My wife had to leave town for the weekend, and instead of sitting around the house saying "No!" over and over again to my nineteen-month-old son Mack, I decided to take him to Vegas.

Since the late Eighties, Las Vegas--once known worldwide as Sin City--has been maneuvering to change its image. The hype says Vegas is now a family town. The nonstop booze riot? The gambling, the hookers, the cornball lounge acts? All a quaint part of history. Vegas today is supposed to be water parks, puppet shows, fake volcanoes and fun, fun, fun for the whole family. A regular Six Flags Over Fremont Street.

I was skeptical. It had been five or six years since my last trip to Vegas, and no place can change that much. This was a town built by depravity. I knew that from personal experience.

So, concerning Sin City's recent supposed "conversion," I had some questions: Are these highly touted accommodations for kid-toting visitors enacted in good faith? Is it possible for adults to have fun in Vegas if they bring kids with them? And, most important, will permanent emotional damage be done to my son Mack by putting him in such proximity to Wayne Newton?

In preparation for the trip, I requested a packet of "family fun" literature from the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. They sent me flyers advertising houseboating on Lake Mead, golf, Grand Canyon tours and a chocolate factory. None of these things struck me as attractions that might appeal to an almost-two-year-old hellion nicknamed "Bongo."

There was no question in my mind that kids of all ages could have fun in Vegas, because kids can have fun anywhere, except in school and at church. I had fun in Vegas when I was still legally a kid. Too much fun, in fact. TO ENSURE RESPONSIBLE Bongo guardianship round-the-clock during our jaunt, I recruited help. A friend of mine, a fellow working father whom we'll call "Doug," agreed to be our nanny. By the time this mob landed at McCarran International Airport, we had already spent a large portion of our almost-unlimited expense account on Huggies, and Mack's diaper bag looked like the baby-care aisle at Walgreen's.

We had a complete change of wardrobe, a bottle of liquid Children's Tylenol, the all-important runny-nose medicine, baby wipes, cookies, crayons, a coloring book, an extra pair of shoes, four bottles of Gerber's juice, a hat, a pair of baby sunglasses with one lens already missing . . . plus a steno pad, a gray pen from Phoenix Greyhound Park and a tattered paperback copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for emergency reference. Fear and Loathing, a book about the late-Sixties dope culture written by Hunter S. Thompson, has been a bad influence on several generations of writers, journalists and college students. In the book, Thompson and his Samoan attorney visit Las Vegas for several days. They trash rented cars, wreck hotel rooms, drink like fish and take dangerous drugs round-the-clock. It is one of the funniest books ever written.

Thompson likely didn't intend the work as a guidebook for careening tours of Las Vegas by the beer hippies of America--and I'm one of them--but that's how it ended up. On past trips I would've staggered off the plane and headed straight into a cab. Wild crosstown taxi rides were always part of the Vegas gestalt for me, primarily because you could carry drinks onboard, but also because the parking situation in Vegas has always been a total drag.

But cabs don't have safety seats for children, do they? For the first time in my life, I rented a car in Las Vegas, a rental equipped with a state-of-the-art car seat for Mack, who like most kiddies absolutely hates car seats for kiddies. I originally thought about requesting a giant white convertible with grossly overinflated tires as a sort of rolling homage to Fear and Loathing. Our ride this trip was a four-door, dark red Chevy. It had power windows.

We piled our junk into the sensible sedan, strapped Mack down and headed for the Strip. Our destination was the Excalibur, the zaniest new hotel in America, located at the far south end of Las Vegas Boulevard.

A THEME PARK WITH KENO girls, the Excalibur is a nutsy medieval money factory. The exterior is made to resemble a castle, with conical towers, stone facing and a large moat. The four huge room wings surround a multistory central building that houses a huge shopping-and-restaurant area, a carnival-game arcade, a jousting ring and, of course, a gigantic casino.

There are men in pantaloons everywhere. One of them took our bags. Another one of them parked our car.

Because of our unlimited expense account--and limited energy for long hikes through hot parking lots while carrying 25 pounds of squirming tax deduction--valet parking was mandatory.

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Dave Walker