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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Just Kidding: Book Highlights Options in Las Vegas for Tourist Families

29 August 2005

"Las Vegas runs on gambling, alcohol and sex. These are not family-friendly activities."

Thus reads an unlikely introduction to a new book on what tourists with children can do in Las Vegas.

The book, "Kidding Around Las Vegas," is not intended as an encouragement for families, author and UNLV communications instructor Kathy Espin said.

"It's not about whether people should or shouldn't be bringing their children," she said. "It's that they do. People are going to come here anyway and bring their children."

For a long time, children have been noticeably absent from television spots and other advertising campaigns for Las Vegas, which instead show frolicking adults of all ages. Kids aren't welcomed with open arms in Strip casinos, where they are considered more of a nuisance than a marketing opportunity. Still, their parents bring them in droves.

An estimated four million children traveled to Vegas along with their parents or guardians last year -- a figure that's remained fairly constant for the past five or so years.

That's according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which doesn't directly track youth visitation but includes in its annual poll of adult tourists a question on how many minors are in tow. Last year, about 10 percent of Las Vegas' 37.4 million visitors were under 21 years old.

That may shock some who have witnessed the onslaught of "R" rated advertising and "X" rated entertainment in Las Vegas in recent years.

It doesn't surprise Espin, 56.

"Las Vegas has always been for adults," said Espin, who raised two children here. "What's happened is that families have found value here. Room rates have always been reasonable and there's always those wonderful (deals) on food. It's one of the reasons families aren't a great market for (casinos). They're always looking for bargains."

In the book, Espin highlights kid-friendly activities on and off the Strip as well as day trips outside Las Vegas.

"If you look for it, there are quite a few things for kids to do" both inside and outside of casinos, she said. "I run into college students who grew up here and they say, 'There's nothing for kids to do here.' It seemed like my kids were awfully busy when they were little. I think what they mean is that 'They don't let us go into the casinos."'

Activities mentioned in the book include many well-known attractions such as the Mirage's dolphin habitat, Mandalay Bay's Shark Reef aquarium exhibit and the Fremont Street Experience. None involve half-naked assistants, go-go dancers or raunchy jokes.

The book also features off-Strip attractions, day trips and overnight stay activities like the Henderson bird viewing preserve and Mount Charleston.

"There's an awful lot of things to do off the Strip but it's not going to be easy (for tourists) to find and they're going to need transportation," Espin said.

While it's not that difficult for parents to avoid much of the racy entertainment inside the casinos, outdoor advertising like billboards and taxicab signs is nearly impossible to avoid, she said.

"That's something that disturbs me. Is it much worse than what they see on television every day? I don't know. But what are you going to do, put blinders on the kids when they go down the street?"

"In the last eight years things have gotten sexier," she said. "But it's not because Vegas just woke up and decided to go in that direction. As a society we are moving more that way. There's a loosening of standards."

The notion that Las Vegas was ever a family destination is a myth cultivated by the national media -- with some help from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, she said.

In the early to mid-1990s, casinos tried to broaden their appeal by opening the Disney-like Excalibur, MGM Grand's now-closed theme park and New York-New York with its roller-coaster. The kid-friendly attractions were added to hotels as part of a bigger trend to expand nongambling amenities, she said.

"Writers across the country were looking at what's going on here and decided that Las Vegas was a family destination. The LVCVA said, 'We've got a trend here. This is something we can sell."'

Kevin Bagger, director of Internet marketing and research for the LVCVA, said the tourism bureau has never directly or indirectly pitched Las Vegas as family destination.

"We don't specifically target families in our advertising," he said. "We never put out a message that positioned Vegas as a family destination."

"The family focus was overstated at times," Bagger said of the media coverage. "Rather than the headline reading 'Las Vegas adds nongaming amenities' it said 'Las Vegas is now a family destination.'

Espin's book has become a surprise hit for Las Vegas book publisher Huntington Press -- a company better known for its how-to gambling guides on blackjack and video poker.

"Here's a story about Vegas and it's not about bare breasts," publisher Anthony Curtis said.

Since its spring debut, the book has blown through its first print run of 3,000 copies -- a number that was expected to last a year or more. The company is now printing several thousand more copies for distribution locally and nationwide.

The book is part of a more recent focus on tourism guides for Huntington Press, which still publishes gambling books and has experimented with books on Las Vegas history and some fiction.

"We knew there was an overlooked market for people with kids. But we didn't expect it to be this big," Curtis said. Positive coverage of the book in USA Today didn't hurt, either.

"It almost doesn't matter what you do a book on as long as it's reviewed," he said. "The public buys books and especially when they read about books."