Review: Westin Lake Las Vegas

bridgeI’m often asked what the best family-friendly hotels are in Las Vegas. I usually suggest something without a casino, since those tend to be quieter. But it’s not common to find a hotel in Las Vegas that actually caters to families with children (though you wouldn’t know it, judging by the number of strollers you’ll see in casinos even after “bedtime”).

So I was interested when I found out that the Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa was actually promoting itself as a family destination. I was approached with an offer to check out what the Westin has to offer (full disclosure: my room and cabana were comped, but I paid for our meals and incidentals), and I agreed. So late Friday afternoon, the family headed down the Lake Mead Parkway to Lake Las Vegas, for a one-night, two-day staycation at the Lake.

The last time I was at the Westin LLV, it was the Hyatt Regency. Since then, it’s been a Loews and now a Westin. I’ve got to say the property looks great. The vaguely North African theme works well architecturally, and the room was clean and spacious, which is about all you can ask. It included an ironing board and coffee maker, but not an in-room safe (at least none that I could find).

The centerpiece of the Westin LLV, if you’re not attending a group function there (or maybe even if you are) is the pool complex. There are two pools, one of which has a pretty IMG_6570neat waterslide, and a private beach, with kayak and paddleboard rentals. If you have kids, you’ll probably be spending quite a bit of time out here.

The fun really starts around 6:30 at night with a beach party. Your kids can splash around in the lake, and there is food available for purchase. A cheesesteak cost $7, and, seeing as it was made fresh on the grill in front of me, I can’t complain about that price. We shared one of those, some chicken skewers, Caesar salad, and mac and cheese, for a total of $20–not bad at all if you’re on a budget. The kids were fascinated by the fish swimming around in the lake. The fish seemed expert at getting close, but not close enough to touch, to the kids.

IMG_6523There’s also a firepit where you can roast marshmallows (they sell smores kits too), which I think all kids like.

To heighten the festive mood, there’s a DJ playing music (not too loud, which is good) and periodic beach party games, like hula hooping and a balloon toss. The party breaks up before the screening of a kid-friendly movie–this weekend it was Cars on Friday and Ratatouille on  Saturday, to give you a sense of what to expect. We didn’t stay for the movie because the kids were already knocked out, so I can’t say much about it.

IMG_6573Saturday morning, we headed down to the pool complex. We had a cabana, which was a convenient place to stash dry clothes and get out of the sun. Prima was entranced by the water slide from the start. It’s a fun ride that sends you splashing down into the lower (kids) pool, and the line never got prohibitively long. The kids pool itself was about 3 feet deep, so people were wading rather than swimming, for the most part.

We also “rented” a pair of kayaks. If you’re staying at the hotel, kayah rental is free, though you must leave a picture ID with them. There is also an outfitter called “Outdoor to the Core” that rents paddleboats and the like, but the kayak was enough for us. Paddling into the lake and down to the bridge was quite the excursion, which the kids enjoyed. We also did some exploring, paddling into various nooks and coves along the way. It’s definitely a fun way to get out on the water, though if you’re looking for relaxation you’ll probably want to just lie down on a chair by the pool. Of course, if you’ve got small kids, you already know that nothing about your vacation is going to be relaxing, and kayaking really was fun.

Coming back, we spent some more time at the pool before getting changed and driving home. As you can tell, this was a very un-Vegas-like staycation, with no gambling, no shows, and, though the hotel has two restaurants, no fancy dining. I can see a few types of people enjoying a stay at the Westin LLV: Vegas residents who want a nearby staycation; people who “hate Vegas” who nevertheless have to travel to Vegas for work/family; and people who like Vegas, but want to stay for a day or two at a place that their kids will really enjoy. We all had a great time, especially on the water slide, and judging from how busy the hotel was (with a lot of California tags in the parking lot), we weren’t the only ones.

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Review: Lake Mead Cruises

Desert PrincessWith the super-hot time of summer upon us, what better time to look at a fun activity on Lake Mead?

Lake Mead Cruises offers several different cruises on its Desert Princess, a three-level paddlewheeler that holds up to 275 guests. We decided to take the “Midday Sightseeing Cruise,” mostly because we wanted something to do with the kids, and didn’t think they’d enjoy the champagne brunch or dinner cruises.

