It's three o'clock on a blistering Nevada afternoon, and you're clinging to the edge of the craps table, praying this run of luck will continue. Do you know where your kids are? Your best bet: the pool. Las Vegas casinos all look pretty much the same once you're parked on a vinyl stool with a scotch in hand, but the pools are a different story. Some are inventive expanses with sandy beaches, pounding waterfalls, and bubbly hot tubs. Others are obligatory water-filled holes. Here, two chlorine connoisseurs test the water—and the family-friendliness—at 13 hotels along the Strip.

January 18, 2012

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.

Related: Best Pools in Las Vegas

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.

Bellagio A-
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.

 

Tropicana B+
3801 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/468-6876; www.tropicanalv.com; doubles from $100.
THE SCENE This dinosaur may be one of the Strip's least-noticed resorts, but to our surprise, we completely fell for the place. The Tropicana has five pools, two of which are linked by curves and caverns and topped by a 16-foot waterfall. There are swim-up blackjack tables with bars. The landscaping is great, too: a jungle of 200 palms. The downside: twigs and leaves in the water, especially in the not-hot hot tub.
JAMIE SAYS "That waterfall is the best!"
SWIMMABILITY 10. All the action's in the pool, from socializing to gambling.
PRICE OF A COKE $2.50
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $4.50
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES A thrice-daily show in the Tropics Lounge stars parrots and other colorful birds rollerblading, grocery shopping, and riding bikes.

 

Caesars Palace B
3570 Las Vegas Blvd. S.;800/634-6001; www.caesarspalace.com; doubles from $129.
THE SCENE Lifeguards at the Luxor and MGM Grand told us that the pool at Caesars was their favorite. But once we saw it, we could only figure they liked the prospect of glimpsing topless women. (Until Mandalay Bay copied Caesars, this was the lone Strip hotel with a sectioned-off area for bare sunbathing.) The central pool, with a soaring temple-like rotunda and fountains shooting water skyward, is a sight to behold—and a pleasure to frolic in. And the pool'smarble floor is lovely. Still, that's all there is. During our visit, the water was uncomfortably cold, while the deck got so hot that walking barefoot was almost dangerous.
JAMIE SAYS "It's pretty, but not really that great."
SWIMMABILITY 6. Brrrrrrr!
PRICE OF A COKE $2
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $5
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES At the Forum Shops, there's a 15-minute motion-simulator ride, plus two on-the-hour laser shows with fiery explosions and moving statues.

Luxor B-
3900 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/288-1000; www.luxor.com; doubles from $99.
THE SCENE Four pools with Egyptian motifs stretch across a concrete plain, with the hotel, a massive black glass pyramid, as a backdrop. One pool is edged by 20-foot pillars crowned with goat heads that spit water. The other three surround a waterfall that's been in disrepair for at least a year. The lifeguards seemed bitterly bored: one dozed, and another wore khaki shorts rather than a bathing suit. Fix the fountain and the lifeguards' attitudes, and the hotel could easily earn a B+ for variety and excellent use of its theme.
JAMIE SAYS "Is that bird poop on the broken waterfall?"
SWIMMABILITY 6. The pool with the pillars was fun.
PRICE OF A COKE $2.25
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $4.50
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES At the Pharaoh's Pavilion there's an IMAX theater, three motion-simulator rides, and a reproduction of King Tutankhamen's tomb with an audio tour. Blue Man Group performs at the Luxor Theater nightly.

Treasure Island C
3300 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/944-7444; www.treasureisland.com; doubles from $79, kids 12 and up $30.
THE SCENE Recently rechristened the "TI," the hotel has adopted a more adult bent—and as part of that process, the narrow pool lost its slide. Now it's just an average Vegas puddle, refreshing but not especially enthralling. One upshot for child safety: the lifeguards here are a bit bossy, a welcome change.
JAMIE SAYS "Aw, man, they took out the slide? That was the best part!"
SWIMMABILITY 5. Frenetic and crowded.
PRICE OF A COKE $2.25
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $4
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES The hotel was once a huge family draw thanks to the free, live-action pirate fight out front. Last October, that got replaced by a sexed-up version of questionable appropriateness for kids. Still, the scantily clad female swashbucklers aren't any more provocative than what kids see on The O.C.

