Try as Las Vegas might to put a naughty, what-happens-here veneer on the Strip, more children than ever are schlepping into town – either with families or alone as teenagers trying to pass as young adults.
Tourism statistics indicate that the proportion of Las Vegas visitors who are under 21 is 50 percent higher than in the early 1990s when Las Vegas began to open its arms to families with children.
Resort operators have since distanced themselves from that strategy, although an estimated 3.5 million children descended on Las Vegas last year. The number is expected to continue rising as the total tourist population grows.
This is putting added pressure on casino operators to keep children away from slot machines at a time when some casinos say they have fewer employees around the banks of slot machines to keep an eye on wayward youngsters. Casinos have reduced the number of employees after the advent of paper tickets and redemption machines, which made coin changers all but obsolete.
Exacerbating the problem is that Las Vegas, with its world-class nightlife, ‚round the clock poker games and a hip, celebrity-driven culture exposed on television and in movies, is drawing wannabe partyers who aren’t yet 21.
„There are girls who are 15, 16 and 17 who look like they are 25,“ said Arnie Wexler, who runs a national hotline for gambling addicts. Wexler, based in New Jersey, speaks to high school students about problem gambling during the National Youth Basketball Championship in Las Vegas. „Girls are driving in for the weekend and walking through the casinos and in the lobbies. They aren’t necessarily gambling. They’re here for the partying.“
Operators say they’re sensitive to the presence of minors, who are not only barred from loitering near gambling devices but whose presence annoys gamblers.
„As the tourism base expanded, we started to hear complaints from folks,“ MGM Mirage spokesman Alan Feldman said. Steve Wynn’s ban on strollers at the Bellagio, which has since been lifted, was one reaction to the child backlash, he said.
Over time, however, the presence of children and the constant monitoring of minors have become „more a part of our culture,“ Feldman said.
„I think there are fewer instances of people who are confused“ by what the rules are, he said.
Las Vegas, where casinos were originally designed to force patrons to walk by gambling areas to reach lobbies, restaurants and other public areas, has among the loosest casino restrictions for minors in the country. In Atlantic City, which has relaxed its once widespread practice of banning kids from gambling floors, several casinos still post security at key entrances and request that minors take roundabout routes to reach nongambling areas.
But the culture is different in Nevada.
Gambling „is in our grocery stores and it’s in the 7-Elevens,“ said Steve DuCharme, a gaming consultant who served on the Gaming Control Board in the 1990s. „Kids are exposed to it constantly. As long as they were traversing the casino floor and not loitering, it wasn’t much of a concern. Nevada regulators have not felt a minor is going to be instantly corrupted simply by standing near a slot machine.“
Nevada law prevents people under 21 from gambling or loitering in gaming areas but allows minors to walk through casinos. Signs that explain the rules for children and their parents are few and far between.
„Most people don’t get it – that you can’t stand here but you can walk through here,“ said Jeff Voyles, an adjunct professor of casino management at UNLV and an MGM Mirage executive. „They will look confused and say, ‚Whatever, just tell me where the McDonald’s is,‘ “ he said.
By some measures, casinos have brought the problem on themselves. While tag-along children have been the bane of security guards for decades, Strip resorts in the 1990s opened attractions that catered to families – including roller coasters, large game arcades and animal exhibits. With the opening of new hotels, there are more all-ages attractions than ever before.
Some older, G-rated attractions had been removed or scaled back – replaced with nightclubs and other adult-only fare – but by then, Las Vegas had already given the impression of being child-friendly. Dad brought the wife and children along on his business trips, knowing the gang could entertain itself while he worked.
Indeed, marketing Las Vegas to the masses worked better than expected. It ushered in more strollers and bookings by family-oriented groups such as college reunions. Children were allowed to stay up past their bedtime. It gave teens a peek at what adult life could be like and casinos an opportunity to show their wares to the next generation.
Arkansas resident Candy Wright, who recently stayed at the Bellagio, says her Vegas vacations have turned into an exercise in „dodging kids.“
„That ‚adult‘ vacation feeling that once was Vegas is long gone,“ said Wright, who doesn’t have children. „They crowd the lobbies, the elevators and escalators, the restaurants, the sidewalks.“
„Parents,“ she said, lose track of their youngsters because they are „in their own dream world.“
Parents justify parading their children around by saying the Strip is a giant, showy pedestrian mall with family-friendly attractions. They want to include their kids on vacations .
„There’s lots of things for kids,“ said one mother, towing two small children through the Luxor just before midnight. „We just got into town,“ she said of the late hour.
The same night, a man with a baby and a toddler entered the Palms. The guard who has been carding nearly everyone walking through the side entrance (he says he cards anyone who looks under 30) lets him pass to get to the tattoo parlor, which even at the late hour allows children.