There are two sightseeing cruises daily, leaving at noon and 2pm (note: in the winter, the 2pm cruise is only offered 3 days a week, and there are no cruises in December and January). I put some thought into which one would suit us best; I thought that having a nice lunch in Boulder City would settle everyone nicely for the fun, so we opted for the 2pm cruise. We had said nice lunch at the Little City Grille (I’m a fan of the slaw burger) and headed over to The Landing, where we would board the Desert Princess.Desert Princess

Give yourself plenty of time to get there; after you hit the Lake Mead National Recreation Area checkpoint, you’ve still got some driving to do. Note: you must pay $10 per car to enter the area, and that $10 covers you for the week.

When you get to the landing, you’ll have to park far away (relatively, as these things go in Vegas). It’s a dirt lot, and fun to explore for kids, because it is the shoreline of Lake Mead. All sorts of fun things can be found.

As you get to the walkway to the landing, you’ll find one of them: a school of carp that swims around the walkway, waiting for cruisers just like you to throw some food in. Luckily or not, the concession area at the landing sells popcorn, which the carp seem to enjoy, though I’m not sure how good it is for them. There are also plentiful ducks to be found, if you’d like to feed something that can fly.

Boarding is prompt; you line up and get shuffled efficiently on board; you are quasi-pressured into getting your picture taken before boarding, but you don’t have to pose or buy them.

Desert PrincessOnce you get on board, there is plenty of room to roam. You might want to start out on the top, outdoor deck, where you can enjoy a 360 degree view of the lake. There’s a recorded narration that plays. It starts out by talking about geography and then goes into history, but I couldn’t recall anything that was said 30 seconds after it was said, so don’t expect this to make too much of an impression. Your kids will probably want to explore the boat. You will go up stairs and down stairs and inside the first floor lounge and out of the first floor lounge and inside the second floor lounge and out of the second floor lounge and back down to the first floor lounge, then up to the third floor deck, then back down…you get the point.

There is some food for sale, even if you’re not taking a meal cruise, and the staff seems OK with small amount of outside snacks coming aboard, particularly if it keep your kids quiet, I’m guessing. The boat cruises out to Hoover Dam, which you see for about 5 minutes, then comes back. The time kind of flies, especially if you’re chasing your kids around and occasionally losing them (if you have to chase after two or more simultaneously, which happens).

All in all, this is a fun trip for kids. It’s a really nice ride out on the lake, and the kind of thing that breaks the day up nicely but isn’t an all-day excursion. You could leave the Strip after an early lunch, do the cruise, and be back by 5-ish. Highly recommended.

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Bass Pro Shop Summer Camp

9_5356149_1Bass Pro Shops (the official name on the logo is plural, so I’m keeping it plural) is the enormous hunting/fishing/camping/outdoor retail mega-emporium that is directly adjacent to the Silverton Casino, Hotel, and Lodge. In fact, they are connected, and you can seamlessly walk from one into the other.

You might be thinking, “why would I want to bring my kids to shop for hunting/fishing/camping/outdoor gear while I’m in Vegas?” I’m guessing if you’re not particularly into any of that stuff, this question will be particularly acute.

You’d want to visit Bass Pro Shops because, even if you’re not buying, it’s an incredibly fun thing to do. Yes, just what every merchant wants to hear, I’m sure, but bear me out.

As adults, we get used to commodifying pleasure: if you’re going to have fun, you’ll pay for it somehow, whether it’s buying movie tickets, investing in a shiny new gadget, or purchasing media. Not so for kids. When your kids are small, just about anything can be fun.  Personally, I can take my kids to the local supermarket for 45 minutes and have a ball just looking at all the quirky stuff they have on sale. When it’s summer in Vegas, spending time in any air-conditioned space is priority number one. So cruising a retail store really isn’t that strange–at least for me.
9_8688646_16Bass Pro Shops, though, isn’t just any store. It’s got what feels like acres of audaciously cool
stuff. Your kids will thrill to their introduction to action taxidermy, as they are delighted and sometimes frightened by the realistically mounted animals throughout the store. If you’ve got your own bow, they can practice their archery. And, even if they can’t swim, you board any or all of the dozens of boats they have for sail. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination (and the Nevada Revised Statutes).

So what I’m saying is that you could easily spend an hour here, just wandering around. There’s also a target shooting game that I can see being a big attraction for some kids.

But wait, there’s more! This summer (through July 13), Bass is running “Family Summer Camp,” a series of events every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday.

There are some events that run from noon to 5, and others that run from noon to 2. From noon to 2, your kids can do a crafts project, like “Create Your Own Rainbow Thermometer.” From noon to 5, you can do things like hit the BB shooting range, where your kids get to practice shooting at a target. There’s an upstairs shooting game, too, so they can have some fun trying that out as well.

