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Vegas, baby. Really — what to do in Sin City with your toddler

Vegas, baby! Some tips on how to have free or inexpensive fun safely with your toddlers in Sin City

My husband's line of work often brings him to Las Vegas, so we — "we" meaning my 19-month-old daughter and I — often accompany him.

At first, I kept us holed up in our hotel room, wary of the many reasons not to be in Sin City with an infant: pervasive smoke, infrastructure that's not stroller-friendly and, in summer, unforgiving heat and sun.

Eventually, though, we discovered that Las Vegas can be a fun and safe place for babies. After talking to local parents (my husband's co-workers), doing some Internet research and conducting our own trial and error, I learned what works and what doesn't. Here's our scorecard:

What works

Bellagio's Conservatory & Botanical Gardens was a wonderland. You can easily traverse its walkways with a stroller, but the space isn't so large that you can't park it nearby and hold your child while she sees and smells tens of thousands of flowers. The displays are whimsical and change every few months. When we were there last, it was explosively colorful, with dynamic water features and live butterflies in a greenhouse. Afterward, catch the famous Fountains of Bellagio show. My daughter was less impressed by this spectacle than we thought she would be, but older kids appeared dazzled.

Info: Gardens and fountain show are both free. http://www.bellagio.com

Both she and my husband were as agape as the fish at Mandalay Bay's Shark Reef Aquarium. Their amazement was stoked by the vast array of deep-sea creatures, including tropical species and, of course, sharks. We parked her stroller in front of the massive glass walls and let her gaze contentedly.

Info: $18 for adults; free for ages 4 and younger. http://www.sharkreef.com

If you're looking for an activity away from the hustle of the Strip, drive less than eight miles to Springs Preserve. This nonprofit attraction is delightful from start to finish, with a slow-moving, open-air train ride that shows off the natural desert landscape, performances geared for children (we attended a bird show that made my baby squeal with delight), a daily story time, craft and animal exhibits and an imaginatively designed playground. We spent a full day here and could easily have stayed longer.

Info: $18.95 for adults; free for ages 4 and younger. http://www.springspreserve.org

Another fabulous off-the-Strip option is Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, a 17-mile drive. Bring a baby backpack and take the easy 3/4-mile Lost Creek trail to see the Mars-red earth, petroglyphs and a thin but lovely waterfall.

Info: $7 per vehicle. http://www.redrockcanyonlv.org

During our most recent stay, we booked a room for less than $40 a night at Circus Circus. When we told friends, they laughed. But its upgraded guest rooms are quite comfortable, and the big-top shows were a blast to watch.

Skip the on-site Adventuredome Theme Park, though — it's for bigger kids.

We've also stayed at Mandalay Bay, which was enjoyable. Most, if not all, hotels will provide a crib free of charge (just ask), so you can leave the Pack 'N Play at home. And wherever you stay, insist on a nonsmoking room.

Info: http://www.circuscircus.com, http://www.mandalaybay.com

Our favorite meal was at the MGM Grand's Rainforest Cafe. There was so much to marvel at: intricate jungle decor, animatronic animals, impressive fish tanks and the "thunderstorm" that commanded the room every 25 minutes. The food is good, the drinks are strong, the kids' menu is extensive (for a kids' menu), the service is kind and attentive, and the ambient noise is loud enough so that a toddler banging his silverware won't bother anyone.

Info: http://www.rainforestcafe.com

At Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage, our daughter got to pet a macaw, watch dolphins for as long as she liked, giggle at baby tigers batting around a pumpkin and admire loafing lions. As a bonus, when she gets older she can say that she has a baby selfie with a decked-out Siegfried Fischbacher. (We spotted him milling among his guests.)

Info: $19.95 for adults; free for ages 3 and younger. http://www.miragehabitat.com

The Flamingo's Wildlife Habitat looks a bit faded, but a child will see only the park-like surroundings and the regal pink birds, the swans and ringed teal ducks floating atop a small man-made lake. Try to catch one of two daily feedings.

Info: Free. http://www.lat.ms/1Baq6Rn

Fly Spirit Airlines. I've heard horror stories about this super-budget carrier that charges you for anything extra. But I was able to fly from LAX to McCarran for — I kid you not — $34.10 with no problems. The infant on my lap was free, and the flight attendants were as nice as could be.

Info: http://www.spirit.com

What doesn't work

Walking the Strip. We learned this the hard way: Pushing your kid's stroller along Las Vegas Boulevard is not a good idea. The sidewalks aren't well-suited to wheels, and you must pivot into elevators, onto escalators and across bridges. Instead of walking, drive directly to your destination (it's better to drive to Vegas or check your baby's car seat on the plane and rent a car), or book a hotel near where you want to be.

Seeing a show. Not much here that's toddler-friendly. Shows that might be fine for older kids aren't so good for babies. Blue Man Group is too loud. Cirque du Soleil's shows are too frenetic.

Upscale dining. Save the Michelin stars for when it's just the two of you.

Fremont Street Experience. Skip the nightly light show. My husband scoped it out and reported that it's basically a street party with all the attendant vices.

M&M's World. Someone recommended this to us as a good baby activity. Don't go. It's not worth the effort.

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