“The Backyard” at the Green Valley Ranch Resort “The Backyard” at the Green Valley Ranch Resort

Family Friendly Winter Fun in Henderson, Nevada

Reno has its casinos and easy access to world class skiing nearby, Las Vegas has the neon lights, Carson City the capitol building and old silver mining fame. But bursting onto the scene is the bustling “silicon valley” of Nevada: Henderson (#WowValleyNV). Located just 16 miles from the Las Vegas strip, Henderson is a world away from the late-night parties. Focused on “a culture of opportunity,” this growing city is more interested in offering businesses a competitive advantage (Toyota Financial is located here and the NFL Raiders recently purchased 55 acres near the Henderson Executive Airport for its new corporate headquarters) and attracting families with its standout schools, an abundance of entertainment, dining and recreation options rather than than 24 straight hours of gambling (although they have plenty of gaming options as well).

Lion Habitat RanchLion Habitat Ranch

With a burgeoning start-up culture, the city made MONEY’s Best Places to Live 2018, for the wealth of planned suburban communities surrounded by golf courses, movie theatres, greenbelt parkways, and a population just pressing on 320,000. But it isn’t just attracting newcomers to settle down - folks who want to drop in, grab a local brew, and get outside have an abundance of outdoor opportunities to choose from. The Valley of Fire, Hoover Dam, Lake Las Vegas and the 34-mile River Mountains Loop Trail. That’s not even touching on the Cowabunga Bay Water Park (open during the summer months and opens again as Cowabunga Bay Christmas Town from the end of November to December 31st each year) and the Lion Habitat Ranch (lionhabitatranch.org) - the big cat sanctuary that provides a loving home to rescued lions (and emus, ostriches, macaws and Ozzie, Las Vegas’ first and only "giraffe-ic artist”).

Originally established for the lions related to the original MGM lions, habitat owner, designer and trainer Keith Evans acquired the sprawling 6.5-acre ranch in 1989 with the mission of “providing a loving home for all the lions in our care for the rest of their natural lives.” After the contracts with MGM expired, the nonprofit lion sanctuary opened to the public to view the lions and other animals. Voted by TripAdvisor as the No. 1 thing to do in Henderson, the Lion Habitat Ranch is now home to a number of the gorgeous big cats, including Barbary lions which have been extinct in the wild since the 1940s.

image1Upon paying a nominal admission, guests can wander the grounds to view the magnificent creatures in their enclosures. Our family wanted to take advantage of the opportunity for an even more up close and personal interaction with these amazing animals so we opted for a private “Behind the Scenes" guided tour, including a Q & A with a professional trainer (Sam is worthy of a special mention - super knowledgable and great with kids, she clearly loves her job … and the lions love her) to learn about how the ranch operates and meet some of its rescued residents (and take all the photos and video we wanted). It was a great learning experience and an unforgettable adventure for our entire family, particularly our kids, ages 10 and 11 …although I’m not sure who had more fun, the kids or me. I texted all my mom friends video clips and still shots to show their kiddos throughout the afternoon so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ranch experiences an influx of OC families in the near future.

As a nonprofit, the Lion Habitat Ranch relies on generous donations from private individuals and businesses - the annual feed of just one lion costs approximately $10,000 a year for a male lion while his female counterpart consumes about $8,000 in meat annually.

In the summer, Cowabunga Bay Water Park (cowabungabayvegas.com) attracts both locals and visitors alike for its water slides, children’s attractions, food and shopping opportunities. But in the winter, the park is transformed into a Christmas wonderland decorated with over three million sparkling lights and filled with holiday decorations, spectacular light displays, family-friendly winter activities (think Polar Express train, Jingle Bell Sledding Hill and Santa’s Cozy Cottage) and delicious holiday-inspired seasonal food and drink.