The best things, I found, were the workshops. In these, an instructor leads the kids through the basics of one outdoor activity, teaching them safety tips and other useful information; when they are done, the kids get little pins. So far, we’ve attended the swimming and hunting and shooting workshops. The hunting one was more conversation and safety than technique, although we all learned a little about the various kinds of hunting.

You might not be into the outdoors, but at the very minimum this is something fun to do inside. We spent about two hours there last weekend, and will be going back soon.

 

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Coming back

After quite a while (almost a year) of being busy with other projects, I’m ready to post here again. I have a few posts planned–in the past few weeks, we’ve done some fun stuff that I’d like other people to learn about.

The purpose of this blog is to help people with kids who either live in Las Vegas or who find themselves having to travel to Las Vegas with their young kids. While Las Vegas probably isn’t the first place you think of taking your kids, there are quite a few fun things to do with them here, if you have to be here with them. I see the ideal out-of-town reader as someone who is bringing their kids to Las Vegas for a family-type event (wedding, reunion, etc) and wants to find out about what they can do with their kids while they are here. As an alternative to sitting in your hotel room or just hanging around the pool (if you can find a pool that isn’t a day club), you can take a few side trips away from the Strip/Downtown–places like the CSN Planetarium or the Clark County Wetlands Park.

Basically, as the about page says, this site aims to help you insulate your kid(s) from Las Vegas, and, just as importantly, insulate Las Vegas from your kids. Because, after all, people who come here to debauch and gamble don’t necessarily want to do it in front of your young kids. In all likelihood, though, you’ll be among kindred spirits when you visit the places suggested here.

In any event, I’m looking forward to sharing some fun stuff this summer. Hope you have a safe and good time out here in Las Vegas!

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Star Trek Family Fun in Las Vegas

Has it been a year already? Creation Entertainment’s Star Trek convention, held at the Rio, starts again tomorrow.

There’s a lot of fun to be had here: the staff and the guest stars are very family friendly; one of the highlights of my first con was a conversation that Gary Lockwood (AKA Gary Mitchell from TOS: Where No Man Has Gone Before) had with my then two-year-old.

This year, there are more than 100 guests, ranging from William Shatner and several other stars of the original series to Karl Urban, Alice Eve, and many others connected with this year’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

And for all of you Janeway fans, Kate Mulgrew will grace the stage twice. It seems like most of the main casts of Voyager, DS9, and TNG will be there as well. This is the 20th anniversary of DS9, so there will be some special programming for them,

I’ve found that my kids really got a kick out of the con, mostly because of all of the people dressed up in costume. It’s really fun to watch them interact with the cosplayers, who also seem to get a kick out of it. On Saturday, the Costume Parade and an attempt to set another world record for people in Star Trek costumes take place, so if you only go for one day, that might be a good one.

In general, it’s a friendly and laid-back place to take your kids, particularly if they also like the show(s). One caveat: sometimes the stars get a little…not kid-friendly with their language while they’re on stage, so you might want to think twice about having your very little ones in the front row during some of the more spirited panels.

For more information about the con, you can go here or just show up at the Rio this weekend.

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Hotel Review: Grand Sierra Resort (Reno)

Last month, I was asked to do some work up at Reno, with the accommodations at the Grand Sierra Resort taken care of as part of the deal. So I figured what better way to celebrate January than to take the family up to Reno for some “real” winter weather, with snow on the ground. That might seem pretty counter-intuitive, but when you live in Las Vegas, the chance to walk around in snow is a novelty, not an annoyance.

I’ll share some details about the room and the resort, with the full disclosure that I didn’t pay for the room. On the other hand, I wasn’t asked to write a review and was under no obligation to do so, so there’s no quid pro quo here.

We were given a base-level Summit room, which is well worth the upgrade if you haven’t booked one. The decor was modern and the room clean. Regular amenities of a coffee maker and room safe, and a flatscreen TV. Pretty much what you’d expect to find in a good hotel room these days. It was more spacious than other rooms we’ve stayed in lately, too.

One note for people traveling with kids: don’t book the Concierge level, which is floors 25-27. We were given a room there, and when we tried to use the Concierge lounge, we were told kids weren’t allowed inside. I didn’t particularly mind since I didn’t pay for the room, but if I had paid extra to have access to the lounge and the continental breakfast, I would have been miffed. Originally I didn’t understand why they didn’t want kids in the lounge (no explanation given), but looking on the website I see that it turns into a bar at night, so that certainly makes sense.

