A Birthday Trip to Las Vegas
Jan 27, 2017
You might remember the rather brilliant idea I came up with last year to help myself combat the winter blues and celebrate my birthday: go somewhere warm and sunny for a few days in January. Last year, we went to San Diego, which ended up being one of the highlights of the year.
This year, we planned a trip to Las Vegas.
Before I tell you about it, I feel like I have to answer the question, "Why Las Vegas?" because it seemed like that's what everyone asked us when we told them where we were going.
Besides the obvious reason that it fulfilled the necessary qualifications (sunny and thirty degrees warmer than Salt Lake City), we also chose it because it was an easy day's drive away, it was cheap, and I'd never been there before.
In future years, I anticipate some of our January getaways to be a little more exotic (Hawaii? the Caribbean?), but I'm also a firm believer that you shouldn't overlook the destinations that are a mere hop, skip, and a jump away from you. It seemed silly to plan an expensive trip to somewhere far away when there was a city just waiting to be explored in the state right next door to ours.
People also seemed a little surprised that we were taking our kids with us--as if the only things to do in Las Vegas were restricted to adults. (The thing is, Mike and I don't drink or gamble or live on the edge, so it's not like going without our kids would have freed us up to "have fun" because we wouldn't have been doing those things anyway.) And after reading Janssen's post about 7 Places to Visit in Las Vegas with Children, I was convinced we wouldn't have any trouble finding family-friendly things to do.
And we didn't. In fact, we could have easily filled up several more days with fun activities (and when our day to return home dawned bright and sunny, I almost couldn't force myself to get back in the van). Highlights included:
Going with friends
We planned the trip with our dear friends, the Gardners. They also have four kids (two girls and two boys), and everything about the trip was made better with them along. For example: Our kids always had someone to play with (and Clark was obsessed with their baby); we shared the cost of the condo where we stayed; there were other adults to talk to (and they happened to be adults we really enjoy being around); we got to swap kids and go on a date (more on that below); they helped us navigate the city (they've been to Vegas countless times); and we had someone to share the memories with. You can be sure we made quite the scene walking down the strip while herding eight children in front of us, but, aside from a scary ten minutes where we were sure we'd lost the Gardner's three-year-old, we didn't have any major mishaps.
When we went to San Diego, we stayed in a teeny-tiny condo. Granted, it was just our family that time and also, the location was ideal (we were right on the beach), but the limited space was the cause of almost all our (read: my) meltdowns. This time we rented a much larger condo that easily fit our family and the Gardners. It had four bedrooms (but the master bedroom had an attached suite that we used as a fifth bedroom), three bathrooms, a large kitchen/family room, and a formal dining room. A few weeks before the trip, the owner contacted us and asked if we'd be willing to switch to a smaller condo, and I refused. I just had a feeling space would be the key to a good trip, and I'm pretty sure it was. The kids all went to bed really well each night because they weren't distracting each other, the adults could stay up late talking and playing games without disturbing anyone, the kitchen was great for fixing and serving meals, and I could always find a quiet place to recharge (very important for me).
The Bellagio Conservatory
We loved walking through this small botanical garden. Right now, it is themed around the Chinese New Year, and the traditional costumes made out of flowers, as well as the giant fire rooster, were quite impressive. Afterwards, we stopped at Cafe Gelato for the cinnamon rolls and gelato (per Janssen's recommendation), and they didn't disappoint. (This is also where Clark sat on a rope and pulled a stanchion over onto his head. A passing security guard saw it and made us fill out an accident report. True story.)
The High Roller
After we got home, we talked about our favorite activities from the trip, and this competed for the top spot. Similar to the London Eye, this 550-foot high observation wheel gave us an amazing view of the city. Each compartment/pod can probably hold close to forty people, but it wasn't busy when we went, so we had the entire space to ourselves. Our kids danced and jumped and ran from side to side, taking everything in. We were up in the air for thirty minutes, and it was a party the entire time.
