Las Vegas: Family fun ... minus the gambling

News and opinion editor Bill Poling, his wife and 15-year-old son set off for Las Vegas last month to test the city's claim that there's plenty to do for the nongambler. His report follows:

an two gracefully aging baby boomers who don't gamble find happiness over spring break by taking a bored TV and video game jockey to the gaming capital of the world?

We did.

We started with air, four nights' accommodations, a few discount coupons and a rental car -- the sort of off-the-shelf package any travel agent can find.

Thanks to the Internet, we ran up a nice tab on the credit card by booking Las Vegas shows before we left home; however, the advantage of using the phone is that you can ask where the good seats are. We didn't.

Age-appropriate shows for families, such as the Blue Man Group at the Luxor, aren't hard to find in Las Vegas. Age-appropriate shows for families aren't hard to find. We settled on Lance Burton's magic act and a performance of the Blue Man Group at the Luxor, which left us determined to fill out the rest of the time with some of southern Nevada's cheap thrills.

It was all too easy.

• Did you know that Boulder Dam and Hoover Dam are the same dam? We didn't. The names Boulder, for the canyon, and Hoover, for the 31st president, competed for the naming rights until Congress stepped in in 1947 and laid down the law -- Hoover Dam.

An easy half-day trip by car, the dam and Lake Mead are a good and popular diversion from the flash and glitter of the Strip.

The visitor center now has a security checkpoint, but you can still take the long elevator ride down, look at the big generators and, yes, you can walk across the dam. We did.

There are nice art deco touches here and there, including a pair of striking bronze statues by sculptor Oskar Hansen representing the "Winged Figures of the Republic."

If you plan ahead, you can do outdoorsy stuff on the lake. We didn't.

In nearby Boulder City, you can stop at a local eatery advertising the "best food by a dam site." We did.

• Sometimes you feel like surrendering to the urge to kick around in the desert for a day. We did.

The Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area has a looping, 13-mile road that offers several Kodak moments and easy access to a number of hiking trails of varying levels of difficulty. The area also has a good visitor center.

We chose the Ice Box Canyon trail, a poor choice (way too rocky). It is said that from time to time you will encounter wild burros and bighorn sheep. We didn't.

• The biggest cheap thrill in Las Vegas is walking the Strip and gawking at hotels. We did.

We also did some of this by car. Every one of the large hotel-casinos on the Strip has a huge, free parking garage, and they don't limit access to guests only.

If you're from a congested city where parking is expensive or a hassle -- or both -- you'll be pleasantly surprised by this. We were amazed; we had never seen so many free parking spaces in one place. What a waste!

Because of the ease of parking, a car is not an encumbrance -- although the traffic and daredevil jaywalkers on the Strip can be. The elevated monorails, or trams, take some of the pedestrian traffic off the street, but not enough.

• Any standard guidebook will cover the Strip's cheap thrills, such as the lions in the MGM Grand, the tigers and dolphins at the Mirage, the floral displays at the Bellagio's conservatory, the goings on at Circus Circus, etc.

What they don't tell you is that the Bellagio's musically synchronized fountains are equally as impressive from the front, back and side, as well as from the top of the Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas across the street.

The sidewalk pirate show at Treasure Island is best viewed if you're closer to the pirate ship than the British ship. And don't try to view the volcano at the Mirage from a moving car. We did.

• The Freemont Street Experience was worth the short drive to downtown. The milieu is interesting for about five minutes and the sound and light show is good for another two or three.

After that, you can get easily diverted by performers and sidewalk artists and blow away an hour. We did.

• A note for New Yorkers: On the day of our visit to the fake stretch of the Brooklyn Bridge at New York-New York, you could look down and see brackish water with trash floating in it. Nice touch.

• Car buffs shouldn't pass up the Imperial Palace Auto Collection, an understated museum tucked away in the parking garage of the hotel of the same name.

In addition to a number of classic Rolls-Royces, Dusenbergs and other exotic cars, the collection includes a heart-breaking, cherry-red 1958 Chevy. Guys, be prepared for spousal puzzlement. We weren't.

• Under "other attractions" or "elsewhere in the region," many guidebooks will mention Ethel M's chocolate factory and cactus garden, located in a low-rise office park in Henderson, about 15 minutes from the Strip. Most visitors to Las Vegas will take a pass. We didn't.

Ethel's M, as it turns out, stands for Mars, as in the Mars Bar and M&Ms. She was the Mars family matriarch.

After a self-guided walk through the factory (30 seconds if you walk really fast), you find yourself picking out free chocolate in the retail store, an establishment with no flashing lights and whose only bustle happens when the occasional tour bus pulls up outside.

The little cactus garden outside, however, is the real font of serenity here. When there are no tour groups around, the botanically inclined can take a leisurely walk through and bone up on the subtle differences between the flora of Mohave and that of Sonora. Who knew? We didn't.

• For the record, we put five quarters into an airport slot machine as our flight home was boarding, and the machine spit out $3.75 -- a $2.50 profit.

You know that old saying, "Take the money and run?" We did.

Contacts: Nongaming activities abound for families

Blue Man Group
Phone: (800) 557-7428
Web: www.blueman.com

Lance Burton
Phone: (877) 386-8224
Web: www.lanceburton.com

Hoover Dam
Phone: (866)291-8687
Web: www.hooverdamusbr.gov

Lake Mead Recreation Service
Phone: (702) 293-8906
Web: www.nps.gov

Red Rock Canyon
Phone: (702) 875-4141
Web: www.travelnevada.com

Fremont Street Experience
Phone: (800) 249-3559
Web: www.vegasexperience.com

Imperial Palace Auto Collection
Phone: (702) 731-3311
Web: www.imperialpalace.com

Ethel M's Chocolates
Phone: (702) 433-2500
Web: www.ethelm.com

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