Probably the best thing about the GSR for families in Fun Quest, which is located deep in the catacombs of the Lower Level. [Parenthetical here: GSR opened as the MGM Grand Reno back in back in 1978, and it's very similar to the original MGM Grand Las Vegas, which is now Bally's. You'll see what I'm talking about when you visit. On the Lower Level, you can even see the original MGM lions on the elevator doors if you look hard enough.] It’s a bit of a hike to get there, but don’t give up hope: it’s well worth it. tumble Town

Anyway, Fun Quest is a blast. Since Prima and Secunda are still toddlers, they were confined mostly to the Tumble Town area, which is your basic kids play gym, meaning there are blocks, a bunch of things to crawl on, and more things to crawl on. We spent a grand total of three hours or so here, and the kids didn’t get bored at all–in fact they wanted to stay. You, on the other hand, might want to tag team it with your co-parent or bring a book.

There’s lots more to Fun Quest than Tumble Town–some cool slides, laser tag, and a whole arcade full of classic games like the basketball hoop game that was a plot point in Bookies and Dance Dance Revolution. And there’s probably lots more even cooler stuff for older kids that I didn’t notice, being pretty much confined to Tumble Town. But I saw a lot of teenagers and pre-teens hanging out here and at the Round Table Pizza down the hall, so I guess this is pretty popular.

Back to the hotel…one of the best things about GSR is that they let dogs stay. We don’t have any dogs ourselves, but the kids love saying hi to dogs they meet, and once or twice it took us fifteen minutes to get from the elevator to the side door because there were so many dogs to play with. It gives the place a not-casino vibe, which is a good thing.

Of course, you’re in a casino, and that’s half the fun. One morning, Prima and I were up early, so to get her out of the room (so that Mrs. Viva could get some extra sleep) we went for a walk downstairs and caught the parade of partiers staggering back in around 6 in the morning. Weeks later, Prima still does a good impression of one drunk but harmless guy who was weaving his way around the lobby and stopped to talk. Good times.

So if you’re staying in Reno, I’d definitely suggest the GSR. Noticed a lot of skiers there, so I assume it’s got good proximity to the ski spots. It’s right off the freeway–as in you drive straight from the exit right into the parking lot. Fun vibe that’s about halfway between a classic casino and a ski lodge. I’d pay for a room there next time.

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Review: CSN Planetarium

If you ask most cab drivers where to see stars in Las Vegas, they’ll tell you to get tickets to a show or hit a nightclub. With all of that light pollution, the city isn’t known for its observatories. But there is at least one place for budding astronomers to visit while they’re in town: the CSN Planetarium.

CSN is the College of Southern Nevada, the area’s two-year college system. The Planetarium is located at the Cheyenne Campus, which is several miles north of Downtown.  It’s a quick drive from the 15–just head north until you hit Cheyenne, go east and then, after about a mile, the campus is on your left.CSN Planetarium entrance

Finding the Planetarium is a bit of a quest–there is absolutely no exterior signage. Having never been there before, I used Google Maps to locate it, but couldn’t find anything that looked like an entrance. Finally a security guard gave me directions.

The Planetarium isn’t connected to a world-famous observatory like the one at Griffith Park, and if you’re expecting that kind of facility, you’ll be disappointed. But if you come to the Planetarium for what it is–a science venue in a community college–you can have a wonderful time learning about the skies with your kids. The Planetarium is basically two rooms and a hallway in the building that houses the Education, Social Science, and Science departments. But for someone with a shred of imagination, it’s a link to the stars. Most kids have imagination, so play along, and you’ll have fun.

Get there a little early–as you’ll be reminded several times, the shows start promptly on time, and there is no late entry. Once you’re inside, you can leave, but you can’t come back in. So if anyone needs to go to the bathroom, do it before the show.

You buy your tickets in the small gift shop, which had plenty of neat science and astronomy related posters and toys available for sale. Some of the stuff seemed like it was scavenged; for example, there were a few NASA postcards of random shuttle missions: one featured the mission insignia of STS-4; another had the crew of STS-7; yet another had the crew of STS-41-B. It gives you the feeling that you’re meeting science on the frontier, where resources are scarce but enthusiasm runs high. It’s $6 for adults and $4 for kids.