Excalibur C
3850 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/937-7777; www.excalibur.com; doubles from $45, children 12 and up $15.
THE SCENE This resort prides itself on being child-friendly, but the only interesting pool feature—a small waterfall—is accompanied by a DO NOT TOUCH sign. There are two mushroom-shaped pools surrounded by pine trees, with views of one of the hotel's castle towers. To us, the water was too cold.
JAMIE SAYS "Why can't we touch the waterfall?"
SWIMMABILITY 5. A take-it-or-leave-it place.
PRICE OF A PEPSI $2.75
PRICE OF A RUM AND PEPSI $4.50
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES The King Arthur theme is enticing, and the Tournament of Kings dinner show, with its horses and live jousting, is an expensive—$50 a person—yet effective way to occupy kids for the evening.

Circus Circus C
2880 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/444-2472; www.circuscircus.com; doubles from $39.
THE SCENE The Strip's most kid-centric hotel pre-dates the mega-resort era, so we cut it some slack for having a lame, postage stamp-sized pool stuck in the parking lot. Still, with 3,000 rooms, Circus Circus ranks as one of the nation's 10 largest hotels—a lot of guests to crowd into a hole in the ground.
JAMIE SAYS "That's it?"
SWIMMABILITY 4. Hard to spread your arms, let alone play.
PRICE OF A COKE $1.75
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $3.50
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES Circus Circus's five-acre Adventuredome, the country's largest enclosed theme park, is the best non-pool means of entertaining your kids in Vegas. Highlight: the Canyon Blaster, the only existing indoor double-loop, double-corkscrew roller coaster.

New York-New York D
3790 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/693-6763; www.nynyhotelcasino.com; doubles from $69, kids 12 and up $30.
THE SCENE Whoever decided to place this skimpy pool directly below the resort's roller coaster deserves to be fired. Imagine sitting poolside and listening to the thunderous racket of the cars, followed by the charming screams of riders as they plummet—every few minutes. The view, too, is miserable: the parking garage and a sign for Interstate 15. Occasionally the resort erects a volleyball net, which would be a nice touch if it didn't split the pool in two. Also, there was too much chlorine; it stung when we opened our eyes underwater.
JAMIE SAYS "Boring, but the hot tub was hot."
SWIMMABILITY 2. Not worth going blind for. Maybe they should put a little water in the chlorine.
PRICE OF A COKE $3.50
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $5.25
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES The roller coaster that ruins the pool—a loopy thriller—is one of the best rides in town. And the arcade has bumper cars and laser tag.

The Venetian D
3355 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/283-6423; www.venetian.com; doubles from $199.
THE SCENE You would think that a resort based on a city of canals would offer a water feature second to none. You would be wrong. This $1.5 billion casino, which is one of the Strip's newest properties and is sensational in so many other ways—enormous suites, innovative gondola rides—has a pool area that's quite a letdown. To reach it you wander a maze of planters and walkways, only to find three ordinary rectangles in a big, shadeless stretch.
JAMIE SAYS "Do we have to actually go in the water to rate this one?"
SWIMMABILITY 5. At least it's not overcrowded.
PRICE OF A COKE $2.50
PRICE OF A RUM AND COKE $6
OTHER FAMILY FEATURES Kids love the gondolas (and serenading gondoliers). There's also a room-service menu with $4.25 PB&J's and $2.95 plates of fries. Just skip the pool.

STEVE FRIESS, a freelance writer, contributes regularly to Newsweek, USA Today, and the Boston Globe.

 

Admittedly, our grades are subjective: Jamie gave huge points to pools with slides and waterfalls; I tried to imagine reading a good book on deck. Nonetheless, our ratings are based on the following criteria:

 

SWIMMABILITY Is the water temperate? Does it invite us to leap in? Is there elbow (and knee) room?

DESIGN Is it innovative? Is the layout logical? Are there any special features?

SAFETY Is the pool clean?Does everything work? Are the lifeguards awake?

 

The city may currently be marketed to sinners, not second graders, but family-friendly Vegas is far from dead. Beyond the kid-oriented activities at the resorts highlighted here, the Strip is plenty playful. Here, some standouts, no ID required:

 

Gameworks (3785 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/432-4263), next to the MGM Grand, is a mammoth arcade elevated to don't-miss status by its 75-foot climbing wall (the largest freestanding indoor structure on the planet) and Wild River ride.

