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Viva Las Vegas – In Family Style!

Famed as the city of gamblers, neon lights, glitzy glamour and spontaneous weddings, Las Vegas may seem like a far-fetched choice for a family holiday. But if this first-hand report of a Swiss family is anything to go by, the entertainment haven in the Nevada desert is a great place for children as well.

“Vegas with children? What on earth will you do there? Before you know it, a sombre-looking security guard will have shooed them off the casino premises,” friends remark on hearing about our holiday plans.

Granted, Las Vegas was to be just one of several stops on our tour of California. But we would be there for a full week and –with the exception of a brief Grand Canyon helicopter tour– we did not intend to spend our time in national parks. Our plan was to get the full dose of this monumental-manic-materialistic metropolis.

Perhaps I should mention here that all members of our family of four have a penchant for air-conditioned, kitschy art worlds. Main Street in Disneyland? And how! My two children and I would move there in a second – if ever Minnie and Mickey Mouse should decide to move out! But back to Las Vegas. So much has been said, written and sung about this city – a city heaved from the desert sand and put on the global map by mobsters in the 1940s and 1950s.

Gaudy and glitzy. Casinos and corruption. Floosies and fleet-footed magicians. Dazzling wedding chapels and deceitful marriage impostors. Las Vegas is the epitome of an entertainment industry without restraint – and The Strip is the epitome of Las Vegas.

Photos: Andrea Vogel Klemenz

The Strip – the soul of the city

Lined with an endless string of hotels, the roughly four-mile-long “Las Vegas Strip” on Las Vegas Boulevard matches the metaphor of a decadent double-strand pearl necklace. There are the “old” hotels of the 1960s, such as Flamingo (one of Las Vegas’ first hotels), Tropicana, Caesars Palace and Circus Circus. And the crazy theme hotels built in the 1990s, such as Excalibur, Luxor, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Paris or The Venetian. And then there is Las Vegas 2.0, with new super high-end luxury buildings, starting with Wynn Las Vegas (2005) and now including the new CityCenter Las Vegas with Vdara and Aria or The Cosmopolitan. These new buildings with their mirror-like surfaces are perhaps the most notable reflection of modern Las Vegas, from which the city’s erstwhile shady gambling hub image rolls off like from a freshly waxed Tesla car.

Las Vegas 2.0 is a far cry from the $2.99 “all-you-can-eat” buffets I came to know as a child, on my first visit to Las Vegas in the 1980s. Nor can it be likened to the Las Vegas I came to love on my second trip in early 2000, as a student on a shoe-string budget. Only the best is good enough in today’s Las Vegas: luxury boutiques, star chefs and high-end hotels. Whereas most of the hotels still offer all-you-can-eat buffets, they cost at least ten times as much. That said, the food is amply more refined.

The old Vegas is still there

The old heart of Las Vegas still exists – and it beats on Fremont Street in the downtown area. The street includes a pedestrian zone with a 450-metre-long canopy featuring twelve million LEDs for dazzling nightly light shows that are very much in keeping with the shrillness of Fremont Street’s residents.

Indeed, my son, who is almost 12, was slightly awestruck by the often rather weary-looking showgirls and strippers on Fremont Street, wearing plateau shoes and thongs, vying to have their picture taken for a few cents. But with the exception of that one excursion to this den of iniquity, our Vegas sightseeing programme centred on the far more child-friendly “exploring” of the various hotels.

Spoilt for choice

Which is why we decided to split our Vegas week between three different hotels. Our first night was spent at Circus Circus, which is one of the oldest hotels in Las Vegas. We chose it because of the integrated indoor amusement park (Adventuredome) and game arcade, which we felt would suit the children. Circus Circus is also said to be one of the cheapest hotels in town. A bit too cheap for our gusto – excessive exposure to funfair can get to you at some point.

Then we moved on to New York-New York. The reason for choosing this hotel was “The Roller Coaster” that travels within and outside the hotel complex. Much to our daughter’s disappointment, she was two inches too short for the rollercoaster ride. Opened twenty years ago, it was then the highest and fastest looping coaster in the world. As for our daughter, thanks to the hotel’s game arcade, her disappointment soon turned to delight.

And so we spent our days strolling around town. We ate croissants in Paris, bought bagels in Soho, sauntered along the streets of Venice, admired the fountains in front of the Bellagio and marvelled at the fact that Elton John, Billy Joel, Rihanna and David Guetta were all due to perform on one and the same night! A regular Friday evening in Vegas.