The Planetarium itself is small. I might be spoiled from having been to the one at Griffith Park, which has seating all around in reclining chairs, so that you’re practically laying on your back as you watch the stars move above you, but at 30 feet, the dome isn’t the biggest, and the seating is in regular theater-style chairs. Again, this isn’t a knock on the Planetarium–we had a fantastic time and, given the resources, it’s phenomenal that CSN has something like this open to the public. I just don’t want to raise expectations that this is the kind of thing you’d see at a major observatory/science center.

This was a two-person mission for Prima and me. I’d say that, at 4 and some change, she’s at about the bottom age range where kids can actually get something out of this. Much younger, and I’d also say that there’s the risk of the kid being freaked out by the show.

There are three shows on Friday (6, 7, and 8 PM) and four on Saturday (3:30, 6, 7, and 8 PM). We went to the Saturday early show, and got a “double-header” of “Season of Light” and “Stargazing.”

Here’s the trailer for “Season of Light”

The show was about a half-hour long, give or take, and started by talking about the science of the solstice before moving into several religious holidays around this period, including Chanukah, Christmas, Saturnalia, and traditional Native American and Celtic rites.

The producers walk a delicate line between being respectful of all the traditions and advocating for any particular one of them though, as can be expected, they spend most time talking about Christmas and considering various astronomical phenomena that might have been associated with the birth of Jesus. All in all, it’s a good show.

Then there’s the much shorter “Winter Stargazing” show, which provides a good introduction to stars visible in the hours after sundown during the winter months. at the end of this, you’ll be able to find Polaris, and, using Orion and Sirius, find all the stars of the Winter Circle. Fun stuff.

We found one of the most remarkable things after the show was over. Right outside the doors, there’s a display with a tire. Big deal, you might say. Only it turns out it’s one of the main landing gear tires that Discovery used on STS-121. It’s indescribably cool to be able to touch (well, there were no signs that said don’t touch it) something that’s been in space and played such a critical role in getting our astronauts safely home. Prima and I went home and watched launch and landing footage of STS-121. Here’s a bonus clip of ascent footage from inside the cockpit.

There are other small exhibits in display cases around the planetarium and, if you go up to the second floor and walk a bit, models of the space shuttle and ISS and an Astronaut Wall of Fame with signed portraits from a few dozen astronauts, mostly from the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era, though there are several shuttle astronauts as well. You can have some fun talking about the accomplishments of some of these astronauts with your kids–well, at least I did.

All in all, this is about an hour of activity, give or take, depending on how much time you spend afterwards looking at the exhibits. You’ll want to check the schedule before heading up, because it changes. I know Prima and I are looking forward to seeing the next show in January, and when she’s a little older we’ll hopefully catch the late show and do some real stargazing afterwards.

The CSN Planetarium is an unexpected gem of a find in North Las Vegas–lots of fun for any kids interested in space (and parents, too).

Now, as far as finding it…here’s the best way. Using this map, I can save you the hassle I had. Head east on Cheyenne after you exit the 15, make a left on Community College Drive, then the first right. Park in that lot, and walk right up to the “L” building. You won’t see any signs, but trust me, the planetarium’s waiting for you inside.

If you live in town, this is your best chance to see planetarium shows on a regular basis in the area’s only planetarium. If you’re from out of town, it’s not a bad place to take the kids for part of an evening if you want to get away from the Strip. Combined with a leisurely off-Strip dinner before or after the show, it could make for a nice evening. You can get all of the details and check which shows are current right here.

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Review: Ethel M Holiday Cactus Garden

“Ethel M Holiday Cactus Garden” is the proper name for what around our house we call, “Hey, wanna go down to Ethel M and see all the Christmas lights?”

Here’s how it works: Ethel M Chocolates has a year-round cactus botanical garden adjacent  to its Henderson factory/store complex. Every year, from before Thanksgiving to just after New Year’s, the company turns the garden into a lighted desert winter wonderland, with Christmas lights hanging on the cacti, bushes, and trees. It looks much cooler in person Ethel Mthan I just described it.

In addition to walking around and admiring the lights, you can cajole your kids into sitting on a stranger’s lap and take pictures of it (if that’s your kind of thing) and you can enjoy the sounds of local school choirs singing holiday favorites. The latter starts at 6PM, the former at 5 PM (at least this year), and you can see the schedule here.

