Let’s get this out of the way. Sin City. Gambling. Alcohol. Mm hmm. Vegas is not for children. I’ve been several times and I won’t even pretend I didn’t throw the side-eye at parents pushing strollers down Fremont. WHAT ARE THEY THINKING? But — and I don’t love admitting this — I was wrong.

Our trip was one of those conversations that started as a joke, then a hypothetical “what if?”, and before we knew it we were ALL going to Vegas for Thanksgiving. We haven’t had a “traditional” Thanksgiving gathered around a beautiful turkey in our own home for YEARS. Thanksgiving has always been that holiday one of us is traveling or deployed or working or something else, but this year — the Martins were headed for Vegas.

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We were coming from Arkansas with my sister and my parents were flying in from San Antonio, and after finding each other at the airport we decided a limo to the hotel was the perfect way to kick off our Vegas adventure.

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My sister Laura and her family were coming in the next morning so this isn’t quite everyone.

After initially committing to this trip I remember panicking about finding kid-appropriate things to do, but once I started looking there were so many options we couldn’t begin to do everything. So I Googled and TripAdvisored our itinerary together and Vegas turned out to be a city packed with options and flexibility — even for our group ranging in ages from 1 to 68. So here goes, three solid days of kid-friendly adventure in Sin City:

Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo

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Birds! This kid loves birds! Especially DUCKS. When I mentioned the Flamingo hotel had REAL flamingos and DUCKS – he was sold. This was a priority early in the planning process, and we spent time on our first morning in Vegas saying hello to all the birds.

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Channeling the flamingos.

Flamingos, ducks, a black swan, and the biggest goldfish I’ve ever seen. It was a little chilly that morning, but the birds were still friendly and hospitable.

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I should find it, but there’s a photo of my dad in front of the flamingos at the San Antonio Zoo from the year I was in 1st Grade and I volunteered him to chaperone our class field trip — without asking him first. Here’s to family bonding with flamingos!

KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the flamingos a 6. “They had a mallard duck and that was my favorite. #awesome”

MOM REVIEW Pretty low key, but free. It was a nice way to ramp up the day, but not something I would make a special trip to do if he didn’t like birds so much. I’d read they have pelicans – which fascinate me – and I was bummed we didn’t see any.


 This is a good time to mention I don’t love that animals live in cages. Or aquariums. Or zoos. Or anything other than the wild blue yonder. I really don’t. I am terribly conflicted about all of it. Because I don’t love that animals aren’t safe in the wild blue yonder either. They are hunted and poached and defenseless in the face of land clearing and habitat destruction.

And this trip included many animals. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, I get it. This won’t be the story for you.

I used the opportunity, and Colt and I talked many times during our trip — about the pros and cons of being able to visit animals in captivity, and the research it enables that ultimately benefits the animals.

But I get it. I don’t love it either.


Bellagio Conservatory

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The Bellagio decorates its botanical gardens for each season and fall was downright magical. We went Thanksgiving morning and it was truly a pumpkin and floral and woodland creature wonderland. Our favorite – obviously – was the talking tree. I wish I’d taken video — the eyes blinked and shifted side-to-side, and it talked and sang.

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The botanical gardens in the conservatory are incredible, especially when you consider the time and planning and talent that goes into that custom display every few months of the year, but the Bellagio itself is generally a work of art, too. The glass in the photos is the ceiling of the lobby. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve walked through that lobby, the ceiling takes my breath away.

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Mommy, Colt, Papaw, Mamaw
KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the Bellagio a 10. “The talking tree! They had a TALKING. TREE.”

MOM REVIEW Gorgeous. My parents were with us, and we marveled at the grandness of it all. I will put this on my list when I’m in Vegas during other seasons, too – everywhere we looked there was a new detail to appreciate. (I suspect Colt’s high rating of the Bellagio had something to do with my convincing him we say “BeLAAAAHgiooo”. As dramatically as possible. It’s fun – try it.)

Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat – The Mirage

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Siegfried and Roy don’t have a show anymore, but they created a habitat for big cats and dolphins that allows everyone to enjoy them, and allows for education and research.

