Las Vegas has never been effectively promoted as a family-friendly destination—and for good reason. The city has never positioned itself that way. If you happen to be under the age of 18, you might be out of luck entirely. You’re too young to legally gamble, to drink, or to attend many of the shows. But that is beginning to change. We recently sent our 17-year-old reporter, Aaron Robert Berke (and his mom) to Las Vegas to discover the experiences beyond gambling, alcohol, and x-rated shows. Here is his report.
My expectation of Las Vegas started with those commercials that always ended with the line, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” I’d seen The Hangover movies with my friends and saw all the fun—and trouble—that ensued. But then there was the reality. My mom loves to travel, and she always takes me to some pretty exciting places, but this time I was worried. She was taking me and Nick, my friend from high school, to Las Vegas. We couldn’t gamble and we couldn’t drink. We couldn’t do our own version of The Hangover. I was convinced that, other than meals, we’d be trapped in our rooms.
In fact, the minute we got off the plane—right there at the gate—there were slot machines. But I couldn’t play them. Then, we checked into the MGM Grand Hotel, and the scene there was intense. Gorgeous girls, all dressed up, clubs, bars, and even Charles Barkley was just hanging in the lobby. That was pretty exciting. But before we even got to our room we had to walk through the casino. Blackjack tables, roulette wheels, and yes, more slot machines. Now I was really worried I’d have nothing to do.
But I soon discovered my perceptions were wrong. My mom had done the research, and structured a non-stop, non-casino schedule for us that was high energy, high experience, and fun. We dropped our bags in our room, but we didn’t stay there. Mom had us booked to play a few “rounds of golf” at a place called Topgolf, which is right at the MGM Grand. It’s outside, three stories, and has an amazing golf range (think of it as an interactive video game meets bowling). We played a full round, and you are actually hitting real golf balls into the hole. But the real hole in one was the food, which was surprisingly good. It wasn’t just the oversized sandwiches that sealed the deal for us, but the signature desserts. Their specialty is injectable donut holes, which consist of 24 cinnamon sugar dusted donut holes. You choose your own flavor: chocolate, raspberry, or Bavarian cream. Then you grab a syringe and inject your own. I chose the cream. It was lethal!
We were just getting started. A short five-minute cab ride away we found ourselves at an amazing interactive experience called Dig This. It’s close to the Las Vegas strip, and most visitors to Las Vegas still don’t know it’s there. It’s an opportunity to make the transition from the tinker toys I played with as a child to real world, serious heavy machinery: bulldozers, 5.5 ton Bobcat excavators, and cranes. After a short safety lesson, we put on headsets and climbed into the operator cabs. Within about two minutes, Nick and I were digging deep and moving large tires. It was a fun competition, driving a weird slalom course in that massive bulldozer, and moving small mountains of dirt. I highly recommend this for two reasons: first, chances are you’ve never done this before. Second, when will you ever get a chance to do it again? Now I can tell my friends I know how to drive a bulldozer.
Oh yes, did I mention the food? Thankfully, there are no age barriers when it comes to eating. In fact, the MGM Grand has so many restaurants to choose from, it’s crazy. But tonight, in honor of the surprise Mom had lined up next, we ate Chinese food. After dinner, we walked through the hotel lobby to a theater lobby with a massive dragon out front. This was the teaser to Ka, an incredible show from Cirque du Soliel, that totally blew my mind. Not just because of the performances, but because of the amazing engineering of the stage itself. When they envisioned Ka, they created this special 90-minute show for this exact space. It’s like stepping into an entirely different world—it’s that detailed. The performance has the costumes and music and dance that you think of with Cirque, but the special effects and choreography was mind-boggling. I sat there for most of the show with my mouth open. Nick did too.
Speaking of mouths wide open, the next day started with a massive pig out at the buffet at the nearby Aria Hotel. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve never seen so much food in one place. The buffet was a performance in itself. After that we needed a nap! On the way back to the MGM Grand we stopped at New York, New York to ride the roller coaster. Being a New Yorker, I had to see what a hotel based on my hometown was all about. It was impressive. They even have a mock Brooklyn Bridge! The roller coaster was so much fun, but after all that food and excitement there was just no denying that nap.