Lots of holiday light spectaculars charge admission, with some or all of the proceeds going to some kind of charity. This is wonderful, but it can lead to a little bit of stress for parents, since if you’ve shelled out $30 to see the lights, you’re kind of locked in to seeing them, even if your kid starts to have a meltdown. Ethel M’s Holiday Cactus Garden is absolutely free, which means that you can be a good deal more casual about the whole thing, particularly if you live in the southern half of the valley.

Parking…well, there’s plenty of it in the area, but see below for some tips.

Doing a complete circuit of the garden takes about 20 minutes, 30 if you’re being particularly leisurely. There are cul de sacs and loops, so there’s not one place to start and finish. I don’t view this as a negative at all, since it encourages just letting your feet take you where they want to go and discovering new things, but I overheard one mom complaining bitterly (truth to be told, more bitterly than I would think was appropriate for a free attraction) that “It’s a dead end up there. They should put up a sign!”

But if you view these “dead ends” as fun little places for your family to explore, you’ll have a fine time.

If you haven’t been to Ethel M’s, one of the neat things is getting to take the “factory tour,” which doesn’t involve putting on a hard hat and trooping through dangerous part of the chocolate construction zone, but instead means walking about 50 feet down a hallway with huge windows on parts of the factory. When we went, on Saturday night, the assembly lines weren’t running, but it was still kind of neat. As I told Prima, “Here’s where they would be making the chocolates…but they’re not making them right now.”

On another note, and maybe this is just me, it seems that the different chocolate stations have some pretty racy names. I don’t know exactly what mental image “cream beater” or “one-shot depositor” conjures up for you, but, and again maybe this is just me, for some reason it doesn’t sound exactly family-friendly. But be aware that there are kids around, so try to keep your lascivious wisecracks about the enrobing machine quiet.

Ethel MAt the end of the “tour,” you can have a free sample, and then you get deposited smack dab in the retail store, which has all manner of chocolate delights. I honestly don’t know if there’s a premium to buying them here as opposed to the store at the airport, but I’d wager that the selection is a lot bigger. And you’ve got a better story to tell whoever you’re buying it for than, “I picked this up between gates C4 and C5 at McCarran.”

All told, if you don’t wait in line to visit Santa, this is a solid 45-minute activity–again, depending on how long you linger in the garden. It goes pretty late–the lights are on until 10–but unless you’re impossibly jet-lagged and your kids will be manageable at that hour, I’d suggest (for younger kids) working this in before dinner. And here’s where the tip comes in:

  • Tip: When visiting early, get there around 4:45.

I suggest this because that’s around the time we got there, and we were able to get a parking spot pretty close in. Last year, we got in around 5:15 and had to park much farther out, which means more than just walking farther–you’re navigating a relatively dark area with your little kids as people in cars, who are distracted by their own kids, are trying desperately to find parking. The lights, which are billed to come on at 5:00, were already on, and the easier access and lower stress made it much more fun.

There’s a map to Ethel M Chocolates right here, and I’ll duplicate the directions here:

When using a navigating system, input the following address:

  • 1 Sunset Way
  • Henderson, NV 89014

From Las Vegas Blvd:

  • South on I-15
  • Exit onto Henderson I-215 going East
  • Take Airport Exit and exit onto Sunset Road
  • Turn Left onto Sunset Road
  • Stay in the middle lane as Sunset Road turns into Sunset Way at the intersection of Mountain Vista and Sunset Road.  
  • We are located on the corner of the Green Valley Business Park.

From Henderson Area:

  • North on Green Valley Parkway
  • Turn right on Sunset Road going east
  • Stay in the middle lane as Sunset Road turns into Sunset Way at the intersection of Mountain Vista and Sunset Road.  
  • We are located on the corner of the Green Valley Business Park.

From I-95 Freeway:

  • Head towards Henderson from your direction
  • Exit Sunset Road going West
  • Turn right onto Sunset Way
  • We are located on the corner of the Green Valley Business Park.
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Review: San Diego Zoo

giraffe

As you know from the sticky post, I’m not a big advocate of bringing kids to Las Vegas for the fun of it–the whole premise behind this site is that it’s not promoting toddler travel to Las Vegas, but that it’s a resource for parents who, for one reason or another, find themselves having to bring their small kids to Las Vegas.

That being said, in my travels around the region, there are always some attractions that I think other parents would like to know about, or would like another parent’s perspective on. And that brings us to today’s review of the San Diego Zoo.

We’ve visited the zoo before. This time around, we were in San Diego while I gave a series of lectures at SDSU, and we scheduled it so that we had a morning to hit a museum (which ended up being the San Diego Air and Space Museum, hopefully the subject of a future post), and a whole day to spend at the Zoo.

