Saturday, April 30, 2011

Autism in Sin City

This past week, my kids were on Spring Break from school. That means a respite from the daily drudgery of having all three of my kids in school -- instead they'll be home with me looking for fulfillment. O, joy!

Rather than fall victim to the boredom and the disasters that go with it, we planned our first trip to Las Vegas. Even though I've lived in California for more years than I feel like counting, I had never been there. 

But now I have three kids and my eldest is most at home inside a moving vehicle or immersed in a body of water. I thought a road trip to visit some of the west's most extravagant swimming pools would be right up our alley. And it was! We had a great time. 

In case anyone is considering such a trip, I thought I'd bang out what we learned. 

1. Plan your trip so you are in Las Vegas between a Sunday and a Wednesday. The rates for hotel rooms more than doubled on Thursday and they stay high until the bleary gamblers awaken on Sunday morning. Then they plummet again. Take advantage of the off-time and you will not only pay less, but you'll meet with fewer crowds and less competition for resources. 

2. If your drive is eight hours or longer, consider spending the night at a halfway point. For us, that was lovely downtown Bakersfield, where we found a Suite hotel for a super-reasonable price. It wasn't the Ritz, but it had every convenience (in-room fridge and microwave, indoor pool, heated hot tub, free breakfast). Even though our family could have handled the trip in one day, we've learned that doing it that way means Mom and Dad are zonked and the kids are cranky. Since we had a whole week on our hands and didn't want to arrive in Vegas until Sunday, Saturday night in Bakersfield worked out just fine. 

3.  There is a good article here about 10 great swimming pools in Las Vegas. If, like us, swimming pools are your angle, take a look. We chose two hotels (The Bellagio and Mandalay Bay) and we split our time between the two so we could try them both. Here's the upshot. 

- The Bellagio is more sophisticated and quiet. There was a sedate and polite crowd by the pool, and all were tolerant and even indulgent of my children, who were overall well-behaved. They have a hot tub which is perhaps the largest I've ever seen and the temperature was perfect. This was the main attraction for my son, who spent most of his time there (in between visits to the large pool for contrast). Even in the off-season, the hotel keeps the regular pool heated to 82 degrees. (I called to find out before booking our stay, since a chilly pool is the kiss of death to a good time for us.) 

One thing to note with the Bellagio is that getting to your rooms involves a long walk through the casino. It seems unavoidable. We have a wheelchair for our son, so we took a brisk pace right on through to our elevator. The first few times he was boggled -- it was a lot of stimulation and lights and noise and smoke -- but after he got through the gauntlet once or twice he saw its limits and he was able to cope, even look around. 

- Mandalay Bay is more of a thrill, with a wave pool, a lazy river, and a total "beach" atmosphere. The crowd was younger, the chairs filled. Popular music played over the loudspeakers. Lots of kids. Your child must be 48" tall to go in the wave pool, and there were a few disappointed youngsters watching an elder sibling jump in (including one of my girls) but the restriction was reasonably applied and the lifeguards were kind about it. Since the lazy river flowed a few feet away, consolation was at hand and ample. Did I mention that there were TONS of lifeguards on duty? I cannot leave my son unattended for fear he might stray, but if your child can be counted on to stay nearby, water safety is in good hands. The wave pool alone had four guards on duty. They heat their pools to 85 in the cooler season. 

In spite of its younger, hipper vibe, the interior of the Mandalay Bay hotel was less stimulating and less difficult than Bellagio. The lobby was not terribly crowded there and we were able to go straight to our elevator without going through casino acreage. We appreciated that!

We liked both these hotels for their different characters and we were glad we didn't spend our whole visit at either one. The frenetic quality of Mandalay was exciting and fun, but it was also a more jacked-up feeling than Bellagio, which was a relaxing respite zone. 

4. At all Vegas hotels, I highly recommend (if possible) that one adult stay in the car and another go in to handle the check in process. We found it took 20+ minutes to get things squared away and if your child likes waiting as much as mine (ha), the best move is to let one driver do some laps while you check in. You can text the room number when you have it and go from there.  

5. At the top of the Bellagio there is a free tram which runs back and forth constantly. My kids loved this and we rode it back and forth to a nearby mall several times. 

6. Be prepared (especially at Bellagio) to find that a la carte eating is just about impossible. You will not find even a coffee maker in your room -- the push is on for you to order from room service or eat in the chichi hotel restaurants. Room service was seriously pricey and chichi is out of the question for us. Eventually we discovered a cafe where we could take away sandwiches (still very expensive), or we could ride the tram to a food court populated with familiar stand-bys (McDs, Pizza, Panda Inn, Starbucks). But the hotel won't guide you there because they want to feed you themselves. 

Don't hesitate to pack a bag with some backup food if you can. But if you want a microwave you will need to stay in a different kind of hotel. The Suite places exist near the strip but they will not have the killer pools of these big ticket places. We requested an empty fridge in our room for medical use and they gladly accommodated us at both hotels. You'll find that all the rooms have already-full fridges with mini-bar prices. If you pick anything up off it's weighted place, you'll get charged for it. 

7. There is a lot to do in Las Vegas, from arcades to roller coasters to lavish shows. The idea of it will seem tempting or overwhelming depending on your family. But start with what you know works for your set. You don't have to try everything. If you know swimming is your bag as we did, you don't "have to" sit through a Cirque du Soleil. If there are things that tempt you, schedule them in and give it a try. But don't spend so much money that you'll feel angry or upset if your child gets overwhelmed and you need to leave. 

8. Last lesson learned the hard way: Don't keep your room key in the same pocket as your cell phone! That erases the magnetization and you are locked out with all the hassle that implies. 

We came and went from Las Vegas without betting a single chip or taking in any show. No problem. We left feeling exultant -- we had a great break. We're home again and it's a hop, skip, and a jump to school on Monday and we made it! 

Riding the Tram

Coasting the Lazy River (Mandalay Bay)

Beautiful drive all the way

Susan Walton is the author of Coloring Outside Autism's Linesa practical book about ways to have fun at home, with friends, in the community, during holidays and on vacation. It also gives practical advice to friends and family about being part of the fun. On sale now at Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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