Browse the world's biggest refrigerator-magnet collection at the overlooked Guinness World Records Museum (2780 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/792-0640).

Two restaurants, the Nascar Café (2535 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/734-7223) and the Harley Davidson Café (3725 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702/740-4555), serve up car and bike eye candy along with $10 burgers.

Don't eat until after trying the three thrill rides at the Stratosphere (2000 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 800/998-6937). The roller coaster is the world's tallest.

Nascar Café

Harley-Davidson Café

The 1,200-pound front wheel of an enormous replica Sportster juts forth from the façade of this casual All-American eatery. Located on the Strip, the Harley Davidson Café is home to 15 custom bikes, including two previously owned by Billy Joel and Elvis, as well as celeb memorabilia such as Jon Bon Jovi's snakeskin jacket by Versace. In front of the world's heaviest American flag, consisting of 44,000 chain links, visitors savor menu favorites like the Wild Hog BBQ Plate while also watching seven classic Harley-Davidson motorcycles circulate all three floors of the restaurant on a $375,000 conveyor belt.

The Venetian

Don't let the dizzying amount of meeting and exhibition space lead you to believe that the Venetian is simply a business hotel. It has also played host to Cigar Aficionado's Big Smoke, the Adult Video Awards, and attendees of the MAGIC fashion show. The resort's Canyon Ranch SpaClub is one of the largest and best spas in North America, and the 80-plus-store Grand Canal Shoppes is worthy of an afternoon. Every one of the 4,027 rooms is designated a suite, with a sunken living room and enormous Italian-marble bathroom.

Bellagio Hotel and Casino

Most know the Bellagio for its public spaces—those fountains performing nightly, the Conservatory with its over-the-top revolving floral displays (don’t miss the Chinese New Year exhibit), and the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Arts. In 2015, Bellagio completed the $165-million-renovation of its nearly 4,000 rooms, a four-year project that culimated in the remodeling of more than 400 suites in its main tower, which overlooks the fountains.

Circus Circus, Las Vegas

Perfect for families and visitors on a budget, Circus Circus is one of the most affordable and fun-filled places to clown around on the Vegas Strip. The well-loved resort was renovated in 2009 and offers 3,770 spacious, comfy rooms as well as the Strip’s only RV park. In addition to two sparkling pools and a 40,000-square-foot shopping promenade, the hotel also features four casinos, the world’s largest permanent circus and the Adventuredome, a thrilling indoor theme park. After delighting in free spellbinding circus acts and arcade games at Carnival Midway, guests can savor a relaxing, out-of-this-world meal at THE Steakhouse.

Excalibur

Topped with colorful turrets rising high above the Strip, this castle-themed resort was the world’s largest hotel when it first opened in 1990. Although Excalibur maintains its two towers and drawbridge-covered moat, the 3,980-room resort was extensively renovated from 2006 until 2010 to create a more contemporary interior, with fewer medieval-inspired murals and more 42-inch plasma TVs. The one-of-a-kind Turret Rooms are still available, but visitors often opt for the updated Widescreen Rooms, which offer modernized furnishings and the most convenient access to the spa and pool. The ever-popular Tournament of Kings jousting dinner show continues to be a highlight.

Treasure Island

Opened in 1993 as a family-focused, pirate-themed resort, Treasure Island traded in its skull-and-crossbones designs for more a contemporary, adult-friendly look in 2003. The 2,664 guestrooms are adorned with floor-to-ceiling windows, marble bathrooms, and glamorous lighted headboards, while the 214 suites include large whirlpool tubs. Guests often spend afternoons at the pool, where they enjoy a 25-person hot tub, weekend DJ shows, and private cabanas, each of which offers an LCD TV and personal host. Treasure Island is also home to a world-class casino and Cirque du Soleil's Mystère, one of the most successful shows in the Las Vegas.