Maverick HelicopterMaverick Helicopter

My husband and son are something of adrenaline junkies, while my daughter and I are a little more cautious adventurers. I like to think I have a “healthy” fear of heights and I’m not the best air traveler. I fly because it’s the fastest way to get places, unlike my husband, who has his pilot’s license and hopes our 11-year-old son will develop this father’s love of flight. Having said that, we booked what might just be the “hottest entertainment ticket” in town - a Maverick Helicopter (maverickhelicopter.com) night flight aboard the ECO-Star helicopter over the Las Vegas Strip. We took off out of McCarran International Airport for an experience that couldn’t have been more memorable … or easier. The company sent a driver to pick us up at our hotel for a truly unique “limousine of the sky” perspective of the "Entertainment Capital of the World.”

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The "Vegas Nights Tour” is an amazing Las Vegas helicopter experience flying over the megaresorts of the Las Vegas Strip from the New York-New York skyline and the Bellagio fountains to the never-fading light of the Luxor pyramid and unparalleled views of Downtown Las Vegas’ historic Fremont Street, home to the city’s first casinos.

Where to Stay

If you’re looking for an oasis in the desert to relax for a few days, Henderson boasts in its luxury hotels - its crown jewel undoubtedly being the Mediterranean-inspired AAA Four-Diamond Green Valley Ranch Resort (greenvalleyranchresort.com). Modern luxury and perfect service await you within the beautiful resort, which opened in December 2001 as the first boutique luxury resort built off the Las Vegas Strip. In 2017, the property upped the ante with an array of large-scale renovations, including a completely reimagined all-new lobby, lobby bar, PERKS Coffee Bar and added amenities for VIP guests, along with enhanced suites. The new lobby features a separate resort entrance away from the casino floor and overlooks the property’s stunning eight-acre backyard pool area - where, I might add, our kids alternated between swimming and splashing in the “beach entry” sand bottom pool and soaking in the hot tub (the pool temperature was a little too chilly for their parents, but it certainly didn’t seem to impact the kids).

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With nearly 500 rooms and suites, the Green Valley Ranch Resort offers an elegant escape from the stresses of the strip. You can bask in the pampering and relaxation of its luxury 35,000-square-foot spa and salon, get in a workout in the state-of-the-art fitness studio, or try your hand at the newest slot, video poker or table games. Great options for adults, but when traveling with the younger set, Green Valley Ranch Resort serves up no shortage of family-friendly activities and attraction. The adjacent District showcases 50 shops, eateries and a movie theater.

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Award winning restaurants provide delicious eats to start or finish the day. Borracha features Mexican-inspired shareable plates, inventive burritos, entrees with made-from-scratch tortillas and super tasty tacos. Bottiglia offers sophisticated rustic Italian fare and herb-friendly cuisine. The Grand Cafe is open 24 hours for easy, family-friendly fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner … our son loved his fluffy “breakfast for dinner” pancakes.

Green valley ranch and casino exterior

Our Superior Double Queen room provided plenty of space to stretch out ... appointed with modern styling, thoughtful details, and comfortable accommodations. Leaving nothing to chance, the staff will ensure your stay is as relaxing and memorable as possible.

Destination Dining

For family-friendly dining, buffets are the way to go … everyone gets exactly what they want and as much of it as they can consume (which may or may not be a good thing when you’re considering your waistline). Studio B Buffet in the M Resort (themresort.com) bills itself as “more than an all-you-can-eat experience” that “makes buffet dining exciting.” I have to say this buffet featured one of the most extensive and diverse culinary offerings I have ever experienced. A huge seafood aficionado, I had my fill of delicious snow crab legs and shrimp accompanied by popular Asian specialities while my meat-eating husband made a pretty good dent in several of Studio B’s carving stations (including prime rib available every weekend). Our kids indulged in their standard favorite fare - pepperoni pizza, pasta and one or two too many sweet treats from the array of desserts created by the restaurant’s award-winning pastry chefs. I recommend perusing your options before piling your plate - there are over 300 items, including a build-your-own taco bar, dim sum, calzones, a vegan station and … wait for it … complimentary beer, wine, espresso and cappuccino to your heart’s content.

For more information, visit hendersonnow.com