The man says he doesn’t see anything wrong with toting kids into the casino because at least they are with him and not left untended in the car.
The volume of people walking through casinos makes further efforts to restrict children almost impossible.
Casinos could enclose slots behind walls or velvet rope, beef up security and design walkways that don’t go through gambling areas.
Some say child-care facilities, already located in many off-Strip resorts, are the best solution for handling small children and misguided parents at the same time.
But that sends a mixed message.
„We’re not trying to encourage kids to come here who are under 21,“ Feldman said. „There’s a fine line when you start dedicating space to a child-care facility.“
Casinos are required to take „reasonable steps“ to prevent minors from gambling and loitering, said Scott Scherer, a Carson City-based gaming attorney who left the Gaming Control Board last year. „They could cordon off casinos and have security guards at each entrance carding people. But unless they go back and require major renovations. I don’t know that there’s much more they can do.“
Bobby Siller, the Gaming Control Board’s top law enforcement official, says casinos do a „pretty good job“ of keeping minors off the floor.
„In these other states, regulators are on the property 24 hours a day,“ Siller said. „They only have 11 casinos and in some cases, one or two, and the regulators are right there. So they’ll see more of those things and jump on them a little bit quicker. We rely on our licensees to self-regulate, and if we see a pattern where they’re neglecting the self-regulation, we step in.“
With few warning signs posted , controlling children is left up to parents‘ common sense. Should that fail, casino workers who are trained to function more like information booth greeters than a police force step in.
„There’s a fine line between offering the Vegas experience and scaring or intimidating people,“ Voyles said. „You have to be subtle about it – you don’t want to embarrass people. The goal is to make people happy and keep them moving through the casino.“
There is little incentive for casinos to aggressively police their floors. Nevada regulators have issued only a handful of fines even though violating the age requirement has been a criminal misdemeanor since 1955. The first weren’t leveled until the 1990s.
In 1987, a 19-year-old boy won a slot jackpot of more than USD 1 million at Caesars Palace. The boy’s family lost a lawsuit, pursued through a federal appeals court, to keep the prize. Caesars wasn’t fined for allowing the boy to gamble.
I. Nelson Rose, a California-based attorney and gaming expert who represented the family, argued in court that the boy and other children were gambling because the property had no economic incentive to refuse them.
„Caesars had this unwritten rule that if a kid won USD 5,000 they’d pay the kid and kick him out, and if it was over USD 5,000 they’d keep the money and kick the kid out,“ Rose said. „Either way, they weren’t being fined. The Gaming Control Board was leaving that decision (about how to handle kids) up to the casinos.“
These days, Rose said, casinos should be – and perhaps are – more careful about carding minors. „If anything would lead to the outlawing of casinos it would be this idea that they are exploiting children,“ he said.
In 1994, while family-friendly hype was at its height, the Gaming Control Board sent a letter to casino operators putting them on watch that minors who were caught gambling or loitering would result in disciplinary action.
DuCharme, then on the board, said regulators were concerned about the layout of the recently opened MGM Grand, where crowds of families had to walk through the casino to get to its amusement park. Resort officials, who eventually closed the park, said they would be on watch for children.
Operators say the industry’s biggest wake-up call came in 1997, when a 7-year-old girl was killed after her father left her unattended in an arcade at the Primm Valley casino. Clark County passed an ordinance restricting arcade hours for children under 18 and requiring security guards in arcades. Many arcades that formerly stayed open 24 hours began to close late at night.
In 1998, the Las Vegas Hilton was fined USD 350,000 – the largest involving minors – for allowing kids to loiter in the casino while they waited hours to ride a Star Trek amusement ride.
The Star Trek incident led some to scrutinize their casinos more closely. The Mirage, for example, installed a lighter-colored carpet running through the casino and around the perimeter, making it easier for children and families to follow.
Casinos say the primary job of catching kids falls to security – ranks that have remained constant, and in some cases increased after 9/11.
That’s especially true at kid-magnet Circus Circus, where a proactive security force keeps children in line but where the protection of those children, like it is everywhere , is up to parents.
Like military sentries, security guards walk the perimeter of the „red zone,“ or casino pit, as families with kids pass by a few feet away. Other guards are posted in areas where stairs to the second-floor arcade spill into the casino. They are in constant motion, telling parents to keep moving through the casino and finding parents of wandering kids.
After midnight on a recent weekend, the place hummed with squealing children, some whining as they walked through the casino, arcade prizes in hand. Others sat along a wall facing the busy casino pit where their parents gamble. Some squirmed and others sat silently, eyelids drooping or fast asleep, their mouths hanging open.