Las Vegas isn’t usually a place for families with toddlers or young kids; except when it is. We recently visited Chris’s sister and brother-in-law, Melissa and Steve, who live in the Vegas suburbs. In planning the trip, we found plenty to do for families of young children and had a great time with four days full of kid-friendly activities. We even could have filled a few more days if we had the time.
Whether you’re visiting relatives in Vegas or en-route to somewhere else, here are a few tips for bringing a toddler or other young child to the Las Vegas region:
1) Know that you’re going to be judged and just deal with it.
You could be bringing your child to get medical treatment in Vegas and you’d get snark from someone on the plane. We had a couple different people comment to him “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” and warning him not to drink too much, despite my protestations that we were visiting family. And God forbid you bring your kid to the Strip. When I was with Chris on our night out, I know I silently judged people (then realized better), despite the fact that we brought Sprout there only a few days earlier! Just explain why you’re there (or not), smile and move on.
2) Be selective about the Strip.
Honestly, the Strip is far from an ideal location for little kids, amongst the sex, drugs and gambling. Thankfully, they’re too little to understand any of it and there are some neat things of interest. Personally, we spent a little less than half a day there and it was perfect.
Before you go, know what you want to see. The place is huge and all of that walking can put a strain on even the most patient toddler or parent carrying/pushing them. We knew we wanted to see the Flamingo’s wildlife exhibit; the Bellagio’s gardens, glass ceiling, and fountain show; and the Mirage’s volcano show. We also planned to go the talking statues in Caesars’ Palace, but ran out of time. All of them worked out beautifully except the volcano show, which scared Sprout. He was fine until the end, which was really loud and bright and I think caused a bit of sensory overload.
Other activities in that area that seemed pretty family-friendly included the High Roller Ferris Wheel (very similar to the London Eye), the Mirage’s Secret Garden, the trip up the Paris’s “Eiffel Tower” and the Mandalay Bay’s Aquarium. However, all of those were pretty expensive so we skipped them. On the other end of the Strip, slightly older kids might like the lions at the MGM and the themes of New York, New York; the Luxor (Egyptian); and (medieval-lite castles).
3) Think beyond the Strip.
While many tourists never leave there, there’s a whole host of things to do for families off of the Strip. Las Vegas is an increasingly popular area for families to live – 350,000 kids in the school district! – and the area is trying to accommodate that growth.
A few blocks from Fremont St. is an upcoming area in the process of being redeveloped. One of the newest additions is the Downtown Container Park, a self-enclosed pedestrian shopping and entertainment era. Visitors are welcomed by a fire-breathing preying mantis and enter a lovely plaza with restaurants and shopping. We browsed an awesome retro toy store that is trying to “bring back pogs” (my mid-90s childhood appreciated the effort) and bought a shirt from the company Out of Print at a children’s clothing store. But the centerpiece of the complex is a giant, multi-story playground, with multiple slides, giant foam building blocks, and a sound/lights based movement game. I got excited and was a little disappointed that we needed to leave right after I finished shopping.
Another fabulous place to visit was Springs Preserve, a natural / state history museum / conservation center appropriate for all of the local schools’ field trip needs. Among its many exhibits, it included a simulated flash flood, live desert animals, the University of Nevada’s second place house for the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, desert adapted gardens, energy conservation arcade games, a desert-themed play area, and a train ride. Despite my deep love for state museums, we didn’t even get to the Nevada State Museum, which was also on the premises! Of course, Sprout’s favorite parts were the sandbox and water mister, but I admit they looked pretty fun. We didn’t have time, but the Discovery Children’s Museum also looks fantastic, with another multi-story climbing structure.
4) See some non-party animals.
Besides the flamingos, parrots, hummingbirds, and fish at the Flamingo and the tortoises, rabbits and tarantulas at Springs Preserve, there are also two mom-and-pop animal rescue facilities right near each other in the Vegas suburbs.
