Hip, Hip Hooray, for Christmas Vacation
September 26, 2015 1:30 PM   Subscribe

Our family rarely takes vacations, and even then, just to visit family, or at best, to a nearby lake. But big leaps forward in our careers have us thinking it's time to finally treat ourselves. We're thinking of taking the kid to Vegas for Christmas and rolling out, if not all the stops, many more than we've customarily been able/willing to afford. Give us tips for Vegas in general, Vegas for families, Vegas at the holidays, and small and medium things we can do to feel like high rollers.

More data that may or may not inform your answers:
-We don't actually gamble, really. We'll probably leave the kid with some form of organized child care one day and dabble. But it's actually really low on our priorities.
-Our kid is six years old. He's bright, good-natured, and reasonably adventurous in terms of food and new stuff, though far from fearless when it comes to things like theme park rides. He loves science, Lego, Minecraft, Star Wars, music, and most other kid stuff. He is fond of elaborate architecture and impressive engineering. And he is looking forward to seeing some awesome animals.
-It's been years since we've done much real traveling. We are impressed with stupid things and mundane perks.
-In terms of calibrating spending, we are at a tipping point on income where we suddenly can treat ourselves here and there, but not being able to do so is still fresh in our minds. As such, we still appreciate things that are a value, even as we can (and will in some instances) splurge a bit. We're looking forward to savoring little upgrades like hiring a car to get us from the airport to the hotel instead of taking a crowded shuttle and springing the extra few bucks for a room with a view. Even so, cheap seats for shows are probably as fun for us as good ones, since it wasn't so long ago we couldn't have gone at all. And we don't want to feel like we can only have fun that costs a bunch of money. I know there are plenty of fun free things for families to do and we intend to stay busy with some of those.
-We're already leaning toward staying at the Mirage. It seems to be family friendly, kinda modern in decor (which we like), and has tons of fun stuff on site. It's also right at our target level of somewhere between high mid-range and lower-tier luxury. We're open to staying somewhere else if there is an awesome case to be made, but this is one part we're feeling pretty good about. Our kid is six and a science nerd and there's a volcano.
-We're figuring on booking airfare and hotel together through Travelocity, Orbitz, or some analogue thereof. Is that the best way to go about this?
-We'll probably have one or two truly amazing meals, but are also down for some tasty buffets and simple family fare. Our wishlist involves finding at least one ridiculously over-the-top kid-centric meal (stacks of pancakes as big as your head! eat next to a real live gorilla! I made those up, obviously... we just want something he'll go nuts over) and one meal for either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day that hits all of the benchmarks for treating ourselves at the holidays but does some with some personality and invention on the part of the chef, as opposed to mere conspicuous consumption.
-We're not religious in the slightest, but we love Christmas, and are blubbering sentimentalists easily reduced to watery eyed oohs and ahhs by holiday lights and pretty music.

Things we especially went to know about:
-We know little to nothing about any of the current shows. We'll probably see Cirque du Soleil's Beatles show since it's in the Mirage. And we figure on seeing a magic show, since this is where so many of the best in the world are. but we don't know much about what's current, where to find good deals, or which shows are can't miss for families.
-I see that Vegas hotels have been consciously trying to ramp up their holiday business. Is it working? I know the restaurants and buffets will fill up on the 24th and 25th, but will the hotels still be in a slow time? Does this improve my odds of using the "sandwich" trick to try and score a room upgrade?
-What attractions and restaurants (especially near the Strip) are good for families?
-What's fun to do at Christmas in Vegas?

Or just tell me anything I forgot to ask. We never ever get to take a vacation, much less one where we can afford to spring for a few perks. Tell me everything.
posted by DirtyOldTown to Travel & Transportation around Las Vegas, NV (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I personally don't recommend booking flights and hotels through third-parties. Maybe if it's vastly cheaper I'd consider it, but it rarely seems to be, and hotels will often match rates. I'll use those sites to search for which airlines fly to where I'm going, and to get a general lay of the land for hotel rates, and then book both directly. When/if something goes wrong or needs to be changed, you're generally going to have an easier time of it if you booked directly rather than through a third-party travel site. Early in my independent traveling life, I had a nightmare when I booked through Expedia, something changed with the flight, and Expedia and the airline were pointing fingers at each other. In the (many) years since then, I have yet to see a rate that was so good that it persuaded me to go down that path again. YMMV...
posted by primethyme at 1:59 PM on September 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

Agreed, I no longer use Expedia etc. anymore. It was useful several years ago, but it's not worth the trouble now. I use Google Flights to find flights, and a site like Kayak or Hopper to explore prices--and then I book through the airline's website exclusively. (I might also use SeatGuru to figure out which flight will be the most comfortable.) Or if I know Virgin America flies a route, I just start with them!

