It may not be Orlando, but Las Vegas is giving other family-friendly destinations a run for the money.
“Sin City” once marketed itself to people with naughty inclinations with the slogan “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” Now what happens in Vegas may include Ferris wheels, sporting events and Instagram-worthy family photos.
A survey of 4,000 visitors in 2021 by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority showed a dramatic rise in the number of people bringing children with them. In 2021, 21% of tourists had kids tagging along versus 5% in 2019, before the pandemic.
Overall, Las Vegas had 32 million visitors in 2021, which was down significantly from 42 million in 2019, according to the survey. It also indicates that visitors were younger, more ethnically diverse and more likely to travel from western states within driving distance of Las Vegas.
The authority suspects the rise in family travel to Vegas was a blip, prompted by the pandemic. Families, they say, had limited travel options in 2021, with international travel still problematic and Covid concerns top of mind. Many opted for road trips rather than plane flights.
This year, with kids on school break, it’s become so common to see parents pushing strollers through a casino, that even a casino executive barely noticed it. The executive, who declined to be named, laughed and shrugged when a CNBC reporter commented on the sight.
Families from the West Coast weren’t the only ones who traveled to Sin City with their kids in tow.
Mark and Lori Campbell live in North Carolina. They say they’ve vacationed up and down the East Coast, so they wanted to do something different. For spring break this week, they decided to bring their children, 11-year-old Madison and 14-year-old Miles, to Las Vegas.
“I knew the kids would be kind of blown away by the lights in the city and the activity and the people,” Mark Campbell said, while strolling by a Chippendales photo opportunity on Fremont Street.
The resort city’s entertainment options are more welcoming to younger audiences these days, too.
Maisie Rojas, a 15-year-old from Colorado, only had eyes for superstar boy band BTS. She carried a photo of her favorite member of the group, V. Her parents brought her to Las Vegas to celebrate her birthday with a BTS concert last weekend at Allegiant Stadium.
She’s also a repeat visitor here with her family. “It’s cool. I like it,” she said.
Her five-year-old sister Giselle was more enthusiastic. “It’s amazing!” she said. The lights are her favorite thing about Vegas, she added.
New York parents Anto and Mel Ounanian considered doing the traditional Orlando Disney World vacation this Easter break, but instead opted to take their family of four to Las Vegas. It was less expensive, and less stressful, for them to travel to Vegas and dodge the crowds at Disney.
“Vegas is just a lot more low key and there’s lots for kids to do there,” said Mel Ounanian.
The Ounanians typically stay at the Bellagio when they travel as a couple. But for this first family trip to Las Vegas with their four-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, they booked a room at the family-friendly Mandalay Bay. The resort features 11 acres of “aquatic playground” with a wave pool, lagoon and lazy river.
“A lot of people are kind of surprised by it,” Mel Ounanian said of her friends’ reactions to her family vacation plans. “They think Las Vegas is really more for adults.”
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority doesn’t even make that much of an effort to lure families with children, focusing more on conferences, conventions, international tourists and business travelers.
Yet the city has a surprising amount of kid-friendly entertainment options: The “High Roller” Ferris wheel, an outdoor zipline at The Linq, the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay, the Hunger Games Experience at MGM Grand, a Marvel Avengers Museum, immersive art experiences at Area 15 and colorful shows like Cirque de Soleil.
“I think it’s just the diversity and variety of things to do that you can’t find in any other destination and especially in such a compact area,” said Chuck Bowling, president of Mandalay Bay.
The city is also a growing destination for sports. The NFL, in particular, has made a strong push into the city with the Raiders franchise playing at Allegiant Stadium, the NFL Draft later this month and the Super Bowl in 2024. The NHL’s Golden Knights sell out their hockey games with family friendly entertainment. There’s also the WNBA’s Aces.
While families may help Vegas broaden its brand, not everyone is excited about the boom in young visitors.
“There’s kids asleep in their strollers day and night. And adult things are happening around them. And I just don’t think they need to be here,” Roeben told CNBC, saying he judges parents harshly for bringing children to Las Vegas. (Roeben is not a parent.)
“I’m an advocate for Las Vegas being for grown-ups and children to be everywhere else. Just make it this one place,” he said. “They should enjoy a stroll down Main Street at Disneyland or they should go step on Legos at Legoland – they don’t they don’t need to be in Las Vegas.”
Not all destinations welcome children. Wynn Las Vegas gained a reputation in its early years for forbidding strollers on its marble pathways through the casino floors, though families now flood in for photos in front of the famous flower-covered carousel.
Circa in downtown Las Vegas flat-out forbids anyone younger than 21 inside, even those accompanied by parents.
“We gave up the family business, the bar mitzvah business, the wedding business to focus on customer service,” said Circa CEO and owner Derek Stevens. He said he draws more business by freeing patrons from repeatedly being asked to provide ID at the bars and gaming tables.
Tourism officials and casino executives insist they don’t want Las Vegas to become the next Orlando.
“I don’t think we want to swing the pendulum that far, because we’re still an adult market. What happens here still stays here. We’re proud of that,” Mandalay Bay’s Bowling said.
Parents who bring their children here, however, said they understand Sin City has a seamier side.
Anto Ounanian shrugged off concerns over his two young children being exposed to the seamier side of the strip, including scantily clad showgirls, inebriated adults and the scent of pot smoke.
“That’s not much different from day-to-day life of Manhattan,” he said.