The Farm in Las Vegas is a homespun facility featuring a variety of farmyard critters, from huge cows to fluffy chickens. It features handwritten signs, old-fashioned mall toys (that no longer run, but are apparently awesome to climb up on), a number of local foodstuffs, and a substantial flock of peacocks. We actually bought peacock and bantam hen eggs and fried them up for breakfast at Melissa and Steve’s later on. While it isn’t a “petting zoo,” the manager did allow us to pet the giant potbellied pig, Kevin Bacon. Of course, among all of this, my kid and a few others decided their favorite thing was the sun-bleached toy kitchen in a weird little fenced-in area. It was a little slice of rural country life in suburban Las Vegas.
Right down the road, the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary is another volunteer-run, passion project that seems to take in any animals the greater Las Vegas region has to offer them. Goats that escaped their pen – including an adorable baby – roamed around, horses mixed with chickens, emus eyed my shiny phone, and ducks and swans swam together. While not nearly as polished as a tourist attraction, it’s hard to beat for only $4 a person. Plus, it’s nice to support a local, family-run organization that’s working to help animals that would have nowhere else to go otherwise.
5) Go hiking.
Only a half-hour or less from Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon National Recreation Area. Red Rocks is exactly what is says in the title – spectacular red rocks, ranging in hue from orange-red to dark blood maroon. There’s a substantial interpretive exhibit at the Visitor’s Center that looks at the earth, air and water and how they relate to the landscape and human history of the place. For the littles, there are cool brass animal sculptures to sit on, desert tortoises to spot, and a Zoetrope to spin.
Going down the 17 mile one-way Scenic Road, you catch a number of spectacular outlooks and hiking trails. We did part of the Calico Tanks trail, which wandered down a canyon and was 1 mile each way. Labeled as moderate, it had a little bit of mild rock-scrambling, but was totally doable with a toddler in a baby backpack. It isn’t well-marked at all (totally disorienting for someone used to forest hikes), but it’s also pretty easy to orient yourself. If you are sharp-eyed, you can often spot rock-climbers scaling Red Rocks’ famed cliff-faces. While Sprout was content gazing at the scenery for the first half of the hike, he decided he absolutely needed to walk Melissa and Steve’s little terrier halfway through. As much of the path was neither toddler or small dog friendly, this resulted in a public, loud and potentially dangerous meltdown on the trail. He calmed down enough for Chris to carry him sans-backpack, but it almost gave me a stress-induced aneurysm. So great trail – if your kid is a little more patient than mine.
We had originally planned to let him walk the 3/4 mile paved Children’s Trail. Unfortunately, between the meltdown delay, the closeness of naptime, and an approaching rainstorm, we left the park instead. The start of the Trail has picnic tables with beautiful scenery and ancient Native American pictographs that are worth stopping at even if you don’t have time to do the whole thing.
I also highly recommend bringing your own water and lunch. Red Rocks is run by the Bureau of Land Management, not the National Parks Service, so there is very limited food or vending on site.
5) Bring the baby backpack if you have one and leave the stroller at home.
Despite the Red Rocks rebellion, the baby backpack was immensely useful. I had to convince Chris to add it to our absurd amount of luggage, but it was worth it.
In Red Rocks, we would have been able to do only the simplest hikes without it. On the Strip, it gave him a birds’-eye view of everything, the opposite of what he would have had in a stroller. He loved looking at all of the bright signs, flashing lights and sketchy knock-off Disney characters (I’m looking at you, off-brand Olaf!). Plus, the narrow, crowded sidewalk would have been obnoxious to navigate in a stroller. While I love our stroller for everyday transportation, the baby backpack is much better when there’s a lot to see and you don’t want your kid stuck at looking at knees all day. Plus, no one handed my husband cards for “sexy ladies” while he was wearing the backpack. Even Vegas hawkers know there are some lines you just don’t cross.
6) Don’t assume the temperatures will be super hot.
Yes, Vegas can be very hot. But it isn’t all of the time. In mid-May, it barely went into the low-80s and it was usually too cold to go in Steve and Melissa’s pool. I was very glad I brought my jeans and spring jacket. Even when it’s climbing past 100, a lot of places are absurdly air conditioned as a response, making them feel freezing cold. Having back-up clothes and wells thought out extra layers is a good bet.
7) Visit a relative with a dog and a pool.
Obviously, this is not an option for everyone. But chasing Melissa and Steve’s little terrier around -and being chased back – was unquestionably Sprout’s favorite part of the trip.