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It’s a low-structure area as far as the schedule. There are informational talks from the staff every 20 minutes or so, but you’re able to wander the grounds and enjoy the animals. We wandered plenty, and enjoyed the sunshine. The weather was absolutely gorgeous that day — sunshine and a cool breeze.

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Mama and Colt - The Mirage
Mama and Colt – The Mirage

After we met the dolphins, we made our way to the big cats.

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Each cat had a pumpkin – we never found out why, but it made us giggle.

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Photo by Colt

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And then… we had to exit through the gift shop… and see the photos they’d taken against a green screen when we entered… And I bought them because I’m a nostalgic sucker and the nonsense was just too much.

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Go ahead. Tell me you’d be able to leave those gems behind.

KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the Mirage a 9. “No advice. But I kinda liked that 40 year old dolphin.” (Note: They introduced the dolphins as a family. They had three generations of females ranging from a few years old to 40!)

MOM REVIEW This was fun, but expensive for the experience. The grounds were a beautiful oasis in the middle of a concrete and neon jungle, and that was a nice break from the bustle of the city.

Popovich Comedy Pet Theater

Colt went to this with my parents, so I’ll let him tell you in his own words:

It was at the V Theater. At the beginning, what I thought was really cool was they had this big house set. And they had pets running out of it – cats, dogs, rabbits, birds – then they had a fire truck dude, and he got on and they tried to rescue all the pets because it looked like there was a fire in the house. Next – they had, kind of, a train. And they had a dog pulling a taxi with rats in it. “These are VIP guests! You better treat them nice!” And then after that, Gregory Popovich kinda did some magic tricks with the pets. My favorite part was the train. And the best animal was the birds, because I like birds.

popovichShark Reef at Mandalay Bay

My first trip to Vegas 10 years ago, Jeff and I stayed at Mandalay Bay and I remember wandering down to the aquarium and shark reef but we never went in. Aquariums are enchanting to me, and I knew Colt would enjoy it, too, so we made a date with the sharks.

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KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the Shark Reef a 10. He took his camera and while none of his pictures turned out — it was dark and he was taking pictures of fish behind glass — it made me smile that he was so into it that he wanted pictures of EVERYTHING.

MOM REVIEW If you’re into aquariums, this is a good choice. From the sharks to the piranhas to the octopus to the jelly fish (eek! the jelly fish!) it was an amazing collection of underwater magic. The tour was self-paced so we could spend as much time as we wanted at each stop – that was a plus for us. And by this point, the cheesy tourist photos had become… a thing.

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Las Vegas Natural History Museum

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I was worried he’d be disappointed after going to major museums in NYC and D.C. this year, but Colt LOVED the Natural History Museum. It was smaller, sure, but he declared their Egypt exhibit the best he’s EVER SEEN.

The exhibit stretched across multiple rooms, with a tour through a replica of King Tut’s tomb, an Egyptian village and marketplace, and a chance to practice our hieroglyphics.  Colt closed it out by building his own pyramid.

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And this crazy thing. This exhibit was called Titanoboa. Other than the Egypt exhibit, he declared this his favorite. This display is a recreation using fossils that indicate there was once a snake THIS BIG roaming the earth. Y’all. NO.

Yes, it's eating a crocodile. Whole.
Yes, it’s eating a crocodile. Whole.
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We sat in front for scale. It filled the room!
KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the museum an enthusiastic 11. He loves all things Egyptian, and this Egyptian exhibit exceeded all expectations.

MOM REVIEW A hidden gem! The museum isn’t flashy or fancy, but the exhibits are well done and interactive. There were several rooms that allowed the kids to be hands-on and we saw kids ranging from toddlers to teenagers in there. No bells and whistles, but a great option if you’ve got kids into science.

High Roller at The LINQ {+ The Sprinkles Cupcake ATM!}

A trip to Vegas really isn’t complete without a good view of the lights. You can tour the city all day, but if you don’t take in all the dazzling neon by night – you’re missing half the fun. So we headed to the High Roller — ideal because we could all go together and see the entire city.