Unless you are 16 or 17 years old you’ve probably never heard of the Jabbawokeez. Ask your kids. They are an incredible dance troupe that I have been following since they first hit the scene after their break out performance on America’s Best Dance Crew. When my mom found out they also do a Vegas show, she made sure to get tickets. She also got tickets for us to meet the cast back stage after the show. For dance fans this is a must. It’s an hour-long nonstop performance—on the stage, above us, and in front of us. But be careful—part of the show includes audience participation, which means you can get pulled out of the audience to dance. Nick and I got a chance to dance in the aisles with some of the cast members.
This was a very short trip to Las Vegas, and according to our schedule, we were leaving after Jabbawokeez. But Mom had saved one of the biggest surprises for last. We checked out of the hotel and stopped briefly so Mom could pick up an SUV from Avis for the five-hour drive to Los Angeles. (There was another row of slot machines there as well.)
But before we hit the road to California, Mom had planned a special detour. It appeared we were driving out of town, but instead, Mom drove under a tunnel and when we emerged we were right on the track of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway at Dream Racing. Nick and I were blown away. This wasn’t some kiddie ride attraction. Instead, Dream Racing has a fleet of racetrack certified Ferraris, Porsches, BMWs, and Lamborghinis. If you have a driver’s license, you get to drive them.
Yes, we were too young to drive (and didn’t have licenses), but we weren’t out of luck. Dream Racing assigned one of their professional drivers to us, a really cool guy named Nic Sacco. He’d be driving. We’d be holding on for dear life.
First Nic gave us a tour of the fleet. There were so many incredible cars that I thought my head was going to explode. Nic explained the importance of driving safely, never being under the influence of any substance, and respect for the machine and fellow drivers. I know that lecture was reassuring to my mom.
After viewing a required instructional video about the Ferrari F430 GT Race Car, it was time to head to the simulators. We sat in a full-scale Ferrari car seat and practiced driving around the track. This blew every driving video game off the track. It was a total blast, but that wasn’t even the best part. After the simulators we were brought to a room of lockers, each with a racing suit. We were told to change quickly and just like that we were transformed from New York kids to professional race car drivers. As we stepped onto the racetrack the dream took on new proportions.
I will never forget how exciting it felt to climb into the passenger seat of that Ferrari. I was buckled in tight, and Nic revved the engine. Before I knew it we were hitting 160 mph around crazy tight turns, and even faster on the straightaways. I could feel the combination of the G forces and the inertia as Nic shifted gears quickly, and the speed and the turns came fast and furious. For me it was an unbelievable first—I was racing and doing laps on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway!
As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Nic and another driver grabbed us for a few laps of what’s called “duel drifting.” We were shot onto the track as our pro-racers drifted along, having a race of their own, with us as the passengers. It was such a rush.
The takeaway here is that I finally saw a very different Las Vegas—one that was open and welcoming to a 17-year-old. I didn’t drink. I didn’t gamble. I didn’t get into trouble, and I survived the hairpin turns! Even Mom had fun watching Nick and me on our thrill rides in bulldozers and racing cars, playing golf, and getting backstage with the performers. Perhaps the biggest surprise, I doubt I’ll be pursuing the nightmare of The Hangover experience when I go back to Vegas in a few years. I’ll just want to repeat the fun—as an official adult—that allowed me to be a kid again.
Looking for more tips for family-friendly travel experiences? Check out:
- The Importance of America’s National Parks & Open Spaces
- Exploration & Education as a Family on the Amazon River in Peru
- Beyond Disneyland: Unexpected Sights & Activities in Anaheim, California
Text by Aaron Robert Berke for PeterGreenberg.com. Images by Aaron Robert Berke and Lisa Blake for PeterGreenberg.com