Luxor

Featuring a 30-story black glass exterior topped with the world’s brightest light beam, the Luxor is one of the most recognizable buildings on the Strip. Opened in 1993, the hotel was originally designed with an Egyptian theme, but the theme was slowly phased out during a decade-long renovation officially announced in 2006. The third-largest hotel in the world, the Luxor offers 4,400 rooms and suites lining two towers as well as the resort’s iconic pyramid. Highlights include the 120,000-square-foot casino, celeb-frequented nightspots like LAX, and acclaimed shows such as Carrot Top and Cirque du Soleil’s Criss Angel Believe.

Tropicana Las Vegas

With a history dating back to 1957, Tropicana is one of the few remaining “original” resorts on the Strip. Guests would never guess its age, however, thanks to a multimillion-dollar renovation last year. Drawing upon Miami’s South Beach for inspiration, the hotel’s island theme is tastefully cultivated with the light but pervasive scent of coconuts and 1,658 spacious guestrooms designed with bright orange and white fabrics, warm woods, and original tropical-themed artwork. Though no longer home to the popular Nikki Beach Club (it closed in 2011), the hotel casino and trendy RPM Nightclub still lure Vegas’s party crowd.

Flamingo Las Vegas

In a town where "classic" is a euphemism for "marked for implosion," Flamingo Las Vegas, which was originally owned by Bugsy Siegel in 1946, has exuberantly remade itself and become the hippest hotel on the Strip. With no signs of period kitsch, the new Go rooms have shiny white vinyl headboards that stretch to the ceiling, white mid-century-style low cabinets, and green, chocolate, and pink accents—the Flamingo's original colors. For the young and restless clientele, updates have been added where they count: MP3 docking stations, electronically controlled drapes, and 42-inch flat-screen TV's.

 

Room to Book: The best suite deals in town are on the 27th and 28th floors, where rooms have the best views of the Strip. The 1,500-square-foot Go Metropolitan Suites come with four flat-panel HDTV's, marble baths, a wet bar, and an incredible vista.

MGM Grand

The 5,000-plus-room ode to Emerald City on the south end of the Strip is massive. Home to some of the world's top chefs (Robuchon, Puck, Colicchio, Lagasse), MGM Grand also has partnerships with Hakkasan, which runs its spectacularly large club; Wet Republic, one of the most popular pool clubs in Las Vegas; and dozens and dozens of bars, retail venues, restaurants, swimming pools and Cirque du Soleil production . But MGM isn't just about size. A renovation in 2012 also brought 42 "Stay Well" rooms completely devoted to purifying the air, detoxing your body, and even eliminating sleep-disruptive electromagnetic fields.

The Mirage

With an emphasis on the exotic that pervades everything from the architecture to the tasteful tropical decor, the Mirage is one of the premier hotels on the Vegas Strip. The iconic Mirage Volcano fronts the hotel, and every evening at sunset it lights up the sky with pyrotechnics. Inside the hotel are more than 30 restaurants, lounges, and bars, including the notorious RHUMBAR, which is perfect for enjoying a stylish cocktail and even a fine cigar. The rooms are comfortably equipped, invoking rich hues and a refined, Caribbean atmosphere, and many offer great views of The Strip, the mountains, or Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat.

THEhotel at Mandalay Bay

Fashionably minimalist, THEhotel is meant to feel like a boutique hotel (though with 1,117 rooms, this is hardly the case). A non-gaming property, it adjoins Mandalay Bay but has its own lobby and check-in, full-service spa (The Bathhouse), and high-profile lounge (Mix in Las Vegas) on the top floor. Rooms, in mellow grays and tans, average a generous 725 square feet and have spacious marble-and-granite master baths with separate powder rooms, giant 42-inch plasma TV’s, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Despite the Mandalay Bay’s location right next door, THEhotel is still removed from the fray, with a contemporary art-filled lobby that always feels exclusive and clubby.

 

Caesars Palace

With nearly 4,000 rooms and suites and thousands of additional visitors flocking to the Forum Shops at Caesars and Colosseum, there’s very little people-watching here that you can’t do. It has only gotten more interesting with the opening of Nobu Hotel in late 2012 and the recent massive expansion of the Forum Shops. Back in the casino, the 600-seat Bacchanal lives up to its name, with people patronizing the seemingly endless buffet line all day and night. At night, a line snakes through the casino for entrance to the Hakkasan Group's 75,000-square-foot Omnia, its newest nightclub.

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