The Lonesome Death of Family Vegas

Once upon a time, a tide of family-friendly spectacle swept into Sin City and soaked everything in its path. They say it’s gone forever. We’re not so sure.

Tonight in Las Vegas, we’ll drink to a bygone time. We’ll drink to the sprawling suburbs that we once thought would attract young families and keep them here from magnet school to UNLV. We’ll drink to the ghosts of lip-syncing pirates, to the skeletons of NASCAR-themed roller coasters and casinos that look like Playmobil. Tonight, we’ll drink to the memory of “family-friendly” Las Vegas.

Yes, I’m suggesting we drink to the infamous “Family Vegas” era. It deserves a proper wake now. It was born in 1990 with the opening of Excalibur, and it died hard in 2003 with the debut of R&R Partners’ “What Happens Here, Stays Here” advertising campaign. After that, children were strictly forbidden within city limits, and those who are occasionally found are promptly deported to Orlando. The end.

Except that’s not really what happened, is it? We talk about the Family Vegas era like it was a bad relationship: “The sex was great, but he/she kept trying to get me to meet the parents.” We blame Family Vegas for the destruction of the Sands, the Dunes, the Stardust. We proudly inform out-of-towners that we’ve been theme-park-free for a decade, and that we’re back to the wholesome pursuits—booze, breasts and blackjack—that we built our name on. And in just a little over a decade we’ve gone from Bellagio, whose artful façade speaks of romantic Italy, to that glass-faced nonstarter the Fontainebleau, whose un-themed and blandly immense façade says nothing at all.

It’s not that we blame Family Vegas for the mess we’re in now. We know where to level the blame: at the banks, at Macau, at this bastard of a recession. We don’t connect the foreclosures in the sprawl with the roller coasters on the Strip; we’re smarter than that. And yet, whenever we talk about City Center or the revitalization of downtown, eventually someone has to bring up that cartoonish lion that once adorned the MGM Grand, or the goofball “cinema rides” that Luxor opened with. We want to blame Family Vegas, because it was such a strange turn; it was so utterly out of character for us. A theme park? A clubhouse for Trekkies? Ridiculous. Thank the Almighty Frank we’re over that.

But we’re not. Babies are born in this city by the truckload. The family attractions of the Excalibur, New York-New York and Circus Circus are still with us, and still drawing well. And while there are fewer children visiting Las Vegas these days—according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, only 7 percent of the groups visiting town last year had someone under 21 years old in their party, down from 12 percent in 2000—the numbers aren’t that much lower. The kids are still running around underfoot, and the town hasn’t suffered a moral lapse for their continued presence. It’s kinda nice to have them around, actually; it reminds us of what we were like before we discovered Pabst Blue Ribbon.

And it’s not as if we’ve given up on developing fresh ideas to keep those kids entertained. It’s not every metropolis that plans to add two Ferris wheels and two water parks within a few mirthful minutes’ drive of each other. Gameworks may be shutting down, but two arcade bars—Fremont East’s Insert Coin(s) and the freshly minted EA Sports Bar at the Cosmopolitan—have risen to take its place, and while they’re not intended for the 21-and-under set, it’s difficult not to include them with the roller coasters, midway games and other themed stuff. (You can enjoy a cocktail while watching Ms. Pac Man do her dance, but that doesn’t make it La Femme.) Las Vegas is still all about the kids—even the 22-year-old kids looking to hold onto the joystick as long as possible.

So, here’s what I’m wondering: Why do we consider Family Vegas a misstep, even though it helped this town to explode in size? Might things have turned out differently if those theme park-style attractions in the casinos had been, you know, better? And in writing off Family Vegas as a marketing blunder, could we be making a mistake that we’re doomed to repeat?

In Praise of Disneyfication

I visited Las Vegas for the first time as a child of 8. The year was 1975. My parents brought me here with my aunt Terrie, then only a teenager herself; she babysat me at the Flamingo while my parents played the slots. We probably spent several hours together in the room, watching TV and playing Go Fish, but if I ever got bored I scarcely remember it happening.

