Normally five-diamond hotels and resorts are priced well out of our travel budget, but the holiday off-season at Vegas allowed our family (DW, DD5, DS2, and me, DH) to sample both the Four Seasons Las Vegas and Ritz Carlton Lake Las Vegas for very reasonable rates. What follows is a lengthy comparison between the two hotels and a concluding editorial about Las Vegas as a family destination. Making the Reservations and Money Matters The process of making the reservations for both properties surprisingly emerged as a learning experience. Our initial plan was to spend all four nights at the Ritz in Lake Las Vegas, a very elegant community of hotels, timeshares, and homes located in Henderson, about a half-hour drive from the strip. The availability of a club lounge was a strong selling point as well as this propertys proximity to MonteLago Village, a charming town which offers numerous restaurants, shops, and during the holidays, a gingerbread house competition and a well-publicized, floating, ice-skating rink. At the time of booking, the first three nights were $299 and the last night was $309, plus tax and a $20 per-night resort fee which included self-parking. When we changed the reservation to spend only two nights there, I discovered the rates had dropped to $259 for the first night and $279 for the second. Checking again on a whim about a month before we left, I noticed the rates had dropped again to $239/259, which I secured. If you are staying at a Ritz Carlton property, I strongly suggest that you check their web site frequently to see if the rates have dropped. I learned from a guidebook that the Four Seasons rates were set seasonally and not adjusted for occupancy, which proved to be the case for our stay. The package was almost too good to be true for a Four Seasons hotel: for $250/night, with a two-night minimum stay, the Teddy Bear package includes a $50/ night credit to be used for anything other than the room rate or tax, two adults and two childrens admission to Shark Reef (approximately $50 value), two Four Seasons teddy bears upon check-in, one free in-room movie, and a wonderful deal at the FAO Schwarz in the Caesars Palace Forum Shops: two more free teddy bears (one per child, up to two total, regularly priced from $30-40 each) plus 20% off your total purchase. Since we were planning to go to FAO Schwarz and Shark Reef anyway, this made the effective nightly rate less than $150! Unlike the Ritz, there was no resort fee, but valet parking was $16/night. (Those wanting to save that fee can park for free at the connected Mandalay Bay hotel and walk over.) Unfortunately, there proved to be two huge catches to what would otherwise seem like a money-loser for the Four Seasons, one that hit us hard and one that we avoided. The Mandalay Bay resort during off-season has no counter-service restaurants, and getting to counter-service restaurants at adjacent hotels with two small children was no easy task, so our main option for food, particularly breakfast, was room service or the barely less-expensive Verandah restaurant, located on-property. Our dining bills alone resulted in another $250, fairly pricey for what seemed to be a deal too good to be true. The catch that we avoided was the room charge itself, as the $250 rate applies to one of only 10 deluxe rooms with king-sized beds. Even at 500 square feet, I was told when I originally tried to make the reservation on a Sunday that this was too small to accommodate two children and two adults and that we would need to reserve a superior room with two double beds, which started at $340 per night for this package. Even after checking with her manager, the on-site agent insisted that we would not be eligible for the $250 rate. My wife suggested that the best staff do not work on weekends so that I should try again the next day; score one for her. When I called back on Monday, again to the on-site reservation office, I was booked into the $250 room with no complaints. In the end, we were upgraded to that $340 room with two double beds at check-in for no additional cost (for those wondering, it was not automatic; I had to ask). Comparison of the rooms, amenities, and grounds The Four Seasons is located on the 35th-39th floors of the Mandalay Bay hotel and has a private entrance and bank of elevators. Like those of the Mandalay Bay, the rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows which can, based on the location, give pretty spectacular views. While DW was less-than-impressed with our view of the mountains and airport, DS was pretty entranced looking at the non-stop take-offs and landings, repeating like a mantra, Airplane in the sky!, with great enthusiasm. The room felt large (I think it was 550 square feet) and came with all the modern amenities you could desire. For entertainment, there was a huge plasma TV with accompanying DVD and VHS players, and the concierge has an extensive library of family films on cassette which are provided at no charge. The hotel also provided us with a microwave and fridge (in addition to the mini-bar), which we really appreciated. The children each received a plate of chocolate cacti (white and milk), chocolate chip cookies, and M&Ms, with welcome and their names written on the bottom of each in chocolate (The Ritz, for their part, presented us with a stylish box of absolutely delicious chocolate chip cookies, with a warm welcome note; Im not sure if that is an amenity also only given to families). The hotel also provided a childrens bath kit and sponges with the both childrens names spelled out and child-sized bath robes, amenities I have not seen at other hotels. Finally, they baby-proofed the desk and night-tables, which had sharp edges. Staying at the Four Seasons during the holiday season had its pros and cons. On the positive side, a gingerbread village is presented on the lobby level, complete with carousel and charming stores made of eatable treats, while on the 39th floor, the presidential suite is converted to the teddy bear suite for the month, with each room taking a different theme and packed with stuffed animals of all different kinds. DD and DW were particularly impressed. On the down side, both the Mandalay Beach, with its 11 acres of pools, and the Four Seasons own pool are closed at this time of the year, so swimming was not an option. The Ritz Carlton has an ideal location within the sprawling Lake Las Vegas complex, sitting adjacent to the MonteLago