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Lights, Glitz, and Fun on the Strip: Recommendations for a fun family vacation in Las Vegas

We recently spent 5 days in Las Vegas with our family. We hope you can use our experiences in the event you also choose to go on a Vegas vacation with your family. Our trip had highs (great hotel, fun shows, good food – we found Secret Pizza! If you’ve never heard of Secret Pizza, read on, because it rocks and is an urban legend reality that is totally unmarked and, without guidance, impossible to find) and lows (it got really crowded as New Year’s approached and the trip to the Hoover Dam was a total bust). But we made some great memories and may take the rest of Christmas break to watch Vegas Vacation, Ocean’s 11, and other classic Las Vegas movies with the kids so they can see everything they just saw on the big screen. Read on to get some of our tips how we saved tons of money on shows and our hotel, along with some of our kids’ favorite activities on the Strip (and what they found completely unappealing).

Family Travel to Las Vegas

We chose this vacation for three primary reasons: (1) The kids are off school for two weeks for Christmas vacation so we needed to getaway somewhere – anywhere – preferably with good weather because sitting around at home for two weeks is like sticking needles in your eyes (2) It’s been on our short list for a potential family vacation for quite a while (3) we found airfare and great hotel so cheap we couldn’t resist.

Over Thanksgiving we booked this trip for during Christmas week. Vegas doesn’t have any business conventions and associated space in their hotels in use this week, so prices were very reasonable. Our airfare was less than $100 RT per person, and we found a top-notch hotel with large suite rooms (over 700 square feet!) on the Strip for less than $175 a night.

Palazzo Hotel on our family vacation to Las Vegas

The Palazzo hotel. Perfect for our family vacation to Las Vegas during Christmas week.

Our Accomodations

We stayed at the Palazzo, the sister property to the Venetian. It has large, oversized suites with two queen beds and a massive separate living room with a pull-out, L-shaped couch to chill on. The Palazzo was beautiful. The carpet was clean and fresh throughout the hotel, the stonework was beautiful, and the service was great. At $175 a night, it felt like a steal. We’ve stayed in many hotels on the Strip as a couple (Wynn, Bellagio, Monte Carlo, Mandalay Bay, Luxor) and this was by far our favorite. We felt like a million bucks each night we returned to the hotel. Even though our suite faced the lights and glitz of the Strip, the suite’s auto-closing blinds made the room very dark and soundproof, so everyone slept until about 10am each day, which made it feel like a real vacation.

Palazzo hotel in Las Vegas has amazing space for a family

Our room at the Palazzo. Their suites are large enough for our family to stay comfortably in Las Vegas

The Kids’ Favorite Activities

Funny enough and not unexpectedly, near the top of our kids’ list was swimming in the hotel pool. The Palazzo has 11 pools but only one (the largest) was heated (to 85 degrees) during the winter. With sunny skies and temps in the mid to upper 60s, we swam every day for at least for a few hours. Those not swimming just chilled or read a book in the plush pool loungers. It was delightful.

The pool at the Palazzo Las Vegas overlooking the Wynn and Encore

We spent most afternoon's at the Palazzo's heated pool, with a great view of the Wynn and Encore.

Heading to the pool at the Palazzo Hotel, LAs Vegas

Caught on film! When this is the way the kids walk to the hotel pool, you know it's been a good, bonding vacation

The fountain show at the Bellagio, which is a water show with massive fountains and water spray synchronized to music, was one of the kids’ favorite daily stops. Each show (every 15-30 minutes, depending on the time of day) is set to a different song, so you can keep going back without getting bored. The Bellagio’s Conservatory (which is free to enter) is decorated each season with an elaborate floral display. Over the Christmas holiday the Bellagio had a beautiful floral display for Christmas with a giant Christmas tree, elves (made from flowers), and various other festive decorations. We visited it right in the middle of the day, so it was very crowded and hard to take photographs. If I had to do it all over again, I’d go through the display late at night when the crowds would be far less.

Bellagio hotel fountain show, one of our family's favorites during our vacation

The daily fountain shows at the Bellagio were one of our favorites from the trip.

Bellagio Conservatory at Christmas

Conservatory at the Bellagio. Their rotation this holiday season featured an elaborate Christmas display of various floral figures.