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Each pod holds a few dozen people and it takes about 30 minutes to take the entire trip around the wheel. What I didn’t think about was how you board the thing. It doesn’t stop! It turns (slowly) and you have to be ready — and get inside your pod when it comes to the bottom platform.

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Once we were all on — and grateful no one had tripped and made a scene — we enjoyed 30 minutes of constantly-shifting scenery.

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Safely back on the ground — and having successfully dismounted while the wheel turned — we splurged on a cheesy tourist photo.

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Tourist Alert!

At the foot of the High Roller is a cute street lined with shops and restaurants, and in this case it was all decorated for the holidays. And we found the best cupcakes we’d ever eaten. If you ask me, the world needs more Cupcake ATMs.

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KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the High Roller an 8. He liked it, but I don’t know that he needed a full 30 minutes of it.

MOM REVIEW After getting on, this was so EASY. And since we were fully enclosed in the glass pod, it felt very safe. It’s not something we’ll make a regular part of future trips to Vegas, but I would recommend it to people in the city for the first time — it’s a great way to see the lights.

Céline Dion at Caesars {Girls Night Out}

Ok, ok. This isn’t a kiddo activity. Or maybe it is – depending on your kid. For us, it was a Girls Night Out. My mom wanted to go and wanted to take the girls — so we left the dads and the kids, and had an amazing time at Céline Dion’s show. WOW. She has an amazing voice, and fancies herself a bit of a comedian — it was a great show.

I took a bunch of bootleg photos and a few videos during the show, but none of them do justice to the power of her voice or the drama of the stage show. So I’ll leave you with this photo taken (and fully posed and directed) by an event photographer named Goran. We laughed so hard we had to have the photo as a memento.

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The Neon Museum

I can’t remember how I first heard of this, but I’m so glad we found it. This was my absolute favorite thing we did on this trip. It was so very “Vegas” and so very educational — all at once. The museum is a non-profit that collects old, retired neon signs into what they call the “boneyard” and offers guided tours packed with history and trivia and stories. I loved it.

This place was also a marketing nerd’s dream. The fonts and wording and symbols and colors — it was all fascinating. The museum sign itself — each of the letters is pulled from an iconic property. The N from The Golden Nugget, the E from Caesars Palace, the O from Binion’s Horseshoe, and the second N from The Desert Inn. The square grid is from the Sands, and starbursts are from the Stardust and the iconic Welcome to Vegas sign. Even the SIGN is a love letter to the Vegas of yesterday.

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Our tour guide seemed to know it all — from facts to gossip and urban legends — and he fielded questions from a curious 8 year old like a champ.

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You can also go at night, but the signs are mostly non-functioning so they’re lit by spotlights. I’d like to go back at night sometime, but the boneyard is no less magical in the sunshine.

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His favorite sign – are you surprised? It’s from an old used car lot called The Ugly Duckling.

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KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates the Neon Museum a 12! History + a guided tour + a 20-foot DUCK. And I let him get a t-shirt from the museum store because they had one with the duck on it — so if you see him in the next 6 months, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be wearing it.

MOM REVIEW This was genuinely my favorite thing we did on this trip. I can’t recommend it enough — if you are planning a trip to Vegas and have even an INKLING of appreciation for the history — this is a must.

Discovery Children’s Museum

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Colt’s cousin Nelson joined in the fun for this one, and we stayed for hours. The museum had a designated section for toddlers, but most of the building was appropriate for all ages. Their favorite was this area set up like a town with different jobs to be done — and an ATM to deposit your paycheck.

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It’s the kind of place you can spend all day — or just an hour — whatever works for your kids and their energy level on a particular day.

KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates this museum a 9. He wanted to stay longer, and I know he’d go back in a heartbeat. He kept saying it was like the Amazeum — a museum in Northwest Arkansas. (That is high praise!)

MOM REVIEW We will keep it in mind if we go back to Vegas as a family, and I definitely recommend it to families with toddlers.

Seven Magic Mountains

It took some convincing, but eventually our Uber driver agreed to drive us out into the middle of the desert to see a public art installation I’d found during my pre-trip research. Seven Magic Mountains will be there for the next two years – so don’t put it off if you’d like to go!