Our third and last hotel in Vegas was the Mandalay Bay. The key criterion for choosing this hotel was its large pool area that features a wave pool, a “lazy river” and a sand beach (with 2700 tons of finest sand). But it must be said here that the Mandalay Bay wave pool is not to be compared with what we are used to in Switzerland (e.g. Alpamare). In this respect, the safety measures in the US are quite absurd: fifteen lifeguards on duty for a pool less than forty-eight inches deep, or rather, that discharges a mini-mini wave every five minutes or so (at least that is what it felt like)! Still, we spent two fabulously relaxing days in this pool world.

Grand Canyon by helicopter

But the highlight of our Vegas trip was undoubtedly our helicopter flight to and across the Grand Canyon. Slightly decadent perhaps, but a treat we just did not want to forgo. We were picked up from our hotel by a chauffeur-driven stretch limo and taken to the heliport where we were presented with a surprise upgrade: whereas our original booking was for a sightseeing tour to the South Rim, the upgrade meant that we would land at the bottom of Grand Canyon, with breakfast included!

The helicopter took off from Las Vegas flying over Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam to the South Rim. It was all incredibly impressive. From our bird’s-eye perspective, the extent of Las Vegas’ water shortage was blatantly apparent. The Lake Mead reservoir supplies drinking water not only to Las Vegas, but also to parts of Los Angeles. The last time it was full to the brim was in 1999. Since then, the water level has been in relentless decline – having dropped more than thirty metres (98 ft.) in the past seventeen years!

But this grievance did not preoccupy our children whose stomachs did not take well to the helicopter motions. Given their suffering, our upgrade-owed landing after a 45-minute flight turned out to be a real godsend. An important note to ourselves: if ever we decide to book another helicopter flight, medication against travel sickness is an essential thing to pack. Travel sickness notwithstanding: our flight from the glitzy city to the mighty Grand Canyon was one of our most memorable and breathtaking experiences.

Since returning to Switzerland, we often reminisce about that wonderful week and feel a real sense of longing and nostalgia. And to respond to our friends’ pre-travel concerns: no, our children were never told to leave a casino. It should be said here that we never spent any real length of time at the slot machines – but even then, no grim-looking member of security ever tried to shoo away our children. But something else was audibly noticeable: the noise, or rather, the absence thereof inside the casinos.

Once upon a time, the acoustic ambience was characterised by the jingling of bells, the hissing and whimpering of slot machines, the jarring levers of the one-armed bandits and the occasional pinging and clinking of a seemingly infinite number of quarters on those rare jackpot-hitting occasions. None of that exists today.

In today’s digital age, buttons are pushed rather than levers pulled in Las Vegas. And in the event of a win, a machine discreetly spits out a coupon to be redeemed in the casino bank.

This changed soundscape is representative of the development of this city. Today, there are dogs and children in Las Vegas. Old ladies smoking at the slot machines with two-dollar vodkas are a thing of the past. They have made way for smoothie bars. Nowadays, Las Vegas is a slice of paradise for children. But it has lost nothing of its magic.

3 tips for families in and around Las Vegas

1. The Adventuredome is an indoor amusement park inside a giant glass dome adjacent to Circus Circus. Although the hotel is a bit old and shabby, a visit to the amusement park that features more than twenty different attractions is definitely worthwhile – ideally not on a weekend. (2880 S. Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV 89109, USA, www.circuscircus.com/en/adventuredome.html)

2. The Fountains of Bellagio is a computer-choreographed water show on the hotel’s artificial lake. A dazzling spectacle – fantastic and free of charge. Every day, water jets shoot and “dance” out of the 1200 nozzles rising up to 140 metres high. Shows take place several times an hour between 3 pm and midnight and are choreographed to various pieces of music. (3600 S Las Vegas Blvd, Las Vegas, NV 89109, USA, www.bellagio.com/en/entertainment/fountains-of-bellagio.html)

3. Admittedly pricy, a helicopter flight to the Grand Canyon is nonetheless a fabulous experience. Various companies offer similar packages and services. However, if you are prone to travel sickness, booking a tour with a stopover is highly recommended. Moreover: landing in the Canyon is a truly unique way to take in the stunning beauty of nature, making this experience even more special. (www.papillon.com/las-vegas-tours/helicopter-tours-from-las-vegas)

Text: Andrea Vogel Klemenz