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Vegas amusement parks target families

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Although the city's famed "Strip" still centers around gambling, it now also boasts a host of family-centered activities. Amusement park mania has struck the neon capital of the world.

The city has a fleet of roller coasters that rivals Six Flags' parks. There are Egyptian, Manhattan, Oz and other theme parks, plus a half-dozen museums.You can reach most of the family attractions without going through the casinos.

If you walk through casinos, you'll find smoke-filled rooms, scantily clad waitresses, thousands of one-armed bandits and crowds of adults. Families are still the minority here and likely won't feel comfortable. Gambling and families will never truly mix.

If you can cope with the downside of the presence of gambling and gamblers, your family can enjoy some great amusement park rides and food values in Las Vegas.

As Jennifer Merin of the Associated Press wrote last year, "Beat the casinos at their own game; take in the attractions, take advantage of the amenities and never bet a dollar."

We're not talking a day's worth of fun here either - it would take a week to experience all the family attractions Vegas has to offer.

My family spent about a day and a half traversing Vegas attractions in mid-September and only scratched the surface.

We stayed overnight at Circus Circus and found the usual long hike to our room. The worst part, though, was the single crackerjack elevator that served the entire southwest parking terrace.

The room was OK, but the buffet - in the world's largest restaurant - proved bigger is not always better. There was one standard price and no price break for kids. Dinner and lunch buffet lines were outrageously long and the food below average. But an early-morning breakfast was great, with no crowd.

Circus Circus closed its restaurant restrooms and I was not pleased when a security guard got upset because some of my kids were hanging out near the entrance to the casino restrooms waiting for the rest of the family.

Nevada State law prohibits minors from loitering in gaming areas, but when a casino installs wall-to-wall slot machines in places where families will linger, some flexibility should be exercised.

Pushing a stroller through casinos and on the Strip was also difficult, given the large crowds. Be prepared to walk long distances to reach all of Vegas' amenities. They're as far away as possible from parking lots.

The most thrilling ride in Vegas is New York New York's roller coaster. Kids must be at least 54 inches tall to ride this attraction and the cost is $5 for the three-minutes. It plunges 140 feet past a model of the Statue of Liberty and reaches speeds of 67 mph.

The least exciting ride for us was the High Roller at the top of the Stratosphere. Although the coaster circles the tower 900 feet above the street, its speed never exceeds 30 mph.

The best bang for your amusement-ride buck is at either MGM Grand Adventures or the Circus Circus Grand Slam Canyon.

MGM caters to older children with its big thrill rides. For $12.50 for ages 12-up and $10 for ages 2-11, this theme park offers an all-your-can-ride passport from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

It has the Grand Canyon Rapids Ride, the Over-the-Edge log ride, the Lightning Bold Coaster and a dozen other thrill rides. Lines are usually very short and in three to four hours, you could easily get your money's worth.

There are even a couple of rides for younger children - a carousel and Red Baron. MGM also has an arcade, a Burger King and other food venues.

The area is outdoors and it gets hot in summer. The world's tallest Sky Coaster costs extra.

The top indoor amusement area in Vegas is the Circus Circus Grand Slam Canyon Theme Park. This place caters more to children under age 10.

Prices go by the ride or, better yet, $15.95 for an all-day ride pass for persons 48 inches or taller and $10.95 for smaller folks.

Grand Slam has the Canyon Blaster Roller Coaster with a 48-inch height requirement, but all the other rides have a 42-inches-or-shorter requirement. There are numerous kid rides, a fossil dig sand play area, arcade and even laser tag games.

For free family evening entertainment, the pirate ship battle in front of Treasure Island and the volcano display at the Mirage can't be beat. Signs out front list the show times.

The best pure scenic view is atop the Stratosphere - the west's tallest structure. It cost $6 for adults and $3 for kids over age 3 to ride to the top - 1,000 feet up - but it's well worth the price. There are outdoor and indoor observation decks. The elevator takes about 38 seconds to ascend. Your ears will pop several times on the way down, and you'll likely have to wait for the elevator to pick you up.

The Big Shot is a gravity-defying thrill ride. The Stratosphere offers a discount for the purchase of a combination elevator ride and roller coaster/Big Shot ride tickets.

The Strato also has one of the best buffets on the strip and has plenty of room to make it family friendly.

There are more than 50 low-priced buffets in Vegas, but they all require a long walk through casinos. Breakfasts are as low as $2.99 and dinners $4.99.

Traffic along the strip is heavy and the Tropicana-Strip intersection is said to be the world's busiest, so hold onto the kids' hands.

Other attractions

- Coca-Cola Museum: a special museum on the strip next to the MGM Grand that tells the history of the soft drink company. Open daily at 10 a.m. Cost is $5 for adults and $3 for children, but there are some free admission days occasionally. The nearby Gameworks has a climbing wall and arcade.

- Wet 'N Wild water park: Located on the Strip at Sahara Avenue, the seasonal park is open May through September. It has 15 acres of water rides and slides.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

For information, reservations

Hotel Reservations Network: 800-511-5323

Las Vegas Reservation Center (an appendage of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority), which also has a showline for the current month and the following month: 1-800-332-5333

LVCVA's Web site, which has a search engine for shows and events as well as links to major hotels: (http://www.lasvegas24hours.com)

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority: 702-892-0711

Least expensive time to visit: the two weeks before Christmas and early June. "It's a challenge for us to fill our hotels," said Kevin Bagger, research analyst and Internet administrator with the LVCVA. Generally, midweek rates are lower than weekend prices.

The most expensive time to visit: during major conventions or trade shows when room rates triple.