Gay dads with two kids aged 11 and 14, Charlie Condou and Cameron Laux had to put their thinking hats on when it came to planning a recent family vacation. They wanted something that would blow their children’s minds, and give them a sense of just how over-the-top magical and mesmerising a faraway place can be. Some destinations seemed challenging while others would struggle to keep the kids entertained. But a legendary desert metropolis stood out. Would Las Vegas with children be a good idea?
When it came to deciding where to go for our family holiday, one thing was clear to us right from the start. We wanted to push our kids totally over the edge with a truly bombastic place to discover. We’d considered Disneyland and decided nah. Las Vegas, on the other hand, has long been one of the more extraordinary experiences in the world. And on a personal note, it’s one of our favourite cities, too: from playing a bit of poker to just hanging out with our mouths open at the sheer hyperreality of it all, we both love the total sensory overload of Sin City.
Now we know what you’re thinking: isn’t Vegas where people go for sleazy weekends that end with being married to a stranger by Elvis? Yes, of course, and we adore it for that. But what would our queer nuclear family end up doing in such a place? Well, as a couple, we last visited the city six years ago, and it was apparent to us then that it was keen to abolish some stereotypes and broaden its appeal as a fun destination.
Las Vegas is a thriving community that people love living in; the urbanity’s facilities are world-class across the board and it has a lot to offer adventurous families who are committed to consumerism and postmodernity, two things which aren’t alien to us. The thing with this place is that you’ll end up consuming everything in your path or being consumed by it. Gambling is still a big industry, of course, but you can have a stupendous time in Vegas without ever setting foot in the technicolour anarchy of a casino floor.
There are plenty of other ways to lose yourself here. If you want to feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, like you’ve just been dumped by a tornado, the place to start is the Strip at night. It has to be one of the most eye-popping places to go for a stroll in the world. The day we arrived, it was 33°C – the lovely, dry heat of a Nevada desert evening. Paired with the wattage and visual intensity of it all, it was a spectacle! Think enormous pulsating digital billboards and signs, kaleidoscopic lighting, enchanted fountains, high-rise towers and bold statues. It’s glass and brass and chrome bouncing reflections around everywhere, a bit like a giant gaudy hall of mirrors, and you’re in the centre of it all.
In their era-defining 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, the post-modern architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour propound Vegas as a ‘phenomenon of architectural communication’: everything about the design of the strip is calling to you, trying to attract your attention and to tell you something. Very controversially, at the time, they saw it as the future of America and the future of the world (and in some ways, they were right). It’s a showpiece of capitalist communication technology. It should all be far too much and yet, the architecture of Vegas is no doubt dopamine-inducing. And, if you are capable of stepping back and catching your breath for a moment, it’s also stirringly beautiful. Walking along the strip at night is reminiscent of swimming through a gigantic, teeming coral reef, ogling right and left, and going ‘ooh!’ and ‘ah!’.
To some extent, Vegas has a history as a place of ‘darkness’ and discontinuity: illicitness, criminality, sleaze, abandon, twilit nights of the soul – the things that go hand-in-hand with booze and gambling as much as they do with sexiness. But during our visit, we also saw (and felt, and appreciated) the flip side: light and joy and freeness. Shall we call it creative chaos and possibility? A contagious carnival atmosphere where rules are temporarily suspended. If you can’t have light without dark, you also can’t have an oasis without a desert, and what a weird rupture in the desert Vegas is. Fascinating, bewildering, unique.
Our kids are well aware that all that glitters is not gold. As a family we would never be plunging into a poker room or partying all night in a penthouse, obviously; but nothing stopped us from wandering through and marvelling at this monument to the American soul. Vegas holds out a certain lurid-hued hope.
We had rarefied ideas about showing the kids our favourite, jaw-dropping parts of Vegas, but they had a few strong ideas of their own. At the top of our daughter’s list was going to Raising Cane’s, a fried chicken shop that was big on TikTok at the time, and seemed to her to be the epitome of cool American food. She also wanted to check out the glitz of one of the big Tiffany & Co. stores on the Strip (we ended up buying her a delicate silver bracelet with a tiny heart on it. She was thrilled at the expensive, cosmopolitan hush of the place and the beautiful pale blue packaging, not to mention the total exoticism of the context). Our son, on the other hand, wanted to swim in big pools and order American snacks like loaded nachos to sun loungers. With Las Vegas being rather generously equipped with plenty of big pools and poolside menus, this wasn’t exactly a difficult task.
We stayed in the immense crystalline structures that grow near the Strip, the glass and steel tower hotels that Vegas does so well. The kids were thrilled to have an adjoining room and the luxury of their own space. The decor of the hotels we stayed at, the Vdara Hotel & Spa and Crockfords Las Vegas at Resorts World, was muted and impeccable, exactly what we wanted. The Vdara is an offshoot of the much larger ARIA Resort & Casino complex nearby, with all accommodation options being suites. It promotes itself as quiet as hotels go in Sin City, which indeed it is, because it has no casino attached, and is, therefore, a good place to be if you don’t want hubbub every time you step off the elevator on the ground floor.
The windows in both hotels were huge, and we could see the Strip, and beyond it the glinting flow of vehicles travelling to and from the suburbs and local commercial areas, the ‘other’ Vegas. Further in the distance still, the mountains lined the horizon. Owing to our jet lag, we were up early in the mornings to watch the mountains turn from dark grey to lavender and pink. Vegas exists in stark, stark contrast to the great natural beauty around it. If you can, make a trip out into the desert.