  • Tip 1: Parking is free, but if you’re staying in the area, you can use the trolley service that runs through Balboa Park. It gets you over the overpass, but leaves you off quite a distance from the zoo entrance (and, if you’ve got a screaming toddler trying desperately to escape the stroller, you will count every step of the way). Which leads to…
  • Tip 2: Bring your stroller. The zoo is big–about 100 acres. By design, it’s in a hilly part of town that allows the zoo to host animals in discrete microclimates. This is great news for the bonobos, but it also means you’re going to be doing a lot of walking with your little one(s). Sure, a non-umbrella stroller can be bulky and inconvenient, but for me it’s well worth not having to carry 20-60 pounds of kids around the park. Which leads to…
  • Tip 3: This is going to be exhausting for everyone. Fun, but exhausting. When planning for your visit, you need to ask yourself: do you want to be the reason your kid(s) don’t get to see all the animals? In other words, what can you do to make sure that they tire out before you do? For me, that meant bringing the stroller, and you probably have a few other strategies to keep yourself from tapping out and heading for the exit before seeing the elephants.

Did I mention how big the park is? We got there just after opening, around 10 AM, and left just before closing at 5PM. We saw just about everything there was to see, but could have spent much more time there. And it was a great experience, mostly because we didn’t have a schedule to keep or list of things we had to see in a certain order. It was basically show up and see where our feet took us until either the kids bailed or they threw us out. It ended up (nearly) being the latter, but due to time, not bad behavior. You know it’s time to leave when the zoo employees start walking with a certain purpose and intensity level.

You might be wondering about price: for two paying adults, one paying child, and one non-paying (under 2) child, the tickets came to over $100, with AAA discount. That seems like a lot of money, but I think it’s well worth it: we spent almost 7 hours in the zoo, which boils down to $3.57 per hour per household member–a pretty good bang for the buck, all things considered. The key, of course, it to make sure you can have a long stay, which goes back to Tip 3 above, although a lot of it is based on sheer chance: you never know when your kid(s) will stage a spectacular Category 5 meltdown 45 minutes into your day.

There’s not too much else to say about the zoo attractions themselves: you walk around and look at a lot of animals. We didn’t spring for the Backstage Pass or catch any of the scheduled shows, so it really was just a lot of looking at animals. Which, for a 4 year-old (and, to a lesser extent, an 18 month-old) is fun enough. But I will share another valuable tip:

  • Tip 4: No matter what rare and beautiful natural wonders you see, or what valuable scientific information you or zoo personnel share with your kids, the one thing they will remember after you leave is the animal that they saw defecating and/or urinating.

Sure, you might say, funny joke. But I’ve got empirical proof. Prima had her mind made up when she got to the zoo. “I’ve got one thing on my mind,” she said quite seriously, “and it’s pandas.” And yet, when we got home, it wasn’t the pandas that were the highlight of the day. Instead, it was the giraffes. Because we saw a giraffe pee, and pee, and pee (those things must have bladders that are bigger on the inside than the outside). Which would be amusing enough, but then, just as the peeing giraffe finished peeing, a baby giraffe walked up and smelled the (now finished) peeing giraffe’s nether region, resulting in guffaws all around and a memory that none of us will ever forget.

Speaking of the other end, one of the worst things about going to theme parks/zoos/other kids attractions is the awful, overpriced food. This is one of those cases where I can deal with one of the two, but not both at the same time. How many times have you had to choke down a cold, tasteless burger that cost $12 while your kid picks at some underdone chicken nuggets? Well, I think that the San Diego Zoo’s solved this problem, and the answer is Albert’s.

How to describe the restaurant? The Zoo website says “Dine in style in the heart of the San Diego Zoo,” and they’re not far off the mark. I only learned about Albert’s by trying to find a nice place to have lunch in Balboa Park the day before–I think that Yelp gave a hit for the place. The menu seemed better than the usual, and we were in the area, so we decided to check it out.

To get to Albert’s, you have to take an elevator down three stories from the Monkey Trail. And when you get down there, it’s like you’re stepping into another world. There are a few strollers parked in front, but nothing near the teeming masses feel of the feed line at the grills and cafes upstairs. And you’re not eating off a picnic table: Albert’s is a full-service restaurant, the kind of place where you’d go out for a nice dinner without the kids.