Similarly, for hotels I may start with TripAdvisor or whatever, but typically I'll book through the hotel's website. My AAA discount or any special packages on the official site almost always beats any price offered elsewhere, and there's less hassle down the road. TripAdvisor's reviews and forums are very useful for noting which rooms are best and which upgrades are worthwhile.
posted by wintersweet at 2:12 PM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

Is there a reason you're set on Vegas considering that you'll have a kid in tow and aren't interested in gambling? I mean, surely there are other destinations that match your interests and needs better. So far we have that your kid likes science and sci fi/video game type stuff, and nothing mentioned for your interests beyond stuff that you'd be willing to do because it's the done thing in Vegas (gambling, Cirque du Soleil, magic).

Why not go somewhere with a really cool science museum? Why not go somewhere that is dripping with picturesque Holiday Magic, since that's something you mention being a Thing? Why not go somewhere that has attractions the adults in the family actually want to do, not things you're begrudgingly willing to do because that's what people do when they come to town?

The only reason I can think of to choose Las Vegas over an entire planet of cool places to go is if you live in Southern California and were planning on driving there and making a long weekend of it. Otherwise, surely there are travel destinations that would meet your needs better, thus resulting in a more fun vacation. Even Disney sounds like it would probably be a better fit for what you are actually looking for in a trip.
posted by Sara C. at 2:23 PM on September 26, 2015 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: We're interested in Vegas because we're wanting a holiday vacation with a fair amount of mild-to-moderate luxury/stuffing our faces/doing fun stuff that can be reasonably priced and easily accomplished. Off-season Vegas hits all of those points. We want a relaxing, low effort vacation with some perks to celebrate the good year we're having.

We priced out Disney for five days and it came to around twice what we anticipate paying here. I'd be open to being proven wrong on that, though.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:27 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

I gotta agree. Vegas is not really kid friendly. Not because it's a den of corruption, but it's mostly stuff aimed at adults that kids would be bored by. If it's hot you could go to the pool, but that's not really exclusively a Vegas thing. I will say if you leave the kid for a while, consider splurging on a meal. Vegas has some extremely good restaurants ( Avoid the buffets, I'm talking top quality adult restaurants). Especially if you don't gamble, consider it a treat. Also do not attempt to walk anywhere. Everything is enormously farther apart than it looks.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 2:29 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Either I'm reading stuff that is 100% full of marketing lies or the AskMe crowd is popping in to answer generically that "Vegas is not kid-friendly" based on old anecdata or non-first hand "general knowledge" as AskMe peeps are wont to do. I'd love a more recent traveler or Vegas local to weigh in on that. Because currently, we're looking at seeing dolphins, magic shows, theme parks, giant volcanoes, circuses, Christmas Villages, etc. And I am not understanding how that isn't kid-friendly.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:32 PM on September 26, 2015

Best answer: Also: the hotels are gargantuan and every route leads you through endless casinos. One time I left sunscreen in my room and it took, no joke, 20 minutes to walk to the room back to the pool.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 2:32 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

We really enjoyed this burger place, and I think a kid would find it cool. Although, in general, Vegas is a blast but I'm not sure it would be so great with a kid. I remember going with my parents as a kid and being alternately bored and completely overwhelmed/overstimulated.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:33 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I have been a kid in Vegas. Granted, I was 20 (why couldn't my parents wait one year?) but aside from a Cirque show and a plane tour of the Grand Canyon, I was really bored. We then drove to San Diego. Which has a fantastic zoo, a Lego park, great food, and Tijuana.
posted by Ruki at 2:34 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: San Diego does sound awesome. So does Mexico. Or Paris. I rather doubt we can afford any of that.

If I am being unclear on the key central, overarching theory behind this vacation, it can be summed up as this: We are making a little money now. We still probably cannot afford to have a luxurious vacation, although we would like to do so. Perhaps we can fake it by going somewhere during the offseason.

