Vegas: Delight or Debauchery? You be the judge!
By Susan Kerr

A few years ago, the geniuses behind the Las Vegas tourist industry decided that families were in. So much for the city’s reputation as a mecca for drunken adults giving in to debauchery. Instead, this booming, bustling city was remade as a first class family friendly destination.

To no one’s great surprise, this push didn’t last very long. Las Vegas is a city built for one thing and one thing only: money. When families didn’t equal cash, out went the feel-good family emphasis and back in came the "only in Vegas" and "what happens here stays here" push for adults wanting to escape reality.

So is Las Vegas still a place to bring kids? After a recent experience traveling there with my husband and 15- and 12-year old daughters I can give an unqualified " maybe ".

WHAT’S YOUR TOLERANCE LEVEL?


For starters, it depends what your tolerance is for the non-stop, in-your-face emphasis on sex and money. We live in San Francisco, so we certainly see our share of sights, but even so it became a bit wearisome to see scantily clad cocktail waitresses at 8AM. You can’t avoid them because to get anywhere you have to walk through a casino—despite signs saying no one under 18 allowed.

Secondly, how you will view Vegas depends on your budget and what activities you find interesting. While it is possible to do Las Vegas reasonably, it certainly is no longer a big bargain.

PRICES GO UP


The April 2005 Las Vegas Advisor found that average ticket prices in town jumped nearly 14% in only a year. According to the report (reprinted in the April 8, 2005 USA Today ) the average cost of a show ticket is close to $55. All the well known shows are at least $100, with the really big names such as Celine Dion or Elton John selling seats as high as $250.

Likewise, despite that all the big resorts are on the Strip—as the main tourist area is called—Las Vegas is a very sprawling city. Even hotels that are next door to each other can seem far apart. We seemed to live in taxi cabs on our trip; no matter where we went the fare seemed to be at least $10.

VEGAS THEN AND NOW


Before our trip in April 2005, I had been to Las Vegas on my own perhaps 20 times in my previous life as a career woman without kids. My husband, Jack, goes there at least once a year for a convention. Not having much interest in gambling other than an occasional nickel in a slot machine or try at blackjack, it never occurred to us to go to Las Vegas unless we were being paid for it.

That was before we caved into the power of TV.

VIVE CSI: LAS VEGAS


Recently Las Vegas has found new life as a favorite setting for TV shows. My older daughter Lydia is an avid fan of CSI: Las Vegas which shows not just the crime but also the bright lights and glitter of the city. Lydia and I like to travel together and she had a week off from high school. Las Vegas seemed like a good idea: a short plane ride and warm climate. My husband and younger daughter Vanessa would join us for the first two days (one of which was her birthday) and then go home and back to school.

We booked our plane tickets directly through expedia.com. A good site for pre-booking activities and show tickets is www.visitlasvegas.com, however most hotels have big concierge help desks designed to let you book events at the last minute.

That glitzy Las Vegas feeling hit us from the moment we stepped off the plane. Most big airports can easily be interchanged; not true here. After the slot machines, the first thing we saw was a billboard with a bunch of very steamy looking guys advertised as "Thunder From Down Under," an all-male Australian show. Judging from the billboard wars, the Aussies appeared to be in a hot competition with the Chippendales. If you don’t want to have a conversation with your kids about sex, or at the very least, the various clothing options for strippers, don’t go to Las Vegas! Since my kids are older, they found the billboards funny.

UNDERLINING SEXUAL CURRENTS


Even shows that might have once been more kid-oriented have a deliberately naughty feel to them. Treasure Island (a pirate-themed resort) has free nightly shows in its lagoon, complete with pirate ships. It was the setting of the recent Miss Congeniality 2 movie, a favorite of Vanessa’s. Its current show is called "the Sirens of TI" and tons of families lined up to see it, including ours. Needless to say the "sirens" sport very sexy outfits and physiques, and from what we saw of the show (forced to be shortened once for technical malfunctions and the other for bad weather) the sirens and pirates have a definite love-hate dominatrix relationship.