We got some great prices on evening entertainment as well. Located along the Strip are several “half-price” ticket booths that sell seats for day-of shows at steep discounts. One of our shows was to David Goldrake, a magic/illusionist, and our half-price ticket booth did not let us down. Not only were our seats awesome (fourth row, center), but the show was also running a ‘kids free’ promotion so we got a free kids ticket which each adult we ordered. So the 6 of us saw the show for about $150. The show was awesome and we were stunned by his performance. We talked the whole next morning about how did he do this, or how did he do that. And that is exactly what makes some of those shows so fun and rewarding.

Magic/Illusionist show in Las Vegas during our family vacation

Our night at David Goldrake's magic show was awesome. We were totally amazed by his tricks!

After the magic show we stopped at the Coca-Cola store, which turned out to be a total hit. The upper level had a ‘tasting area’, where you could order a tray of sample ice cream floats or sodas from around the world. The sampler platter was $10 total that included 16 different cups of soda from Greece to Thailand to Costa Rica. The samples were large enough for our entire family to share. Some we were already familiar with from our travels, while some were absolutely horrific and we hope to never have again! It was fun socializing with the surrounding tables, seeing each family’s reaction to the various worldly colas. We laughed so hard during our time in the tasting room it was definitely a highlight of the night.

Coco Cola store, Las Vegas. A highlight of our family vacation.

The international sample tray at the Coca Cola Store, Las Vegas. Best $10 we spent on the trip. Highlight of the family vacation!

Coco Cola store, Las Vegas. A bad tasting coke from some worldly place of their international sampler tray

This sample was a bit bitter. I don't expect we will buy this during our worldly journeys!

Coco Cola store, Las Vegas.

Priceless expressions of laughter

The shopping in Vegas is supreme and we visited many of the shops in some of the Strip’s most famous hotels and at the outlet mall near downtown. That was a highlight for the shoppers in our family. The Vineyard Vines outlet store is brand new and had some screaming deals. We love Vineyard Vines and the outlet store did not disappoint. We all had post-Christmas wishes flying off the shelves and into our shopping bags.

The Strip, Las Vegas on our family vacation

Caught on film again! Best part of family vacations: the bonding as the "Big 3" embrace on their walk down the Strip

We closed out the last night of our Vegas Vacation with a bang and went to Mystere, one of the Cirque shows. And like the other Cirque shows we’ve seen, it follows the usual formula – goofy clown playing with the audience prior to the show starting (which was great fun), amazing acrobatics, and a bunch of weird stuff in-between. We have no idea what the show was about (plot?) but it was fun to take the kids to a Vegas Cirque show.

The Busts: Trying to Make Lemonade Out of Lemons

After two full days on the Strip and 3 days of our vacation remaining, we knew we had to mix things up and get off the Strip for a bit. So we rented a car for the day and headed out of town.

Our plans were to visit the hoover Dam, tour Rock Canyon, and then use the car to go downtown and show the kids the Freemont Street experience. The Hoover Dam and Rock Canyon were each only a bit more than 30 minutes from our hotel. Unfortunately, our Apple maps showed what should have been a 35 minute drive to the Hoover Dam was double that (1 hour 20 min). But Apple maps lied. It was an hour 20 minutes just to get TO the massive Hoover Dam traffic. Once we got on the road leading up the Dam we spent another hour+ in traffic (we lost track of the time suck from our day) until we finally made the call to bail. We easily would have had a few more hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic to go the final 5 miles to the dam. We turned around and headed back to the Strip (by this time we already were going to miss the operating hours of the Rock Canyon Park as well).

Since we had a car, on the way to the Strip we stopped at the Ethel M Chocolate factory (I don’t think you can access this easily without a car from the Strip), where not only was the chocolate factory cool to see, but outside they have a large cactus garden with Christmas lights decorated throughout. It was magical and an absolutely beautiful scene in their “desert”. I highly recommend a trip there to anyone in Las Vegas during the Christmas holidays.

Ethel M Chocolate Factory's cactus garden decorated for Christmas.

Cactus garden at Ethel M Chocolate Factory decorated for Christmas in lights.

After the chocolate factory we headed downtown to show them the Freemont Street Experience and some of the older casinos. This turned out to be a total bust. The kids were not impressed: they found it dirty and scummy compared to the Strip and the area around our hotel, and after a short time we left and headed to our temporary home. It was interesting because with the light show and all the street performers we thought the kids would love it, but they hated just about everything about it, so strike this off any future Berger family trip to Vegas!

We swung through Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, which was located in our hotel (on the Venetian side). This particular museum seemed inferior to other Madame Tussaud’s we have been to in the past. The number of wax figures and the staging seemed a lot less compared to the last time we visited the wax museum in San Francisco. The only really cool thing about this museum was that it had a 4D theatre where we got to see a short, roughly 10-minute compilation of the Polar Express, which was an unexpected surprise, but also a little out of place since it had nothing to do with the wax museum and seemed sort of…random.