Vegas exists to provide hospitality and spectacle in a way that few other places can match, and when the city decides to show you a good time, you’re guaranteed a treat. This is a destination that prides itself on superlatives and it delivers on them every time.
The local food scene, for example, has to be one of the broadest and most interesting we’ve encountered. With our children in tow, we had dinner at The Bedford by Martha Stewart, an elegant, homey, New England-inflected place not far from the legs of a replica of the Eiffel Tower in the Paris complex; we had brunch at Sadelle’s in the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, a huge, absurdly sleek American-style brasserie on the edge of an indoor tropical forest; and dinner again at Cathédrale, a top-level, loosely Mediterranean restaurant tucked away in the corner of the Aria complex, which quietly and gracefully put some of the tastiest food in front of us that we have ever experienced.
But what most excited us was the prospect of dinner at Yardbird Table & Bar, a ‘Southern’ restaurant that does chicken served on cheese waffles with marinated chunks of watermelon and bourbon maple syrup (and cornbread, and mac & cheese, and buttermilk biscuits… you get the idea). The kids went crazy. We went crazy! This was surely the food highlight. And then, on the last day, we went to brunch at CHICA, a colourful eatery that takes Mexican food to the next level. We’d looked at the brunch menu online and started drooling, but the real thing was even better than we’d imagined. We ate lemon ricotta buñuelos and strawberry guava waffles, chorizo and arepa benedict, and Yucatecan breakfast gorditas. We wondered what paradise we had stumbled into, and later reeled out of. We may have never tasted anything better. Las Vegas is now ‘the-place-we-had-brunch-at-CHICA’.
Top row: Vdara Hotel & Spa is a relaxing retreat from the bustling streets of Las Vegas. Bottom row: Crockfords Las Vegas at Resorts World offers luxurious interiors and awe-inspiring views over Sin City.
So food-wise, the kids were easy to please in the desert city. But anyone with children knows that generally speaking, they can, at times, be tyrants for whom nothing is ever good enough. Kids can be the harshest critics in the universe. We anxiously spread the wonders of Vegas before them, hoping we wouldn’t be beheaded. Members of their extended family had taken them to Venice – the real one, in Italy. ‘Pah’, we asserted, ‘the Venice in Vegas, inside The Venetian Resort complex, is better!’.
The hotel contains the most astonishing indoor replica of the ‘City of Bridges’, including canals and gondolas, and behind the made-to-look medieval shop fronts lies pure 21st-century American commerce. Venice here is reimagined as a luxury mall: ‘Grand Canal Shoppes’ under a pretty painted turquoise sky. The effect is charming. Surely, it would be more impressive to our children than anything the real Venice has to offer. We took them on a gondola on the ‘canal’, with the gondolier singing to us, which made the experience all the more memorable. We never quite found out if the kids were more impressed by this version of Venice, or by the fact that you could ride an escalator down to find a massive casino, restaurant and bar complex directly underneath, as if you’d stepped into an alternate reality.
We also wanted to catch a show, as superstar residencies and similar extravaganzas have become a huge part of the entertainment repertoire of Las Vegas in recent years. Razzle dazzle and showmanship are of course part of the city’s DNA, and it would have been a sin to visit the city without exposing the kids to some sort of performance spectacle. We were fortunate to see ‘Mystère’ by Cirque du Soleil, which takes place in a vast performance space at Treasure Island Hotel & Casino. We turned up early to be walked around and over-awed by the backstage areas and the sets, and to meet a couple of the performers, trained acrobats who moved like jungle cats.
The show itself is a powerfully intuitive mix of acrobatics, theatre, music, drumming, and slapstick comedy. It was exhilarating to watch, much more exhilarating in fact than any of us had anticipated. Complex machinery permitted the troupe to warp space around us; the stage rose and fell and magically folded itself into different configurations. Just when we thought they couldn’t come up with anything more mind-boggling, the show surprised us by going yet a step further with death-defying stunts, musical innovation, and creative puppetry. By the end, we were all elated. Sin City had landed another solid punch.
Finally, it is well worth remembering that plenty is happening in Vegas away from the Strip – for example in the Arts District or the city’s many museums, such as the Neon Museum. We stopped for lunch at Esther’s Kitchen, a neighbourhood Italian restaurant specialising in seasonal food that stands with the best we’ve tasted anywhere in the world. After this, we went to AREA15, a barrage of futuristic attractions, events, cool shopping and dining as well as immersive experiences. It’s like visiting a retro-futuristic Mars. One of the highlights for us was the Omega Mart at Meow Wolf, a surreal (sometimes hilarious, sometimes bordering on nightmarish, but in a good way) supermarket with fake products and secret doors leading into mazes and vast hidden spaces. Whether it’s a sophisticated artistic playground or just a weird trip, we don’t know, but Omega Mart was certainly haunting, inspiring, fun, and like absolutely nothing we have ever encountered before.
What we’ll remember about Vegas: the heat, the lights, the glamour, and the unstinting warmth of our queer family’s welcome. The glorious food, of course. Looking down on the city from our hotel rooms like Gods on Olympus. And experiencing Vegas with the kids, which in and of itself showed us a side of the city that might otherwise not have been revealed. Perhaps that side was what you would call the city’s pure wondrousness. Kids have a way of bringing out the ideal in everything around them. They look at things through an enchanted lens. If you don’t have any children, we highly recommend you get some. And don’t think twice about whether or not you should take them to legendary Las Vegas.