But of course the attraction of Las Vegas is the Strip and its plethora of huge theme-based resorts. We stayed in one of the biggest and best hotels, the Venetian , which is designed as a take-off of Venice, complete with a fake indoor canal and gondoliers. Having seen the real Venice, my daughters were not wildly impressed with the knock-off but found it very amusing all the same. However the Venetian’s hotel rooms were much, much bigger than those you’d ever find in Venice.

KID ACTIVITIES


With kids in tow, we found a few obvious activities in town. The first day we headed straight for the Stratosphere , a 900-foot tall tower sitting off the Strip. A quick elevator ride to the top brings you to four amusement-park style rides including the High Roller , advertised as the "world’s highest roller coaster" and Insanity, which literally dangles and spins you over the edge of the observation deck.. I let the three of them enjoy themselves while I enjoyed a coffee at the world’s highest Starbucks.

For the next few days we hit a number of the resorts to see the sights, including New York, New York, which has the theme of…well I’m sure you can guess, but also has a roller coaster. We also saw a strange but fascinating exhibit of Titanic artifacts. At night we went to the see " O " a Cirque de Soleil show featuring water and divers, and Lydia and I went to see David Copperfield , the legendary magician. We ate at many wonderful restaurants. Las Vegas’ reputation as a great city for food is well deserved.

FEW TOUR OPTIONS


Despite Las Vegas’ standing as a number one tourist city, the big aim of all the hotels is to keep you inside, or, if you must go out, visiting one of their other properties. I was amazed at the lack of what I considered normal options. The Venetian concierge told us that there was no type of city tour—rent a limo if you want to see the city, she told us. Obviously all the TV shows are filmed in Hollywood, but I saw no sign that any enterprising tour company had taken advantage of the CSI craze.

What are available are longer trips to the Hoover Dam or the Grand Canyon. Not wanting to spend an entire day in car, Lydia and I opted for a four-hour Hoover Dam package. We were picked up at our hotel in pink jeep, and with four other folks were driven to the nearby dam. The tour itself was only moderately interesting, consisting of a short video, a quick elevator ride down to the bowels of the dam and then free time to visit a small museum and walk along the top of the dam. For us, it was more interesting to get out of the city and see firsthand the sprawl that is Las Vegas.

MEGA WALKING


This sprawl occurs both inside and outside the city. If you go with kids be prepared to walk, walk, walk. The supersized nature of Las Vegas resorts cannot be matched. Just to get from the lobby to our room involved a ten minute hike and several elevator rides. Unless your resort is right next door to another, don’t expect an easy walk, particularly in hot weather. Cabs or a monorail are the most common way around.

(FYI: while the airport is close to downtown allow extra time for getting to your plane. Las Vegas is legendary for having some of the longest lines and waits to get through security checkpoints to your gate.)

So was the trip worth it? All in all, I’d say yes. Many parents I know who do enjoy gambling prefer to go to Las Vegas without their kids; it gives them more time to do what they want. Jack and I did a minimum of gambling (totaling about 15 minutes), so the emphasis was on the sights. By the end we felt that the trip provided an insight into a culture that doesn’t truly interest us but is worth seeing. Everyone needs some neon lights and glitz every once in a while.

****

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

*Best overall site: www.vegasfreedom.com which has links to just about everything from shows to hotels.
*General travel: www.expedia.com , www.hotels.com as well as www.TripReservations.com
*Titanic exhibit is at the Tropicana: www.tropicanalv.com
*The Stratosphere: www.stratospherehotel.com
*The New York, New York rollercoaster and arcade stuff : www.nynyhotelcasino.com
*Treasure Island: www.treasureisland.com
*The Venetian: www.venetian.com
*Info on the Hoover Dam: www.usbr.gov/lc/hooverdam/


Susan Kerr is a regular contributor to BAFT
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