for candy and souvenirs. Still, not everything has a price tag—watch the free 3-D movie about the adventures of M&M’s characters and snap a family portrait next to the M&M’s-sponsored Camry race car. You’ll find more retail adventure at the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes, known for its “streetmosphere” of dancers, opera singers and live “statues.” Strolling the center’s cobblestone streets is free, but the gondola rides along the Venetian’s canals—and the gondolier serenades that come with said rides—are worth the fee ($19 per person).
If there are thrill seekers among you, the Adventuredome, at Circus Circus, is a must. The 5-acre indoor theme park is the largest in the country and packs families in for heart-pounding rides like the Sling Shot (riders shoot straight up into the air at four g’s) and Chaos (imagine spinning every which way at breakneck speeds). A merry-go-round, games and tamer rides are great for the littlest visitors—and those who prefer to hold down their funnel cake.
Serious daredevils make for the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower, at the north end of the Strip. Its Big Shot ride is the tallest ride in the world, at 112 stories, and shoots passengers 160 feet into the air at 45 miles per hour; the X Scream teeter-totter plunges riders headfirst over the tower’s vertiginous edge. Many visitors are happy just to take in the view from the observation deck and watch helicopters buzz by at eye level.
Just north of the Strip is downtown, the once down-and-out “Glitter Gulch” and now a lively playground for all ages. Recent additions include the Discovery Children’s Museum, whose interactive exhibits encourage creative logical thinking (Can you build something that will withstand an earthquake? A 14-foot drop?). The museum’s 70-foot 12-level tower—aka the Summit—has slides and climbing tubes to entertain those with restless bodies as well as restless minds.
No downtown excursion is complete without a spin through the Fremont Street Experience. The pedestrian mall and entertainment-extravaganza’s new, slot-machine-themed zip line, SlotZilla, propels riders from a 108-foot “coin tray” through the heart of the Experience ($30). Terra firma tours are exhilarating also: LEDs dance across the street’s barrel-vault-canopy cover, and free concerts are relatively easy to find.
You’ll spot numerous flashy signs on and around Fremont Street—keep an eye out for the waving “Vegas Vic” and the sparkling high-heeled shoe of the Silver Slipper Gambling Hall—but the new Neon Museum delivers the ultimate display of iconic Vegas signage. Its outdoor Boneyard exhibit contains more than 150 treasures, including signs from the Golden Nugget and the Stardust.
Aspiring crime busters will love the Mob Museum. Located in the former courthouse where the famous Kefauver mob trials were held, it teaches everything there is to know about organized crime in the States, from past to present. Exhibits explore topics such as how law enforcement has fought—and defeated—mobsters over the years and are packed with riveting artifacts.
One of the great things about Las Vegas is that you don’t have to go far for a little fresh air—or fresh chocolate. Drive 15 minutes south of the Strip to the Ethel M. Chocolates store, where you’ll find a 3-acre botanical cactus garden (amblers welcome) and a fanciful chocolate factory (free tours!). A 10-minute drive west of the Strip leads to the Springs Preserve, home of the recently relocated Nevada State Museum—and a 36-foot ichthyosaur skeleton.
For serious hiking, head 35 miles northwest of the Strip, where some 50 miles of trails thread the flanks of 12,000-foot Mount Charleston. If you go on a Sunday afternoon, you may catch a performance by the lederhosen-clad polka band at Mt. Charleston Lodge.
If humongous structures wow your little ones, a day trip to the Hoover Dam will not disappoint. Towering 725 feet above the Colorado River, the dam powers one of the largest hydroelectric facilities in the country. If you sign up for a Dam Tour ($30 per person; no children under 8), you can explore the inspection tunnels, take a 500-foot elevator ride down to the power plant generators and stand atop a 30-foot pipe while the mighty Colorado races through it. Vegas may still be marketing to gamers, but with this much excitement, who needs the tables?
Fountains of Bellagio: 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 1.702.693.7111; bellagio.com
Mirage Volcano: 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 1.702.791.7111; mirage.com
Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo: 3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 1.702.733.3349; flamingolasvegas.com
Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay: 3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 1.702.632.4555; sharkreef.com
M&M’s World: 3785 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 1.702.736.7611; mmsworld.com
Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes: 3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-414-4500; grandcanalshoppes.com
Adventuredome at Circus Circus: 2880 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 1.800.444.2472; adventuredome.com
Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower: 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-380-7777; stratospherehotel.com
Discovery Children’s Museum: 360 Promenade Place; 1.702.382.3445; discoverykidslv.org
Fremont Street Experience: 425 Fremont St.; 1.702.678.5777; vegasexperience.com
Neon Museum: 770 Las Vegas Blvd. N.; 702-387-6366; neonmuseum.org
Mob Museum: 300 Stewart Ave.; 1.702.229.2734; themobmuseum.org
Ethel M. Chocolates: 2 Cactus Garden Dr., Henderson; 1.702.435.2655; ethelm.com
Springs Preserve: 333 S. Valley View Blvd.; 1.702.822.7700; springspreserve.org
Mt. Charleston Lodge: 5375 Kyle Canyon Rd.; 1.702.872.5408; mtcharlestonlodge.com
Hoover Dam: Boulder City; 1.702.494.2517; usbr.gov