Monday, April 20, 2009

Vegas, Babies, Vegas? (Part One)

We took a long weekend over spring break -- the Passover/Easter weekend -- and went to Vegas, Baby, Vegas ... with two four-year-olds.

No, it's not exactly the first thing you think of when you think of family-friendly vacation destinations. In my parents' day, it was known jokingly as Lost Wages, but gambling is just item on its present-day menu of vices in which to indulge. Families trudging from one hotel to another on the sidewalks of the famous strip must run the gamut of street hawkers pushing "escort services" -- "Girls, Girls, Girls In Twenty Minutes," read their t-shirts -- handing out cards with phone numbers, past the blinking signage advertising all-you-can-eat buffets, and through the throngs of tourists clutching chilled alcoholic fruity drinks in brightly-colored, far-too-large novelty cups. And that's just what families experience outside. When they walk through a Vegas strip hotel to get to or from a parked car, a restaurant, or the monorail, they experience half a lifetime of second-hand smoke inhalation.

But despite all the negatives, Vegas beckoned anyhow, because two seventy-something-year-olds -- grandparents to Thing 1 and Thing 2 -- make thrice-yearly visits to it, all the way from New York City. Apparently, sometime after Americans turn sixty-five, the slot machine switch turns on in their brains, and Vegas becomes as powerful a draw for AARP members as the early-bird dinner special at the local diner.
 In order to save the AARP members near and dear to us the extra schlep to visit us in Los Angeles, we offered to drive to Vegas and meet them there.

Thanks to the recession, there were cheapie hotel deals to be had at hotels that were not usually so cheapie. The internet is a wonderful tool for finding them, and Late Blooming Dad had done a great job of locating such a place, not on the strip, but close enough to the madding crowd as to be a three-minute cab ride away from the madding crowd. The hotel was suites-only, so moms and dads could theoretically shut the door to the bedroom after the kids nodded off in the living room on the pull-out couch, and have the rest of the evening to themselves. (This was to prove a non-starter, but more on that later.) A continental breakfast buffet was included, and a kitchen in the room so we wouldn't have to drag our kids to a restaurant for every meal. And it offered a pool and jacuzzi, but happily for us, no casino, with its attendant crowds, flashing lights, incessant noise, and the aforementioned tobacco stench.

Thus we found ourselves, one Thursday morning in April, during Spring Break, on the road to Sin City with our preschoolers. The trip there was largely uneventful, and a nice break for mom and dad, thanks to the portable DVD player, the Disney movies, and the all-important child-sized headphones (are you taking notes, parents? Child-sized headphones are crucial to world peace... or at least parental peace, when it comes to enduring a long drive with kids).

We checked into the Desert Rose Inn, and soon found Grandma -- who'd been busy doing laundry at the hotel's facilities -- and Grandpa, who's been napping. The spoiling of the grandchildren immediately commenced, with the distribution of gifts: toys (welcome), sun glasses (welcome but soon forgotten about), and clothing (which Thing 2 didn't like but didn't have the grace to accept graciously; this is behavior beyond my four-year-old daughter's current capacity). Then there was a trip to the pool for me and Thing 2, who was anxious to try out the one skill she remembered from swim class: jumping into my arms from the edge of the pool, and splashing me silly. Meanwhile, it was "Happy Hour" for Thing 1 and the Grandparents. Grandpa availed himself of the free wine, and Thing 1 of the free snacks. Before long, it was on to one of the grandparents' favorite casino buffets, where their status as regulars got us to the special entrance ahead of the line.

The thing about buffets and kids is that, just like their adult counterparts, the kids at buffets have eyes bigger than their stomachs, they insist on taking way too much food which they don't finish, and they eat way more dessert than dinner. Somehow or other, when you're in a buffet restaurant smack in the middle of a casino on the strip, the usual meal rules don't seem to apply, and having large scoops of chocolate and strawberry ice cream with sprinkles seems just the thing to serve your four-year-olds, even though it's perilously close to bedtime.

After dinner, the four-year-olds were wired and seemingly up for anything (big surprise). The seventy-somethings, however, were spent. They needed a cab ride back to base camp. So Late-Blooming Mom and Dad decided to brave the strip with the kids ensconced in strollers. On we trekked, past the erupting fake volcano, in the shadow of the fake Eiffel Tower, down the street from the fake Venetian canals and the fake pirate lagoon. Our destination: the chocolate fountain, inside a patisserie deep inside the Bellagio Hotel. Never mind that the kids had already had dessert and had no realistic hope of getting any more treats. As soon as Late Blooming Mom happened to utter the words, "Chocolate Fountain," the destination was set in stone. (Thanks to dad/blogger Gregory K. at gottabook for suggesting it.) The kids were determined to experience this Willie Wonka-like wonderment of tumbling molten chocolate for themselves.

Fighting our way through strip sidewalks ten-deep with pedestrians on a Thursday night -- recession, what recession? -- we finally made it to thelagoon in front of the hotel, and to the kids' protests, told them the chocolate fountain had to wait a few minutes: we were just in time for the Bellagio's fountains to do their thing. It was right out of OCEANS ELEVEN: the night was cool, the fountains were lit majestically, and we'd just pulled off the heist of the century.

Okay, not so much the heist part. And the music -- Celine Dion's treacly MY HEART WILL GO ON -- was loathesome. But nevertheless, the kids were impressed. For a moment or two. Then, before the song, or the show, was over, they began asking when we could go to the chocolate fountain.

So we proceeded inside, where the kids were awed by glass floral ceiling decor, though still impatient to get to the main event. Once we arrived, there was some confusion and disappointment on those four-year-old faces, because the fountain of flowing chocolate -- white, milk and dark chocolate in three separate waterfalls tumbling over crystal leaves -- was behind a wall of glass. There was no touching or tasting involved. Still, it was kinda cool, and after free wooden swizzle sticks were procured and a cake-making video was watched, the expedition seemed worth our while.

Even better, though, was the conservatory, the hotel's atrium that is seasonally redecorated, and over Spring Break featured beds of hundreds of tulips in gorgeous, varied hues, laid out among crystal balls on pedestals that had water flowing over them, and a dazzling water feature in which water seemed to leap in incomplete arches across a white marbled surface, below a huge piece of statuary, a sideways face that seemed vaguely Eastern in origin. Thing 1 instantly declared this water feature "awesome." Also compelling the kids' attention was a small greenhouse full of live, recently hatched butterflies, the greenhouse artificially aged to look as if it'd been airlifted and planted here from the grounds of an English country house.

But by then, the sugar was wearing off and the kids were looking weary. Back we trudged, through the mobs and mobs and still more mobs in the hotel and on the strip -- again, I say, recession, what recession? -- back past the fake scenery, across the street, and once more through the overstimulating clanging and buzzing of a casino to our car, which seemed to be parked in Siberia.

It was back to the hotel, where Grandma visited for some bedtime book-reading to Thing 1; Thing 2 had already conked out in the car and thankfully allowed Late Blooming Mom to slip a night-time diaper on her -- the only night of the trip she would prove so easy to get to bed.

We were all overfed and overstimulated, but as we finallly settled down to sleep, were already anticipating the next day, when we'd seek out whatever there was to do for families in Vegas, confident we'd find plenty. After all, while trekking through the strip, we'd seen plenty of them. TO BE CONTINUED ...

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