You've brought your family to a vacation destination built on adult vice; the least you can do is make sure the resort where you squander your kids' inheritance entertains the whole brood. Since you can use the pool only at the hotel where you're staying, picking a good one shouldn't be a game of chance. This comprehensive examination of Strip "water features" (to use the parlance of the resort business) was conducted by a 31-year-old pool aficionado (me) and my 13-year-old "little brother," Jamie, whom I mentor through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America program. Both of us live here, so we were able to spend several weeksgetting wet—and grading the waters.
While we were taking our dips, we also took note of what else these hotels have to offer the 3.5 million families expected to visit Las Vegas this year. Children's programs, perhaps? Casino-provided babysitters? Room-service kids' menus? Sorry, not likely in Vegas, especially these days . That said, in-house aquariums, dancing fountains, and gardens housing wild animals are still the norm. As are, in this city of 110-degree summer afternoons, phenomenal pools. Dive in.
Flamingo Las Vegas A+
3555 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/732-2111; www.flamingolasvegas.com; doubles from $75.
THE SCENE Who knew one of the oldest and least elaborate casino-resorts on the Strip would have a backyard so big, so lush, and so much fun? The network of waterslides connecting three pools would have been enough, but there's also a fourth pool with a pounding 18-foot waterfall, and a fifth, more conventional and sedate pool. Even that last one is clever, with seven-foot flamingos elegantly spouting water out of their beaks.
JAMIE SAYS "We'll be back. Awesome."
SWIMMABILITY 10. The ultimate way to cool off in Vegas.
PRICE OF A COKE $2.25
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $5.50
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES African penguins, swans, macaws, and flamingos—real ones—roam free in the garden.
Mandalay Bay A+
3950 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/632-7000; www.mandalaybay.com; doubles from $149.
THE SCENE As we treaded water in the seven-foot-deep pool, waiting for the waves to start and sweep us to the sandy beach, we wondered: Why didn't anybody think of this before the Mandalay opened in 1999? There's also a lazy river, two conventional pools, and another, more secluded and quiet one.Lifeguards seemed happy and alert—a rarity on the Strip. Wet 'n Wild it's not, but for a resort trying to live up to its tropical theme, this place dances on water. The hotel has a new topless section called Moorea Beach Club for folks over 21, but it's so out of the way there's no chance for children to accidentally see anything untoward.
JAMIE SAYS "Just three more waves, okay? Please?"
SWIMMABILITY 10. You can't enjoy a good tsunami without getting soaked.
PRICE OF A PEPSI $2.75
PRICE OF A RUM AND PEPSI $5.50
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES The Shark Reef aquarium has lemon and tiger sharks, eels, and golden crocodiles.
3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/987-6667; www.bellagio.com; doubles from $159, kids 12 and up $35.
THE SCENE Elegance is the calling card of the MGM Mirage group's most upscale destination. Six pools flank a central walkway under jasmine-covered arches; each is surrounded by tall, well-groomed pines and lemon trees. Two have mushroom-like fountains for guests to sit under, proving that a resort can be classy and fun at the same time. Extra perks: free sunrise yoga, water aerobics classes at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. One significant concern, though: the water had a strangely unpleasant, salty taste.
JAMIE SAYS "Pretty, but the hot tubs aren't all that warm or bubbly."
SWIMMABILITY 7. Nice place to cool off; not much more to do in the water than that.
PRICE OF A COKE $4
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $6
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES Kids adore the dancing-water show on the 8 1/2-acre lake out front. But the rooms, with their marble entryways and plasma-screen TV's, are so opulent, Jamie was afraid he'd break something.
The Mirage A-
3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/627-6667; www.mirage.com; doubles from $79, kids 12 and up $30.
THE SCENE The first of the new generation of themed resorts plays up its Polynesian aesthetic with aplomb. The main pool winds across a 65,000-square-foot expansewith six waterfalls rolling off a grotto; it even has a section with swimming lanes. There's also a smaller, calmer family pool with threeslides. Despite the lush foliage, the place is amazingly clean.
JAMIE SAYS "The three slides are fun. Slides are important."
SWIMMABILITY 9. No mirage here: the fun is for real.
PRICE OF A COKE $2.50
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $4.75
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES Siegfried & Roy's magic show may be history, but the tigers and other creatures remain on view in their Secret Garden near the Dolphin Habitat, home to an expanding family of bottlenose dolphins. Even checking in is a blast, thanks to the fantastic aquarium in the lobby.
MGM Grand A-
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/929-1111; www.mgmgrand.com; doubles from $99, kids 12 and up $25.
THE SCENE The city's largest hotel had to have a giant water feature, if only to accommodate its capacity of 10,000 guests. The MGM Grand does: there are five pools with showbizzy names like Talent Pool; the resort goes the extra mile with a lazy river that takes almost 10 minutes to float around. The latter was, however, oppressively crowded and noisy.
JAMIE SAYS "The river just goes on and on. This rocks."
SWIMMABILITY 8.5. There's a three-lane lap pool for people who want a no-gimmicks place to exercise.
PRICE OF A COKE $2
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $5
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES Check out the Lion Habitat, where the six cats on display are descendants of Leo, one of the original MGM marquee lions.