For the sake of argument, let's limit anti-Vegas arguments to these two arguments: "I know of an even better offseason place that you could enjoy the holidays in luxuriously at a similarly discounted rate" (key words, those last five) ; or, if you feel compelled to argue against Vegas without proposing an alternative, begin with "personal experience I have recently leads me to believe the family friendly nature of contemporary Vegas is grossly overstated..."
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:38 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

You mentioned animals. You want to do this: http://www.luxor.com/entertainment/entertainment_3for57.aspx

The shark aquarium is amazing. The dolphin habitat was small but freaking amazing.

Also, we (a pile of adults) loved the CSI exhibit, and it was crawling with kids. We did not do Bodies, but I bet a geeky kid would love it.

The is a free fountain show at the Bellagio that is well worth seeing (http://content.time.com/time/travel/cityguide/article/0,31489,1838100_1838099_1838074,00.html, first item on the list).

If you want to get off Strip, Fremont Street is fun and the buffet at the Nugget was really good. They do laser shows which are pretty cool, and while I don't remember if there were kids running around, I do remember that it wasn't super crowded on a Saturday night compared to the strip, and really, it's Vegas - if you can't stay up past your bedtime occasionally at Christmas in Vegas, when can you? :)

He is fond of elaborate architecture and impressive engineering.

Go to Hover Dam and please let me know how it is; I have never talked anyone into going.

And don't forget to ride the monorail.
Don't forget to schedule time to just enjoy being in a hotel in the desert in the middle of the winter, too. Sit by the pool, order a silly lunch poolside, that kind of thing. When I was 6, I just wanted to be in water as much as possible (and um, still do, so well. :) )

Have fun! Vegas is a great destination.
posted by joycehealy at 3:03 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your location would be very helpful to make alternate suggestions.

I will say, I would not bother renting a car in Vegas unless you plan to take a lot of side trips.* Take cabs to and from the airport and a combination of the Las Vegas monorail and cabs around town; much easier. Also, the upscale buffets can be amazing and are very stuff-your-face awesome. Normally just go to whatever the newest hotel is, and they will be the ones with the best buffet. They can be super pricey for weekend brunch though.

There are definitely fun things for you and a six-year-old to do, great shows, great restaurants, lots of free stuff, although it can also be overwhelming and overstimulating. For me, the undercurrents of the city start to make it feel feel seedy and depressing after about three days. I have never felt a warm fuzzy holiday vibe anywhere in Vegas around the holidays either.

*When I was younger, we went to tour the various factories in Henderson -- there was a marshmallow factory, a chocolate factory, and the Ocean Spray factory. Plus there's Hoover Dam. So you might actually want to do this. If you're going to stay mostly on the strip though, the car is more trouble than it's worth.
posted by Threeve at 3:07 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We're in Chicagoland. We don't want to go anywhere as cold or colder than here, and only having 5 days off, we're disinclined for a long flight, so this hemisphere only. And I'm Southern so that isn't interesting or fresh, either. We looked into the Caribbean, but the prices seemed 30-50% higher than upper mid tier/lower high end stuff in Vegas during the holidays, as Christmas not only isn't offseason there, it's one of their prime seasons. If you know somewhere lively and luxurious in the Western or Southwestern US that can be had at offseason prices or have some secret voodoo for doing a swanky Christmas in the Caribbean with a Best Western budget, we're all ears. Failing that, I'll stay tuned for Vegas tips.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 3:23 PM on September 26, 2015

I went to Las Vegas a couple of times as a kid and a teenager in the 90s/early 00s to visit family, and the things I remember doing and somewhat enjoying are:

- Seeing the white tigers in the exhibit at the Mirage
- Watching the pirate show/skit outside of Treasure Island
- Watching the volcano explode at the Mirage
- Going to the indoor amusement park at Circus Circus
- Riding the roller coaster on top of the Stratosphere
- Riding the roller coaster at New York, New York
- Going to an arcade in the basement of Treasure Island
- Watching a magic show at Cesar's Palace
- Eating as many waffles and dessert as I wanted at a couple of buffets
- Going to Hoover Dam
- Renting a car and going to Zion National Park

