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Las Vegas may be the gambling capital of the U.S., but this booming desert resort now rivals Southern California and Orlando as one of the country's top family-friendly destinations. Why settle for just the Mouse when you can witness pirate ships sinking, watch volcanoes explode, and see wild tigers put on a show?
Millions of kids romp around The Strip as if it were the latest theme park. There are happy-face rides for the under-10 set and mind-boggling virtual reality games for older teens.
And if you're hungry for a show, the youngsters won't have to suffer through Wayne Newton. Such kid-appropriate acts as "O" by Cirque du Soleil at Bellagio or EFX starring Tommy Tune at the MGM Grand pack 'em in; all but a very few are PG-rated and many have been created with children in mind.
Another big plus for families: the price. There are a number of quality, low-cost entertainment options, such as King Tut's Tomb & Museum at Luxor. And with a little looking, you can find first-rate accommodations and restaurants for hungry and finicky family members at a bargain.
At an average $15-20 for the day, or $2-3 per ride, the cost of some attractions can quickly bust a family's budget. But just walking around The Strip, you can see other spectacles that are free and, arguably, educational. Well-crafted replicas of the landmarks of Paris, Venice, New York, Hollywood, ancient Rome and Arabia, to name but a few, can be found within a few blocks of each other.
Other free highlights include the fiery Pirate Battle in the lagoon at Treasure Island, the graceful "orchestrated" display of water, lighting and music at the Fountains of Bellagio, the Dragon Battle at Excalibur, and the erupting volcano at the Mirage.
It's the rare parent who doesn't crave a little adults-only time in Las Vegas. Here are some safe places to leave the children:
Type of travel: Entertainment
Best ages: Teenagers will have a blast; younger kids will need supervision; littlest ones may be overwhelmed.
Ideal trip length: 3-4 days
Distance: Los Angeles (275 miles); Phoenix (292 miles)
Best time to go: Midweek April and October, when hotel rates are lower and weather is mild. Weather: 60/30 degrees in winter, 100/70 degrees in summer
Squirm factor: None
Adventuredome 2880 Las Vegas Blvd. S Phone: 702-794-3939
Lance Burton, Master Magician 3770 Las Vegas Blvd. S Phone: 702-730-7160
MGM Grand 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S Phone: 702-891-1111 Note: Lion Habitat is open throughout the day. Note: Grand Youth Activity Center, 702-891-3200
Hoover Dam Phone: 702-294-3517
Hassled by the rules and regulations about where kids can't go on The Strip? At this red-rock park 18 miles west of The Strip, they can run wild without being summoned to "keep walking" by imposing casino guards. There are plenty of picnic areas and hiking trails for the whole family -- along with boulder-scrambling opportunities for the older kids -- on the 13-mile, one-way auto loop. The lucky may get to see semi-wild burros, most frequently spotted two miles or so past the entrance to the scenic loop. Heed the signs that proclaim, "They bite." It's not a joke. Cowboy Trail Rides offers easy horseback rides in Red Rock Canyon. Off Charleston Blvd., 702-838-8001
Planning tip: Children under 18 are not allowed on The Strip after 9 p.m. unless accompanied by a parent or guardian, nor are they allowed to loiter in the gambling areas of hotels. Some resorts have "no-stroller" policies and do not allow unaccompanied children or teenagers inside unless parents are guests.
Annual events/festivals: Hands down, the National Finals Rodeo is the best place to watch the world's top rodeo performers at the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. Tickets sell out quickly, so reserve early. Call 702-895-3900 for more information.
Favorite local spot: Stratosphere Tower for the best views of Las Vegas, according to a newspaper survey of thousands of local residents. 2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 702-380-7777
Local foods: Las Vegans love Carnival World Buffet; they rated it Best "Las Vegas" Buffet for the third year in a row. Rio Hotel, 3700 W. Flamingo Rd., 702-252-7757
Best souvenir: Money. After all, this is still the gambling capital of the world. Buy the kids disposable cameras and let them snap away at the exotic attractions.
Traffic Alert: Stay alert and take breaks, especially at night, on the remote sections of I-15 from Southern California.
Reviewed April 2004.