Although Las Vegas is now a primarily adults-only town, there was a time back in the mid-nineties when the casinos tried hard to pull off one of the greatest public relations coups ever: transforming the reputation of Vegas as a shady, crime-ridden town into one that the travel brochures actually tried describing as a “family-oriented vacation destination.”
You see, casino executives had apparently concluded that by excluding any family-oriented activities, they were missing a large chunk of potential customers; namely, those who didn’t want to bring their children to visit a city that was full of exactly the kinds of activities they had raised them to avoid.
Daring revues, hard-core gamblers, and tourists dressed in loud clothes and whooping it up drunkenly in smoke-filled casinos were all fine and good, but what was needed was an expansion of activities to attract the family market. Or so it was assumed.
Consequently, there was a massive shift to recast Vegas and gambling as a fun-filled family activity. You only had to visit any casino on the strip to see this for yourself. They all transformed themselves into entertainment complexes offering something for all age groups.
Instead of burlesque shows, there were spectacular magic shows filled with animals and state-of-the-art special effects, or, if you preferred, shows featuring medieval jousts that rival a Camelot production. In addition to smoke-filled casinos, they created no-smoking gambling areas.
Yes, there were still drunk tourists whooping it up at the craps table, but they were now joined by families whooping it up in the old-time ice cream parlor. That’s right, virtually all of the casinos added ice cream parlors. Someplace to park the kiddies while you’re at the gambling tables in a futile effort to beat the house odds (which is the one thing that didn’t change).
Actually, you didn’t have to park the kids anyplace then, as they had their own entertainment area and were allowed to walk right through the middle of the casino to get there. It was sort of disconcerting to be sitting at the blackjack table and have a nine-year-old looking over your shoulder while strolling by.
Worse yet, they kibitzed. “Don’t be stupid and hit that twelve, mister. The dealer is showing a five and that’s the worst card in the deck for him.” This was tossed at me casually by a kid who looked no older than my daughter. The pit bosses didn’t give advice this good.
The kid’s destination was usually the circus games and rides area, which in many cases rivaled the casino floor in size, complexity, and gambling opportunity. By gambling opportunity, I mean that most of the games possessed the two key elements of gambling: they cost money to play, and they offered the opportunity, however remote, of winning something.
In this case, the Holy Grail was stuffed animals and toys, rather than chips, but that didn’t mean the kids were any less serious about winning. Some of them would have put Amarillo Slim to shame with their intensity and skill. This was excellent preparation for when they became adults and could gamble for money and I guess you have to at least give the casinos credit for recognizing this.
In fact, the casinos had, by some accounts, brilliantly created a win-win situation for themselves. If you somehow miraculously came out ahead at the gambling tables, you were just as likely to give it back trying to win a stuffed animal for the kids.
“How did you do at blackjack, Honey?”
“Great! Won a hundred bucks!”
“Wonderful! Let’s use it to go to dinner.”
“We can’t. I spent it all at skeeball, trying to win that stuffed elephant. I could swear that guy running the game was the same guy I saw earlier dealing at the craps table.”
If, which is more likely, you lose at the gambling tables, you’d still try to win the stupid stuffed elephant, just to show you could win something. Sometimes it was difficult to tell which the parents tried harder at, the roulette wheel or the ring toss game. People who agonize over whether to double down on a small dollar bet at blackjack seemed to think nothing of dropping ten or twenty dollars to win that prize for little Susie.
All things considered, they would have been better off letting little Susie tell them how to win the money at the blackjack table. After all, she walked right past it all the time.
But alas, this bold experiment only lasted a few short years and then once again the slogan – and casino attitudes – returned to “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” I guess that someone finally figured out that the people visiting Vegas really were suckers and willing to happily accept higher hotel prices and worse gambling odds for the privilege of acting like a child, instead of bringing their child.
Either that or the kids got too good at the carnival games and were eating into the profits!