Although I had fun in Vegas, had a lot more fun on a cruise as a kid. While most people think about leaving from Miami to go to the Caribbean, cruises departing from Galveston, TX (1-2 hour drive from Houston) and headed to Mexico are usually cheaper, so you could take a look at that as an alternative.
posted by asphericalcow at 3:37 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've been to Vegas acouple of times - including once on Christmas Eve and day. In my opinion the hotel rates were very cheap at Christmas, even for a last minute booking. A couple things a kid might be interested in are going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the canal in the Venezia, either in a gondola or walking alongside. I've always thought that taking a helicopter to see the Grand Canyon would be an amazing experience but haven't done it yet.
posted by bendy at 4:43 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have you looked into doing a LegoLand, FL / Busch Gardens, FL / Museum of Science and Industry / Florida Aquarium itinerary? Fly into Orlando and take a shuttle to LegoLand. It ROCKS for 6 yr old boys and it's not terribly expensive. Stay at the Hampton Inn in Winter Haven, waaaay cheaper than the LegoLand hotel (which is also awesome). Rent a car in Winter Haven (lower prices) and drive the hour to Tampa. Hit Busch Gardens one day and MOSI the next. Depending on the weather, you can even drive an hour from there and hit one of the best beaches in the world, Siesta Key in Sarasota. Just throwing it out there....
posted by PorcineWithMe at 4:50 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I went last year. The helicopter tour of the grand canyon (also flies over hoover dam) was the highlight and your kid would love it.
posted by lollusc at 5:06 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

You can also go out and do some light hiking in a local desert park like Red Rock Canyon. The desert is just amazing to go be in, and they have a little nature center there.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:21 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

There is cool stuff for a kid near Vegas but Vegas itself is really overwhelming and strange. I don't think any of the hotels and kid clubs there are anything like you're hoping they will be. The casinos in the bottom floor of the hotels take forever to get through, it's very much not kid friendly around the strip and the luxury is kind of a weirdly fake pretense of niceness without it actually being nice.

Maybe if you stay off the strip you can get a better hotel and pool situation, and it'll be more family friendly. But in general, I think Florida or San Diego legoland would give you more what you're looking for. Really, I want you to have a great trip, I'm not just randomly saying this to be contrary.
posted by barnone at 6:13 PM on September 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I love Vegas. We neither drink nor gamble and have all kinds of fun.
I would stay at a nongambling hotel off strip. You can get breakfast included, which cuts costs dramatically. Also parking at an off strip hotel is easy-peasy. Parking at a strip hotel involves lots of walking. Often in the heat. I strongly recommend a nonstrip hotel. It will be much more family friendly. And likely will have an indoor pool. Other kids will be staying there.

Mac King has a magic show in the afternoon that is cheap and child-friendly. Definitely go to that.

We found the helicopter trip to Grand Canyon disappointing. There was nonstop sales pitches - buy a video of the trip! buy postcards! buy a hat! have your picture taken in front of the helicopter! And you do not go to the pretty part of the Canyon at all. We have taken helicopter trips in other destinations that were so much better, so some of my comments may reflect that. Also our pilot was a jerk who told off-color jokes.

Rocket Fizz sells all kinds of soda pop. There is a zipline in downtown Vegas. The Neon Museum can be fun. For a longer day trip, go to Rhyolite, a genuine ghost town that's on the edge of Death Valley. What kid doesn't want to go to a ghost town?

I know Cirque du Soleil shows are popular but personally they bore me. And I wouldn't chose a hotel based on a show I wanted to see.

We always use valet parking at the casinos, which is free! Just a tip and you don't have to make the long trek from the garages.

The inside of one casino pretty much looks like the inside of every casino. Now some of the hotel lobbies are pretty, but the casino portions are dimly lit and not that interesting. Also there is more indoor smoking in Vegas than you may be used to.

You can do the big ferris wheel and afterwards, buy a cupcake from a vending machine.

I would not make the strip hotels the focus on the trip. And stay away from the Strip generally - take the streets, like the locals do. Don't walk with a child along the strip - too many guys passing out girls, girls, girls flyers and moving billboards advertising girls to your room. Also crowds of people walking with open containers.

Of course, you want to go to a casino or two, just to see, but children aren't allowed in the gaming areas, so make the other parts of Vegas the focus of your trip. There are botanical gardens of cactus, Bonnie Springs Ranch with mock gunfights, rides at New York New York and Stratosphere (me, I'm way too chicken to ride those, but the view from atop is great).