What I do remember is seeing the lights of the Strip for the first time, and how awed I was by them. I remember the midway at Circus Circus, and I remember eating cheese blintzes from the buffet of the Silver Slipper. I remember Joshua trees and Glitter Gulch and the long, slim ribbons of white and red lights as we drove out of town.

Las Vegas is still a wonderland, an inexhaustible source of visual dazzle unrivaled by the biggest movies and loudest video games. To my eyes, the addition of roller coasters, giant castles, glass pyramids and so on have rendered Las Vegas even more wondrous than it was in 1975, and I’m a jaded 45-year-old man. I love driving the Strip; I love every fake gondola and gold-leaf lion. And I think—I know—that if an 8-year-old kid wants to enjoy this place as much as his parents do, he need only open his eyes.

In fact, that kid could even put down his PlayStation Portable and pretend he’s playing one of the Grand Theft Auto games; it’s not for nothing that the U.S. Department of Transportation declared the Strip a National Scenic Byway in 2000. Every Strip-facing address between Tropicana and Sahara corresponds with a landmark—some imposing, some cartoonish, some a little of both. It is a street wholly unlike any other in the world. And we have the Family Vegas building boom to thank for it.

I have to admit that I’ve changed my tune on this thing. While Vegas was adding family-friendly hotels and attractions, I had a front-row seat: I moved here a week before The Mirage opened its doors, and my mother was one of the “new” MGM Grand’s opening-day employees. At the time, I groused plenty about “Disneyfication,” considering it an affront in the face of Vegas’ traditional immorality. I didn’t quite understand how this town worked; I thought the city was sanding off its edges, chasing a market that couldn’t drink or gamble. I love Las Vegas, and I love Disneyland—and combining the two seemed a bit like combining church and state.

But it was never about bringing more kids here. I know that now. That streak of themed hotels, from 1990 to 1999—Excalibur, Luxor, Treasure Island, the Hard Rock, New York-New York, the Venetian, Paris—wasn’t Vegas’ way of seducing families away from Disney World, but of showing the world that Disney doesn’t own the franchise on wonderment. We re-created the themed environment of the Strip 10 times bigger and brighter than it had been before 1990 because we wanted our postcards to look better than the ones coming out of Orlando. Las Vegas always has been and always will be a competitive town, forever searching out its place in the universe of human pleasures. Before family Vegas, we were already a fantasyland, a tomorrowland, a frontierland, an adventureland; we already had our very own huge-ass hyper-American Main Street USA. The Family Vegas era just made us even more of what we already were—a city that didn’t like taking a back seat to anyone.

They Built It, We Came, We Stayed

My parents relocated to Las Vegas before I did. In 1988, they moved into an enormous house off Ann Road—in what was, back then, the far outskirts of town. They sold their modest Mission Viejo, Calif., home and purchased a Las Vegas mansion worthy of a minor dictator, with a black-rock-bottom pool and vaulted ceilings so high it took airships to clean them. When they sold that house in 1993, my father confessed to me, “It was just too much.”

I don’t know who bought that house from my parents, but I would be willing to bet that they had kids—it’s a four-bedroom house, plenty of room for whatever—and that they referred to it, perhaps jocularly, as a “used house.” I heard that term more than once during the boom of the 1990s, and it always struck me funny. I imagined new houses wrapped with a ribbon of tissue paper that read “Sanitized for Your Protection.”

Cimarron-Memorial, where my sister went to high school, opened in 1992. The landscaping had barely taken root when kids began trampling over it. A “used school” this was not. Although the Clark County School District’s enrollment numbers have grown pretty much every year for the past quarter-century or so (they’ve recently stabilized at just under 310,000 students), you really have to look at the 1990s to appreciate how well Las Vegas sold the family dream. According to a September 2011 Las Vegas Review-Journal story, the CCSD grew by more than 100,000 students between 1990 and 2000. That’s like adding a whole mid-size city, completely made up of kids.