When I was growing up, my family ate out very little when we were traveling, and that was totally fine. But now, food is a really big deal to me, and experiencing the tastes and food culture of a particular place is one of the things I love the most about traveling. So when it comes to budgeting traveling expenses, we don't scrimp in the food department. And I just have to say, I was wowed by the food in Las Vegas. Besides Cafe Gelato, we also ate at KoMex (a Korean/Mexican fusion restaurant that sounds a little weird but was so good), the Shake Shack (that lived up to all the hype), Gordon Ramsay Fish and Chips (I'd love to go back and try the seasoned fries), and Viva Chicken (which is actually in St. George--we stopped there on our way home). Just writing about these places makes me want to go back right now. So yummy.
The fountain show at the Bellagio
Although everyone loved the High Roller, this was actually the activity that topped the list for a couple of my kids. And we almost didn't do it! We had been meaning to but just ended up not being in the right place at the right time. On Saturday afternoon, we were driving back to the condo and thought that maybe we could time it right to just drive past and see the fountains going off. But as we got closer, we knew it wasn't going to work out. At the last minute, Mike said, "You know what? I'm just going to go park. We're so close, and we're not going to come back if we don't see them now." So we did. We raced through the parking garage so we could be by the water when the fountains went off at 3:00. We snagged a great spot and stood there waiting . . . and waiting. 3:05. . . 3:10. . . 3:15 . . . no fountains. We decided we'd hold out until 3:30 in case the 3:00 show had just been randomly skipped. But then, a few minutes before 3:30, something began bubbling to the surface, and within seconds, the water was transformed into a breathtaking show of dancing and exploding fountains. We were all captivated. It was one of those times where the actual thing far exceeded our expectations. But then, it got even better. After the song was over and the water was quiet once more, we decided that maybe that had been the 3:00 show (albeit twenty minutes late), so if we stuck around, we might still get to see the 3:30 show. Sure enough, in about two minutes, the fountains came back up, this time to a Frank Sinatra song. The music ended, but since it still wasn't 3:30, we decided to wait again, and once more, we were rewarded. So we saw three shows in the space of ten minutes, and our kids thought it was the best thing ever.
A night out on the town
Because we went with friends, we could do a babysitting swap and each enjoy a night out. It was fantastic. Mike and I saw the Beatles Cirque du Soleil show, which was equal parts unbelievable, fun, and weird. On the way out at the end of the show, Mike said, "Well, now I know what it would have felt like to be a drug-addict hippie in the 60's." And while it's true that there were parts where we both turned to each other and mouthed, "What is happening right now?!" and also a couple of risque costumes that made me uncomfortable, we also spent a lot of the evening with our jaws hanging open in disbelief at some of the things people are willing to do in the name of entertainment. But mostly, we just enjoyed being together. It felt like such a rare treat to be on vacation with our kids but to get to spend an evening without them.
We had a little rain on our first morning, but other than that, the sky was blue and the sun was shining, and we soaked up every minute of it. The temperature hovered in the upper 50's, so most of us still preferred a jacket, but then we were quite comfortable. We played at a couple of different parks (the Container Park and Exploration Peak Park--both of them fabulous), and we also went on a short hike in Red Rock Canyon. It just felt so good to be outside without shivering the entire time.
Every time I go to a new place, I find myself melding my preconceived idea with the actual thing, and Las Vegas was certainly no exception. On one hand, it was totally different than I was expecting: the strip was cleaner, brighter, and more family friendly (particularly during the day) than I envisioned. At the same time, the whole city felt a bit fake: shiny buildings, replica landmarks, creepy costumed characters on every corner. You almost felt like it was wearing a mask--putting on this showy exterior to hide something ugly underneath. And then, in some ways, it was exactly what I was expecting: a city where anything goes, where illegal behavior is suddenly legal--the true Wild, Wild West.
But overall, I would say we were pleasantly surprised and the activities that we chose were a huge success. I remember when we got home from San Diego last year and I was able to take an objective look at the trip, I figured that 80-85% of the moments were good, and so the trip seemed worth it. This time, it would be closer to 97%. I'm sure it was a combination of friends, good weather, a spacious condo, fun activities, and good-natured kids (basically everything I mentioned above), but the whole thing went off with hardly a hitch, and I don't know if we'll ever be that lucky again.
I know we missed a lot of fun things while we were there, so feel free to share your favorite Vegas activities in the comments. I'm sure we'll be going back!