Our Dining Choices Felt More Like We Were In NYC Instead of Vegas

We quickly realized that one of the interesting things about Las Vegas is that many of the restaurants are either named after some major chef or is a chain from some of our favorite places across the US. We ate dinner at New York New York at Shake Shack (our favorite NYC fast burger-type place), and realized – much to our disbelief – we totally enjoy In-N-Out Burger more (which is our favorite west coast fast food stop). We’re Shake Shack loyalists, and will continue to be when we visit NYC, but given the choice, the price and taste was no match. Our Shake Shack bill averaged over $60 for our family. In-N-Out was less than half that (in the $20s, fully loaded with shakes and all). We did feel the Shake Shack shakes were better, but the overall value goes hands down to In-N-Out.

In N Out Burgers, Las Vegas. A family favorite and one of the best dining deals on the strip.

Our favorite west coast burger place and the best fast food on the Strip - In N Out Burger.

Shake Shack at the New York New York hotel in Las Vegas

Our normal favorite was beat out this trip by In N Out

We also ate at Carmine’s (another NYC fave) to get our Italian fix. While the food was good and consistent with our visits in New York, the prices were inflated at least 10% from NYC prices, so that seemed unnecessarily steep, considering NYC is one of the most expensive cities in the US.

We discovered our new favorite late night snack during a late night hunt for Secret Pizza. If you haven’t heard of it, there may be good reason why. It’s in the Cosmopolitan hotel, but it’s not listed on the hotel’s restaurant guide, hotel map, and doesn’t even have any signage outside of the place. As a matter of fact, it’s only accessible from a narrow hallway that looks more like service exit than a restaurant entrance. But I’ll tell you, it was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. And I’ve eaten a lot of pizza in my day. We liked it so much we made a few other midnight runs to the Cosmopolitan to get more. And more fun than getting your pizza is watching others potential patrons wander the floor with a somewhat casual blank look on their face, and then light up in delight once they see it. Their facial expression completely changes and in a quicker pace you see them march down the hallway and into line. Secret Pizza is open until 5am on weekends (4am on weeknights), and from what we saw, does a pretty healthy business during all the hours it is open. It’s not cheap ($5 a slice, about $30 for a whole pie), but we found that nothing in Vegas really is bargain anymore and this pizza is worth every penny. Just take the escalator up to the third floor of the Cosmopolitan and head straight off the escalator towards Jaleo, and the unmarked hallway entrance is just to the left, lit up with a few red neon lights and records lining the walls.

Secret Pizza, Las Vegas at the Cosmopolitan

Best pizza in Las Vegas, maybe the world. Secret Pizza at the Cosmopolitan Hotel. Try to find it. It isn't on any maps or hotel directories!

Secret Pizza, Las Vegas in the Cosmopolitan hotel

The line for Secret Pizza is long all hours of the day and can wind down most of it's hallway entrance, but it's worth it!

Final Analysis

In the end, our first Vegas family vacation was met with mixed results. Some in our family really enjoyed it, others thought it was so-so, one rated it as our second-worst vacation destination ever, and one of our daughters said she’d never go back again (even thought it had some good moments for her, Vegas just wasn’t her thing). We all really enjoyed the hotel (kudos to the Palazzo), its heated pool, and beautiful interior. The food, in our opinion, was more expensive than we ever remembered from prior trips. Some of the buffets now run upwards of $40+ per person! Even restaurants we knew well (from other cities) seemed to have a premium price on their Vegas menu compared to their other locations. Our favorite dining spots in Vegas turned out to really be our favorite restaurants from other cities. When we went outside of the chains we knew, the food was a bust (except for Secret Pizza). Luckily, we didn’t stray much because it’s hard to stay away from perennial family faves. The entertainment was good, even though we felt the Cirque show was weird. The amount of smoke in all the casinos was very bothersome (we’re not smokers), and all the theatres (which are in the hotels) made us line up for shows in advance that weaved through the casino floor, so you just couldn’t avoid that smell. We found that set-up weird considering many of these shows was geared towards kids. Vegas needs to come up with a better plan for queuing up for shows.

Overall, while I don’t think we’ll be back anytime soon as a family, Vegas did its job as a vacation destination for this year’s Christmas week.

Leaving Las Vegas for the next Escape Artist adventure

Leaving Las Vegas for the next Escape Artist's adventure

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