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I think Colt was skeptical until the moment we drove up. Art? In the desert…? I assured him it would be amazing.

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And it was. The towers were off the road so we had to walk a bit to get out there.

The information I’d read warned to look for snakes and wear sunscreen as we walked through the desert, but our only complaint was the wind. Strong crosswinds created a dust storm that made Colt wish he’d remembered his sunglasses.  I try not to pass up an opportunity for people-watching and this didn’t disappoint — the posing and jumping and selfie-ing going on out there was primo.

The colors really were this amazing in-person, and the contrast against the backdrop of the desert was truly beautiful.

Visible across the desert landscape along Interstate 15, Seven Magic Mountains offers a creative critique of the simulacra of destinations like Las Vegas. According to Rondinone, the location is physically and symbolically mid-way between the natural and the artificial: the natural is expressed by the mountain ranges, desert, and Jean Dry Lake backdrop, and the artificial is expressed by the highway and the constant flow of traffic between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. ~sevenmagicmountains.com

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KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates this an 8. He probably remembers the dust in his eyes as well as he remembers being mesmerized by the rocks. He says, “other kids will think this is cool. Tell them to go see it!”

MOM REVIEW I LOVED this. I loved that it was different and special and required some effort to enjoy. If you would enjoy the novelty of installation art in the middle of the desert — this is a must-see.

Mob Museum

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We stayed downtown and this was a quick walk — AND we got a deal on our tickets as part of a package deal with the Neon Museum. The museum was a chronological tour through organized crime in the United States, and it was quite the history lesson. Prohibition’s influence on the mob and the growth of cities like Vegas isn’t something you learn in history class… so it was a cool complement to our Vegas itinerary. Jeff and I are big fans of Casino, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos so it was fun to “meet” some of the real-life characters on which many of those characters were based.

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Who dunnit?
Who dunnit?
KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates this one a 4… He wasn’t a fan. There were a few rooms that had warnings of graphic material and we avoided them altogether. Not his favorite stop.

MOM REVIEW It wasn’t great for Colt, but this is another gem we found that we hadn’t necessarily heard of before but was a really fascinating slice of Vegas culture. Don’t take your young kids, but put this on your list.

Fremont Street

We were on Fremont after dark a few times, coming back from being out for the day or just to see the lights — but Colt didn’t love it. It’s loud and crowded and — understandably — overwhelming. So the last morning we were in town, before we left for the airport, we strolled down to the end of the street and got a less-loud, less-crowded, less-overwhelming view of old downtown Vegas.

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Street Art
Street Art
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No free Heart Attack Burger for you, Buddy!

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KIDDO REVIEW  On a scale of 1 to 10, Colt rates Fremont Street a 4 at night and a 9 during the day. He liked the canopy of lights, but not the rest of the bustle after dark. And during the day, you can wander more easily and get down the street without getting run over by a crowd.

MOM REVIEW Day or night, I love Fremont Street. I had never wandered around with my camera before and I know I could’ve spent hours more — everywhere you look there’s a story.

Golden Nugget {including Thanksgiving Buffet}

We’ve stayed at the Golden Nugget before and we hope to stay there on trips to come. It’s downtown, convenient, and they treated us right with a Thanksgiving Buffet with all you could hope for!

Martin Family Thanksgiving 2016
Martin Family Thanksgiving 2016

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Hoods on Fremont Street
Hoods on Fremont Street

Final Thoughts

I’m happy to have been wrong about kids in Vegas. Honestly. I’m not declaring it the #1 Family Vacation Destination, but I’m here to tell you that whether you pull from this list of ideas or venture out further (Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Red Rock Canyon, and more) Vegas can be a blast for kids. As you can probably tell from photos, different combinations of our total group were interested in different things so people came and went to things they were into — plenty of options and flexibility.

I asked my sister to share her perspective after taking the same trip — with a baby — and I’ll post her tips as a follow-up. For now, put Vegas on your list and enjoy this elevator selfie from my silly family.

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Elevator Family Selfie

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One thought on “Yes, you can (and should!) take kids to Vegas

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