Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Viva Las Vegas . . . with kids in tow???

I don't gamble, drink, or smoke . . . and neither do my children. So why would my husband and I choose to take our four sons to Las Vegas for Spring break? Actually, there are a lot of fun family activities (most off the strip) in this mild-climate desert destination.

Here are our family picks for Las Vegas:

1) Hoover Dam Tour


Location: 30 miles southeast of Las Vegas (on the Nevada-Arizona border)
Cost: $11 (ages 17-61); $9 (ages 4-16); parking in the garage is $7 p/vehicle
(Note: A more extensive tour of the Dam is available for ages 8+ is $30 p/person.)

Construction on this national landmark began in 1931, and for the next 4 years over 20,000 men worked around the clock to complete this structure. The dam reaches 726.4 feet tall and can store 9.2 trillion gallons of water, supplying water to 20 million people in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and other southwest cities. Besides beautiful Lake Mead (the largest man made lake in the U.S.), another benefit of the dam is the electricity it produces. And if you book a power plant tour, you will see 8 turbines up close (9 more are located in the Arizona wing), which produce electricity for California, Nevada, and Arizona.

2) Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay


Cost: $16.95 (adults); $10.95 (ages 4-12)

The aquarium may be compact in size, but the aquatic displays are anything but small-time! See a komodo dragon, a tank of piranhas, a columnar display of jelly fish, and an underwater shipwreck full of sharks. Pet a sting ray. And listen to amazing facts on the handheld audio wand (included in admission). My sons came out of the aquarium with all kinds of amazing trivia: It takes 21 pounds of force to break the suction of a 3-pound octopus. And, no, piranhas don't attack humans (but we won't be testing that theory)!

3) Bellagio


Features: Dale Chihuly glass ceiling, the conservatory, Cafe Bellagio, and the Fountains of Bellagio

The Bellagio definitely is classy. Our sons admired the Chihuly hand-blown glass flowers that graced the lobby ceiling on their way to the conservatory, which was decorated with thousands of fresh flowers and a waterfall. (The display changes seasonally.)

The Cafe Bellagio provided a restful view of the pool area and extra large omelets (at not-too-small prices). The fountain show at the entrance of this enormous hotel is choreographed to various musical pieces and sends up sprays of water higher than Caesar's Palace next door. The night-time shows occur every 15 minutes and incorporate spectacular lighting with the water and music.

Note: The Bellagio also houses the Gallery of Fine Art, which showcases traveling collections of art. I recently enjoyed a modern American exhibit that featured works from Georgia O'Keefe. Admission of $15 (adults) includes a headset. The collections are small enough for children to get a taste of fine art without getting bored. Free admission for children under 12.

4) Shelby Museum & Factory Tour

http://www.shelbyautos.com/ (Click on Factory Tours at the bottom of the page)

Location: 6755 Speedway Blvd. 702-942-7325

Carroll Shelby--race-car driver turned innovative car manufacturer. In 1962, Shelby designed the COBRA, which immediately rivaled Europe's fastest race cars. Today, Mustang lovers can purchase their Ford-manufactured vehicle, then arrange for exclusive Shelby add-ons to be custom-fit by hand in this Las Vegas factory located near the Las Vegas Speedway.

You can attend the free tour (offered Monday-Friday at 10:30 a.m.) and see cars that are currently being retrofitted with custom parts in the factory, then receive an informative tour of the showroom, which houses 5 decades of Shelby automobiles, including the original 1962 Cobra. According to our tour guide, Mr. Shelby was once offered 20 million dollars for this well-worn history-maker, and he declined!

5) Iceskating at the Las Vegas Ice Center


Location: 9295 W. Flamingo 702-320-7777
Cost: $9 (adults); $8 (ages 5-18); $7 (under 5).

Ice skating . . . in the desert? Don't forget to pack long pants and mittens for this off-the-beaten-Strip activity. Public skate hours are offered throughout the week at various times in two-hour blocks. (We went on a weekday from 12:30-2:30 p.m.) Admission fee includes skate rental.

6) Lunch buffet at French Market Buffet (Orleans Casino)


Lunch buffet cost: $9.99 (ages 8+); $6.99 (ages 4-7); under 4 is free
Location: 4500 W. Tropicana Ave. (just west of the Strip)

Our family of six couldn't decide what to eat for lunch. One wanted pizza, another wanted enchiladas, and yet another wanted fish. The French Market Buffet was our solution. Variety. Freshness. Value. We tried everything from whole-grain pasta to crawdads (well, we picked one off the buffet line, but didn't actually eat it). We sampled Italian, Mexican, Asian, and American fare and still had room for a variety of desserts (including cream puffs and bread pudding). When we left, everyone was full and happy!

TIP: For your best value, choose the lunch buffet.

7) The Roller Coaster at New York, New York

Cost: $14 for one ride; $25 for an all-day Scream Pass

(Note: Must be 54" to ride.)

Cheap thrill? Well, actually not cheap. But our 14-year-old claims this 3-minute, 144-foot-dropping, 67-mile-an-hour thrill ride was worth the $14 ticket price. And he felt satisfied that he experienced fast-paced Vegas at a teen-appropriate venue.

Not-so-stellar Vegas experiences:
Ironically, our most disappointing activities revolved around chocolate.

1) M&M's World

Location: on the strip, next to MGM Hotel & Casino

Unless you are a true fan of RED and YELLOW or are dying to own an M&M toothbrush, baseball cap, or alarm clock, you may not be impressed with this crowded 4-story mega-store. Our consolation was the free 3-D adventure movie and a not-so-cheap bag of personally selected melt-in-your-mouth candies.

2) Ethel M Chocolate Factory

Location: 15 minutes from the Strip

We happened to be driving by this area on our way back from the Hoover Dam, so we decided to stop. Our "tour" was a 3-minute glance through the glass at the chocolate operations. Unfortunately for us, there was very little action during our visit. A few workers were taking raspberry-filled chocolates out of their molds. The "free samples" of chocolate were the size of a nickel--but not as thick. We bought a few candy bars for $2.50 each, which seemed reasonable compared to the high-priced boxed chocolates. Yes, the chocolate bars tasted great--if you like VERY sweet milk chocolate.

Since we are from Arizona, we were not enticed to visit the Cactus Garden on the property. But, as a consolation, the workers were friendly and we did learn how Ethel M candy got its name.

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