Visitors to Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino's Shark Reef Aquarium can walk through a tunnel inside the 1.3-million-gallon shipwreck tank. // © 2016 Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino
Feature image (above): Classic hits such as “Smooth Criminal” are performed during “Michael Jackson One” by Cirque du Soleil. // © 2016 Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino
When the Rat Pack held court in the casinos of Las Vegas, it was the opposite of a family-friendly town. Nowadays, however, there are plenty of Vegas spots that not only allow teenagers, but welcome them.
My son Jacob was 8 years old when we first visited Las Vegas, and he thought it was too loud, too crowded and too overwhelming. But now at 15, he sees the city in a whole new way, partly because he is older, but also because the city has made an effort to attract families with teens. Here are a few of the top ways to experience Vegas with teens in tow.
WHAT TO DO
Lions, tigers and ... dolphins? Visiting a traditional zoo might not rate high on a teen’s cool meter, but in Vegas, there are exotic animals in unexpected places, which is undeniably cool. In Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay, the 1.3-million-gallon shipwreck tank is teeming with sharks, and at Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat in The Mirage hotel, teens can come face-to-face with dolphins, white tigers, white lions and leopards. Both spots have knowledgeable animal experts on hand to answer questions and provide information, which Jacob noted might even help on a biology test someday.
Admission to Shark Reef is $20 for adults and $14 for kids ages 4 to12. Admission to Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat is $22 for adults and $17 for kids ages 4 to 12. Special animal encounters are available at additional costs at both sites.
Dig This Las Vegas is a hands-on experience located just 3 miles off the strip that teens will love — especially if they don’t have their driver’s license yet.
After a safety demonstration using toy earthmovers and a sandbox, Jacob had the choice of operating a Caterpillar D5G Track-Type Bulldozer or a Caterpillar 3I5C L Hydraulic Excavator. He chose the Excavator, and within minutes, he was behind the controls of the massive machine to complete a series of progressive tasks under the supervision of an instructor via headset. He dug a trench, moved gigantic tires from one end of the site to the other and, last but certainly not least, he picked up a basketball and “shot” it into a tire.
“We have three activities, and most people will excel at all three,” said Ed Mumm, owner and founder of Dig This. “Even if someone can only do well at one or two, they still have a huge sense of accomplishment.”
And that, he says, is the key.
A 90-minute Big Dig Experience is $249 per person (clients must be age 14 or older). A 60-minute Mini Excavator Experience is $189 (clients must be age 8 or older).
WHAT TO SEE
Michael Jackson One
What do you get when you combine Michael Jackson’s biggest hits with state-of-the-art sound, lights, special effects and The King of Pop’s signature dance moves? You get “Michael Jackson One” by Cirque du Soleil at Mandalay Bay. The show combines all those elements with the death-defying acrobatics that Cirque du Soleil is known for into an immersive experience that is sure to thrill even the most jaded teens.
“It was by far the coolest thing I have ever seen live on stage,” Jacob said. “There wasn’t one thing I didn’t like about it.”
“Michael Jackson One” is an experience that teens and their parents can equally appreciate. Not only is the dancing is dazzling (including Michael’s gravity-defying lean from “Smooth Criminal”) and the light, flame and pyrotechnic effects spectacular, but the show’s storyline also follows four young “audience members” who are given Michael’s iconic costume pieces — shoes, fedora, sunglasses and, of course, the famous glove — and how it changes them.
WHERE TO EAT
Holsteins Shakes and Buns
Holsteins Shakes and Buns, located in the hip and modern The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas hotel, serves teen-friendly burgers and shakes, but takes them to a whole new level. The eatery’s funky decor sets the tone for what is expected to be a good time, but the menu guarantees it. In fact, Holsteins’ Gold Standard burger was even voted best burger on the strip. Don’t miss its pizza popcorn, which is addicting.
For Mom and Dad, Holsteins’ signature “Bam-Boozled” alcohol-infused milkshakes include the Drunken Monkey, with hazelnut liqueur, banana and Reese’s peanut-butter cups; and A-Chocolypse Now, with chocolate vodka, Oreo cookies and fudge brownie. It also serves seasonal shakes, with flavors such as pumpkin and candy cane. But no need to panic, teens: All Bam-Boozled shakes can also be ordered alcohol-free.
WHERE TO STAY
Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas
Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas was the perfect teen-friendly choice for me and my son. With no casino, the property provides a welcome break from the excitement of the city; its central location on the strip is ideal; and the fact that Jacob could control the lights and drapes from the television was an added bonus.