As We See It

[Vegas on My Mind]

Disneyland for everybody: Debunking the myth of Las Vegas’ family-friendly ‘failure’

Insanity the Ride at Stratosphere

Any professional travel writer worth his luggage knows Vegas. Even if you don’t like it, you study and visit it or you deny yourself basic, critical knowledge about how a gigantic swath of America vacations. That’s why it galled me a few weeks ago to read the Detroit Free Press’ Ellen Creager’s “advice” to Nervous Mom, who was taking her 16-year-old son to Las Vegas for a soccer tournament.

“What can we do there together?” N.M. asked. Creager’s bizarre reply: “Eliminate the gambling, booze, nightclubs, strip shows and hookers, and what’s left? Not a whole lot. Las Vegas once tried to market itself as a family destination, but that of course failed miserably.”

Whenever lazy journalists reference the alleged “family-friendly” failure of Vegas en route to making some broader point, I groan. But when a travel columnist—someone who should know the history of the major players on her beat—does it, it makes me absolutely mental. There was no failed “family-friendly” era of Vegas. There was, so far as I can tell, one significant kid-targeted attraction that closed, the MGM Grand’s Adventures Theme Park, which shuttered in 2000 after seven years. And perhaps the marketing of Las Vegas reverted to an emphasis on adult attractions, but that never ceased in the first place.

Remove the MGM example and what’s left? According to Creager, there’s the Excalibur “slide pool,” the Welcome to Las Vegas sign, the Bellagio fountains, the Ferris wheel at the Linq and the Hoover Dam. Those were all of her suggestions.

The fallacy of the failed “family-friendly” era is as absurd as it is infuriating. It’s not just that there’s a ton for parents to do with their kids on the Strip now. That’s been the case as long as I’ve covered Las Vegas. The 1990s, the period that is called a failure in this regard, saw the advent of the Mandalay Bay beach and wave pool, the Stratosphere’s sky-high rides, the Adventuredome at Circus Circus, the Bellagio Conservatory, the Venetian’s gondola tours and New York-New York’s roller coaster. Both Danny Gans, the late, G-rated impressionist extraordinaire, and Mac King, the brilliant comic-magician, moved to Vegas during the Clinton era. Siegfried & Roy was the biggest draw back then. Cirque du Soleil first landed with Mystère and O. Almost all of those features remain hugely popular, and those that have vanished were taken by tragedy, not waning interest.

Since then, the options for families have only multiplied. Newer resorts like Wynn, Aria and Palazzo provide ways for guests to avoid the casino altogether en route to their rooms, the better for parents who find gambling unsavory. Others, like Vdara, Trump and Signature at MGM Grand, don’t even have casinos.

An entire day-show industry has sprung up targeted specifically at those looking for fun away from all that so-called “vice,” from King at Harrah’s to Nathan Burton at the Miracle Mile Shops to the Popovich Comedy Pet Theater (also at Miracle Mile Shops) to MGM Grand’s CSI: The Experience. There’s the Mob Museum, Neon Museum and Atomic Testing Museum, all worthy, educational and fun. The awesome Pinball Museum and the Ethel M chocolate factory tour aren’t far, either.

Creager’s simplistic reply also reflected an ignorance of the beauty and diversity of the broader Vegas area. A kid visiting for a soccer match might enjoy a hike in Red Rock Canyon, Valley of Fire or Mount Charleston. He might think the glass-bottom Skywalk at the Grand Canyon is pretty neat. Or he might dig any number of watercraft and biking activities available in Boulder City and at Lake Mead.

One summer, my Little Brother from Big Brothers Big Sisters and I snuck into 20 pools on the Strip to grade them. We were astonished by how creative and diverse the offerings were and how some less-expensive spots like the Tropicana and Flamingo pools were the most interesting. It ended up as a cover story for the travel sections of several national newspapers.

It’s derelict of Creager to believe modern Vegas is solely about the five things she listed. Often, the same clueless folks like to describe Vegas as “Disneyland for adults.” I argue that it’s also Disneyland for kids, minus the offensive ticket fees plus far better customer service all around. Oh, and also, a thing or two for parents to enjoy.

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