village. We were given a room on the Ponte Vecchio, which provided an ideal view of the village, skating rink, and lake. At sunset, DW observed that the view was so spectacular, the scenery didnt even look real. The room was considerably smaller (by about 100 square feet) and offered a surprisingly outdated and small conventional TV, without DVD player (though one was provided for us upon request). The club lounge made up for any deficiencies in the room, however. In addition to fruit, pastries, and other traditional breakfast items, continental breakfast in the Ritz club lounge included wonderful parfaits and smoked salmon. Lunch featured gourmet sandwiches, an elegant salad bar and side salads, and wonderful desserts, including individual pumpkin tarts and tiramisu. We never made it to the evening hors doeuvres, but the one night we sampled the desserts at the fourth food serving, we were treated to the most indulgent and enviable collection of Christmas cookies. While there were limited offerings that would entice small children at lunch, and in fact we saw one family order room service for their kids while they ate in the lounge, access to this lounge was truly a treat, and for only $50 more per night, a spectacular deal in a town of great deals. While this town might have worn out its novelty if we had stayed much longer, I think everybody enjoyed the second two nights here much more than the first two on the strip. DD and DW were particularly delighted that in spite of the cold, the pool and jacuzzi were open, and we spent several hours a day here, with only rare appearances made by other guests (though the hotel appeared to have an overall low occupancy rate). The town itself was also a treat and gave a much welcome change from the vast interiors of the strips hotel-casinos. It was a pleasure to choose from so many virtually empty restaurants in the town, making us feel much less self-conscious about eating out with two small children than we had been the previous two days. By contrast, almost all the diners even the Rainforest Café in the MGM Grand were adults, something I had never before experienced. I couldnt help but wonder, with all the wonderful restaurants in Vegas, and with no children, why would so many diners choose this restaurant normally so packed with families?! Service As I mentioned at the outset, this was our first time staying at five diamond hotels, and after experiencing many four diamond ones, it became clear by the conclusion of the trip that what distinguishes that extra diamond is service, which was exceptional and even at times extraordinary at both properties. During our first afternoon at the Four Seasons, DW observed that she felt like we were in a hospital room, with a constant stream of housekeepers, maintenance, etc., bringing in many of the things that I mentioned above. Another nice touch is that whenever we retrieved our car from valet parking, the staff had left bottled water. At the Ritz Carlton, we had an experience worth mentioning in detail which demonstrates their commitment to customer service. We had reserved an activity at the Sagebrush Ranch, and I asked the concierge in the club lounge for driving directions. I told her I didnt have an address, so she researched it and printed me out directions. After a considerable amount of driving and an even more considerable amount of frustration, we learned that the concierge had provided the wrong directions. While I suppose that it is up for debate how to apportion the blame, the Ranch maintained that they had moved two years ago, though the tickets themselves (which I did not show to the concierge) had that old address on it. In the end, my belief is that a concierge in the club level of a five diamond hotel should be relied upon to provide accurate driving directions to a place when that request is made, and the Management of the hotel agreed with me. Because I used gift certificates (courtesy of my Citibank MasterCard, which gives me 5% back for purchases made at grocery stores, gas stations, and drug stores, and I redeemed for Ritz Carlton gift certificates) to pay for the bulk of the lodging costs here, there was only a roughly $75 balance remaining, which Management zeroed out. Im quite sure that this would have been a struggle to get any kind of reimbursement from a lesser hotel, so I can recommend this propertys commitment to service without hesitation. The Question of Las Vegas as a Family-Friendly Destination The Four Seasons goes to great pains to be a family-friendly hotel, but we felt more comfortable at the Ritz, perhaps mostly due to the Lake Las Vegas resort itself. Is the strip really a family destination? Every family-friendly attraction seems attached to an elaborate obstacle course. Getting to many of them involves traversing endless casinos, and it felt uncomfortable to be with young children in these gambling areas. For that matter, it felt uncomfortable driving and walking down Las Vegas Boulevard, with its abundance of high-tech billboards selling the towns numerous adult entertainment offerings and leaving little to the imagination. More significantly, the many efforts casinos make to keep gamblers from leavingno clear directions for exiting, no clocks or sunlight, and the difficulties navigating through themare the very things that parents of young children rely on to, among other things, prevent meltdowns resulting from hunger and fatigue. It seemed like trying to find anything, be it the FAO Schwarz in the Forum Shops or the exit from the Luxors buffet, became an at times overwhelming struggle. The Four Seasons is an oasis from all of this, as they proclaim, and had we stayed at a time when the pools were open, Im sure it would have been impossible to drag the kids away. I guess thats when well visit next time. There were no such obstacles at Lake Las Vegas, where there was all but a literal welcome mat for families. There were many more children and families in the MonteLago village, but maybe that was because of the ice-skating rink. This town was so deserted that, for a while, we were the only diners in one of their many upscale restaurants, so choosing an empty corner made us feel more comfortable about eating in a somewhat elegant restaurant with small children. Even though the hotel clearly had a low occupancy at the time, we always saw other families around, either in the club lounge or in the pool, so again, this place just felt much more accessible.