To be sure, there are lamentable aspects to that boom: unsustainable sprawl, strained resources and, ultimately, rampant foreclosures that have made used homes into truly and profoundly used homes. But at the same time, the boom made communities where there were none before—some of which have remained fairly vibrant (Summerlin), and others that might rebound someday (The Lakes). And while it’s easy for me to say that you should live in one of Vegas’ downtown neighborhoods, the melancholy fact is that we can’t all fit into the Scotch 80s and the Huntridge. Las Vegas needs its outlying communities to survive, and it was the Family Vegas boom that built those outliers, with their fresh parks and schools.

The fact that these family enclaves were built with little consideration for the Valley’s limited water resources and no regard for the Valley’s natural topography (every time I see the way growth is creeping toward Red Rock Canyon, the veins on my temples pop right up)—those are problems we can now contend with the way other cities do, through soundly conceived legislation and the not-in-my-backyard bullshit that kills such legislation. We’re all moved in; now we get to knock down walls and rearrange the furniture. But we might never have gotten here if scores of New Parents hadn’t looked to our town and said, “How bad can it be? They’ve got roller coasters.”

OK, Yeah

Many of the attractions built during the Family Vegas era were kind of terrible. No one who visited the tiny MGM Grand Adventures Theme Park ever mistook it for Disneyland. The Luxor’s cool black-glass face concealed an assortment of lame “cinema rides” and a boat ride that showed off little but closed hotel room doors. Not even the Las Vegas Hilton’s Star Trek: The Experience, arguably the best-themed family attraction Vegas has ever seen, approached Disney’s level of commitment.

Consider the Disneyland experience: the power of the theming, the friendliness of the employees, the amount of work put into making you forget the outside world. Once you set foot on Disney property, the Mouse has you by the short hairs. Full-fledged zombie warfare could be raging outside the gates of the Magic Kingdom and you wouldn’t remotely care until it was time to walk to the car.

Vegas’ theme-park attractions were underwhelming because the entities that built them had already created a much grander theme park around them: the world’s brightest street, lined with the world’s most spectacular casinos. Imagine if Disneyland allowed the Chuck E. Cheese franchise within its gates: What would be the point? It wouldn’t increase your appreciation of Disneyland; it would only look cheap and underdone in contrast to what surrounds it.

We think of those failed attractions when we think of Family Vegas, but they were just a small part of the experience. And the attractions that survived the era—most notably Circus Circus’ Adventuredome and the terrifying rides atop the Stratosphere—don’t take anything away from the Fremont East or the continuing party on the Strip.

And you know? There are still parts of this town where you have to shield a child’s eyes from time to time. Feel free to take the kids to M&M’s World on the Strip, but whatever you do, don’t take them for a stroll immediately afterward: A recent walk from MGM Grand to Bally’s yielded two fistfuls of escort fliers, a stand selling shirts that read “Sorry, Boys, I Eat Pussy,” several appearances of that rolling escort-service biilboard and a beer-and-cigarette-scented gentleman dressed as SpongeBob. It’s actually skeevier than it was in the 1970s, when real live hookers roamed free. So there’s that.

We’re still Sin City, you know. Adults still come here and commit their various adulthoods, and the kids can still ride roller coasters, splash in the pool, see a couple of cool malls, get a quick driving tour of the Strip and retire to the hotel room happy as can be. If Las Vegas ever lost its edge, you wouldn’t know it to look around.

Don’t Look Back In Anger

The Family Vegas years made this town’s continuing second act possible. If we hadn’t rebuilt Rome with lasers, those 37 million visitors outside would be spread neatly from Atlantic City to the tribal casinos of the Santa Ynez Valley, drawn away by more convenient ways to lose their money and see Larry the Cable Guy perform. We bet that we could build a better, weirder Disneyland of this place while keeping our booze, blackjack and hookers—and we were right. We made Las Vegas crazy and playful and truly one-of-a-kind. If we hadn’t gone there, we probably wouldn’t be here now.

So let’s drink to the ghost of Family Vegas tonight: as it was, and as it ever will be. Our kids will do the same thing 20 years from now. Maybe they’ll even figure out how to build a decent theme park here.

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