Circus Circus is seedy but has lots of carnival type games that children are allowed to play - because supposedly lthey are games of skill, not chance.

Hoover Dam is an engineering marvel and there are boat rides on Lake Mead.

Focus on all the great nongaming parts of Vegas and you'll have an awesome vacation.
posted by daneflute at 6:29 PM on September 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

A friend of mine who lives there has this advice:
Well the usual touristy thing would be to check out the winter display and the Christmas tree in the Bellagio conservatory. Can't go wrong there.

But a cool locals secret is the Opportunity Village. It's a big winter wonderland thingy with rides and attractions and a enchanted forest, really done well, with a train you can ride through it. A six year old is right in the sweet spot for it. And it's all for charity.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:57 PM on September 26, 2015

for a GREAT buffet, the Baccanal in Caesar's Palace. You can get literally stacks of ANYTHING the size of your head here. For a Christmas meal that's more sit down, then I would look into Bouchon in the Venetian. Thomas Keller's menu is always interesting, and the technique is perfect.

I do not know about age requirements, but once of the best "up close with animals" I have ever done is the "Dolphin Trainer for a Day" at the Mirage. You get to spend the day with the dolphin trainers, work with the dolphins in and around the giant pool areas, plenty of contact with these great mammals, and some good photo opportunities.

posted by alchemist at 11:10 PM on September 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I did Vegas at Christmas some time ago. It was really busy, far from relaxing, involved a mile walk any time I left the hotel room, felt mildly depressing and didn't really seem like a place for kids in my experience (though I saw plenty of them). Airfares and hotels were cheaper, show tickets were somewhat cheaper, but lots of stuff was closed or wound down for the season due to the temperature (no flamingos at the Flamingo, the pool at my hotel was closed). As an example of how crowded it was: it was wall-to-wall people with selfie sticks in the vicinity of and within the Christmas display at the Bellagio the entire time we were there. Plus, the temperature there hit a high of 40F, which at the time was barely warmer than Chicago. I still had to wear a coat and gloves.

If you do choose to go, check out the Downtown Container Park. There's an enormous structure for kids to play in surrounded by a bunch of adorable boutiques and places to snack, and it's right near Fremont Street which is a great walk in itself. Plus, there's a firebreathing grasshopper. The kid is guaranteed to love it.
posted by theraflu at 11:20 PM on September 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I appreciate the folks who answered, particularly people who offered the Vegas-specific information for which we had asked. In the end, we could see that while Vegas most definitely could have worked (kinda luxurious, but with some off-season value, plenty to do for the kid) it would have also involved a fair bit of hustling through hotels and taking cabs from one planned activity to another, and potentially might not have been as much of a reprieve from winter as we wanted.

I also appreciate the folks who encouraged us to look at other options. Many of y'all frustrated us by kinda missing the point, that we were after a budget vacation that felt semi-luxurious. We are bringing a kid we want to include but are not making it entirely kid-centric. But all in all, even that helped by sending us back to the 'net to make sure we didn't miss anything. We checked out some cruises, which didn't sound like our bag, honestly, but expanded the list of Mexican cities we were punching into Travelocity and the like and that led to a solution no one had suggested at all: the other Mexican coast.

It turned out O'Hare has cheap, direct flights to Puerto Vallarta, which made a trip to the Pacific Mexican coast 30% cheaper than similar trips to the Caribbean and a pretty similar value to offseason Vegas. We're going to stay in a lovely little place and do a bit of low-key sightseeing and plenty of eating, swimming in the pool, and splashing in the ocean. Very warm, very non-stressful, and a lovely holiday indulgence to reward Comrade Doll and me for huge years professionally. The little guy is jazzed to see the ocean and splash to his heart's content.

Vegas is staying on the list of things we may yet do some day. But for this Christmas, ¡Viva México!
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:11 AM on October 4, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I also greatly appreciated primethyme's advice to look into booking things separately rather than through a service. In the specific case we ended up going with, it was substantially cheaper to book a discount package through Travelocity. However, in many of the options we pursued, particularly Vegas, the difference between booking the likes of an Expedia package and the total of booking the room direct from the hotel and the flight direct from the airline was negligible. I'll definitely keep that in mind in the future to make sure we keep our bargaining power and flexibility.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:18 AM on October 4, 2015

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