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Kid stuff in Vegas runs from magic to hammerheads

By Michael Schuman, Boston Globe Correspondent
April 18, 2004

LAS VEGAS -- Surely, Bugsy Siegel couldn't have envisioned roller coasters and walk-through aquariums a short stroll from his dens of gambling and topless showgirls. Yet today the Las Vegas strip is rife with themed casinos and such diversions as a perpetually erupting volcano and a refuge for white tigers.

About a decade ago, there was a crush of coverage about this town becoming a family resort. Not long afterward, we were all reading just the opposite: Vegas was never meant to be for children.

So is Las Vegas a family destination or not?

The plain fact is that, on any given day, one sees plenty of families with rugrats in tow, strolling the strip.

Still, Gina Cunningham, editor at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau news bureau, says, ''Las Vegas is an adult city. The whole 'family destination' idea was created by the media. As far as the Shark Reef or the roller coasters and venues like that, most are inside or on the property of casinos."

Many casinos, she said, ''are trying to bring out the kid in people. Maybe we can say the city is soliciting the young at heart."

I recently took my daughters, 7 and 9, to Las Vegas, where we spent most of our time on the strip. They eschewed body-shaking roller coasters and the motion manic ''Ride to Atlantis" at Caesars Palace and still found plenty to keep them busy. Vegas does indeed have much for the young. Following is a lucky seven list of attractions and activities on or near the strip that kept two children smiling for three days.

Circus Circus. This veteran resort may not have the cachet of say, Bellagio, but with its 123-foot-tall clown marquee, live circus acts, and cacophonous arcades, it's still the best place on the strip to stay with youngsters.

Since it opened in 1968, this Vegas stalwart has been offering free circus acts on its Carnival Midway. In 1993, Circus Circus also became home to the Adventuredome, an indoor theme park with 23 rides and attractions, including a boat trip with its own waterfall and a double-loop, double-corkscrew roller coaster. Despite such high-tech wonders, the children liked watching acrobats jump rope while in the form of human pyramids, and playing carnival games on the midway mezzanine, a superb place to remove spare change from your pockets and wrinkles from your wallet.

Guinness World Records Museum. A woman stood here in an outline of the body of the fattest man in the world, not realizing that the floor was a scale. ''Mom, do you know everyone can see your weight?" her daughter called out, as the digital numbers flashed on a screen for all to see. Whoosh, she was off the scale faster than a blackjack dealer can flip a card. She duly avoided that gallery from then on, but it didn't matter, since the children by then had started watching a videotape of the world's greatest domino drops.

There are other Guinness museums in places such as Niagara Falls and Gatlinburg, Tenn., but this one has things they don't, such as a collection of 7,000 refrigerator magnets and a gallery devoted to Las Vegas itself. Inside are dozens of facts to delight the Cliff Clavins of the world, such as: the biggest loss on a single bet was by a Saudi prince who said goodbye to $1 million at the MGM Grand.

Magic. Prestidigitation is no rarity here. We caught Lance Burton's show and were left wondering how children could ever express themselves if the word ''cool" were removed from the English language. Some of the ''coolest" feats the handsome magician accomplished, according to the children, were making a car fly and splitting two people into eight parts, each reappearing in the other's clothes. Children were in abundance in the audience and Burton used them in his act. One boy vanished from the stage with Burton, then drifted down with him on a chandelier five minutes later. ''Cool," isn't it?

M&M's World. A splashy four-story salute to commercialism and chocolate, M&M's World combines the latest in special effects with 26,000 square feet of merchandise devoted to one of the world's favorite snacks. The audience dons 3-D glasses and watches a clever mini-movie called ''I Lost My M in Vegas," before heading out to an M&M's megastore. Here, one can buy everything from candy dispensers to the little round candies in a multitude of colors you've never imagined. While there are a few exhibits, one shouldn't expect extensive displays like those at World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta or Kellogg's Cereal City in Battle Creek, Mich.

Liberace Museum. Mr. Showmanship's showplace, while located a few blocks off the strip, celebrates the life and possessions of the man whose name was synonymous with the strip for decades. So what if today's children think Liberace is a type of pasta? The world's most luxurious cars, keyboards, and outfits, studded with rhinestones and other frills, are eye fillers for youngsters. Thanks to a big expansion completed in May 2002, visitors also can see a re-creation of Liberace's master suite from The Cloisters, his Spanish-style hacienda in Palm Springs, Calif.

To our 7-year-old, the pianos and clothes were ''sparkly," while our 9-year-old found Liberace's pink ''Volks Royce" (a Beetle purchased in the '70s energy crunch and customized to look like a Rolls) an engrossing creation. A budding pianist, she found a videotape of a Liberace performance on the Queen Mary an inspiration to continue her lessons.

The Strip by Day: lions and tigers and sharks, oh my! The strip has always been a bit of a zoo, but in the last several years, that statement has become literal. More accurately, the strip is full of mini-zoos. The MGM Grand has a lion habitat, the Tropicana and Mirage have tigers, and Mandalay Bay has sharks and other marine life.

We journeyed into the Secret Garden of Siegfried & Roy in the Mirage, still open in spite of Roy's injury, where grand white tigers stretched and rolled like house cats on a living room sofa. Handheld audio guides filled us in on fun facts about the animals. The Mirage also maintains a dolphin habitat where Atlantic bottlenoses at times play ball with visitors walking past.

''Hands on" rules at the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay, where a touch pool accompanies the main aquarium complex. Youth report: The shark and sea stars felt rough, the sea cucumber and stingray were slimy. A word of advice: Most of these animal experiences don't come cheap.

The Strip by Night: pyrotechnics, fake lava, and dancing waters. This is when the party animals come out. Still, walking the strip at night is safe, despite the pirates, dragons, and volcanoes.

The neon jungle can be seen by driving in the bumper-to-bumper parade. For more thorough enjoyment, park the car and take the young ones to the free nightly outdoor special effects spectaculars. For example, the Mirage Volcano, amid palm trees and a lagoon, spews smoke and fire 100 feet into the air. Want something a bit less strident? The fountains in front of Bellagio dance nightly to the music of masters such as Pavarotti and Sinatra. Treasure Island recently replaced its G-rated pyrotechnic pirate ship battle show with a more sensuous pyrotechnic battle show called ''The Sirens of TI," complete with sultry sirens seducing pirates. Decide for yourself if you want your children to see it, but suffice it to say it is no Super Bowl halftime presentation.

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer who lives in Keene, N.H.