And that was the weird thing: I think most of the people in Albert’s weren’t there to look at animals. There were a few tables filled with Ladies Who Lunch drinking mimosas and a few more with guys in business suits who looked like they were entertaining clients/visitors. They didn’t seem to mind plebians like us begging our kids not to paint the windows with ketchup or crawl under other peoples’ tables–in fact, they acted like it gave the place character. So instead of us watching the animals in cages, we kind of had other people watching us. Turnabout’s fair play, I guess.

The menu might seem pricey–$16 for a roast beef sandwich–but when you factor in that you’re paying a premium of $5 or so over truly dreadful park fare, it’s actually a good investment. And you get to recharge your batteries away from the zoo for a while–this is really like being out of the zoo for 45 minutes while you eat.

You can also, apparently, get sauced there–two moms next to us were drinking martinis, and I really think we were the only adults in the whole place who weren’t drinking. The whole tab ended up coming to somewhere near $50, tip included, which isn’t that much worse than what you’d pay for tasteless microwaved food upstairs. Therefore:

  • Tip 5: Eat at Albert’s.

If we’d have been at all methodical about our visit, we probably could have gotten more out of it, but sometimes it’s better to just see where the day takes you. Near the end, we learned that our tickets gave us access to the Guided Bus Tour, a 40-minute or so jaunt around the park in a double-decker bus. We took it, taking one of the attendant’s advice to sit on the bottom level (better view, he insisted), and had a total treat. Our driver, who went by the nickname “Zoo Man,” was a font of knowledge about animals in general and the zoo in particular, and kept the ride fun for parents and kids with his humor. He was able to make seeing the animals special, particularly when we caught them awake or, in the case of a polar bear, playing with an inflatable ball in the water. Zoo Man really made that a fun part of the day.

So we really got doubly lucky that day–we could have settled for the first food we saw and gotten the usual theme park stuff, or kept on walking around without taking the tour and learning a lot more about the zoo. But there’s one more thing…

  • Tip 6: Visit the children’s zoo.

This is a little section of the zoo, to the left of the entrance as you walk in, with a playground, a petting zoo, and a few other things that weren’t running when we visited. It’s a great place to take a break and let your kids run around, so I’d suggest visiting this area after the initial excitement has died down and kids are starting to lose their fascination with the animals. The petting zoo is pretty great, too: I met a goat that I really hit it off with, at the very least, and I think the kids liked it almost as much as me.

Like I’ve said above, I didn’t do nearly as good a job of researching and planning the visit as I could have, but we all had a great day, so maybe that’s the best approach.

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Book Review: The America’s Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook

The America’s Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook. Brookline, Massachusetts: America’s Test Kitchen, 2012. 464 pages.

To me, “Quick Family Cookbook” is something of a redundancy. In our family, by definition anything we’re going to cook is going to be quick, because dinner time is early, and there’s not a ton of time during the day to cook. So when I saw this cookbook on Amazon Vine, I jumped right on it. I’d already reviewed ATK’s The Pasta Revolution, so I felt pretty confident about being able to replicate most of what they presented. Quick Family Cookbook

Quick Family Cookbook is a collection of recipes that have been tested and retested, organized by type and placed in a five-ring looseleaf binder. The pages are a relatively heavy, glossy stock that I imagine will hold up well to typical kitchen abuse. I enjoyed the binder format–you can remove a recipe to have it handy while you shop or cook, and the pages tend to stay open when you prop the binder up.

On to the meat of the matter (so to speak), the recipes. I’ve cooked a few of them so far and found that, despite almost completely disregarding the stated ingredients and directions, they turned out pretty well. The quick spinach lasagna, for example, calls for store-bought alfredo sauce, something that’s only going to happen in my kitchen in a dire emergency, so I made my own. Ditto with substituting home-broiled chicken breasts for store-bought rotisserie chicken in another recipe. My personal take is that while Quick Family Cookbook shows you the shortcuts, you are by no means obligated to take them.

That means, naturally, that you’re not going to be cooking quite so quickly. And even where following the recipes fairly well, I found that I had to add about 20 minutes to the started prep and cook time. Which isn’t bad: turning out an edible family dinner in 40 minutes is, in my book, something to be proud of.

Of course, I tend to take cookbooks more as eye-opening suggestions and guidebooks for culinary adventures that formulae for producing food that are meant to be taken literally, so feel free to take this review with a grain of salt. But I’ve found that Quick Family Cookbook has given me some new ideas in the kitchen, some of which the kids have even deigned to eat. I have a feeling I’ll be using it for a long time. Recommended.

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