You don’t need a (big!) bankroll to play tourist

Jan 29, 2001 6:49 AM

Las Vegas is famous for its bargain-priced food, but tourists don’t live on bread alone. There are many attractions in town that are either free or dirt cheap.

Historically, everything has been inexpensive because the casino moguls preferred visitors spend their money at the tables. Whatever the reasoning, the result is a plethora of inexpensive things to do. Here’s a list of the best ones:

It’s no San Diego Zoo, but the Zoological Park on Rancho Road has a nice collection of animals, most native to the desert. There’s also a petting zoo that kids love. Admission is about $6 for adults and $4 for kids.

Another "hot spot" for kids is the M&M’s World on Las Vegas Blvd., adjacent to the MGM Grand. This four-story shrine to the colorful chocolate candy sells every conceivable type of memorabilia, from sweatshirts to cups to designer telephones and stuffed animals. You can also purchase single-color M&M’s in bulk, as well as a multitude of clever dispensers.

If your sweet tooth can’t get enough, head out to Henderson for the Ethel M Chocolates tour. Chocolate junkies get a look at how their favorite candies are made, plus a free sample at the end. There’s also a free tour of the Ethel M cactus gardens, an impressive collection of indigenous plants.

Hoover Dam remains an awesome spectacle, and its extensive tour ($7 for adults, $2 for kids) is one of the most fascinating in the country. The tour explores the turbine room in the "bowels" of the dam, as well as several underground caverns.

The Valley of Fire State Park is a fascinating scene, approaching the red landscape of Mars. A two-mile road through the 35,000-acre park escorts visitors past and through a number of archaeological sites. Some are open to exploration, and several include petroglyphs, reminders of the land’s ancient heritage. Admission to the park is $4 per vehicle.

Here’s a freebie virtually no one knows about: A tour of the Thunderbirds at Nellis Air Force Base. The hour-long tours are given Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. Included is a guided tour of a museum, a video presentation and chance to glimpse close-up the F-16 aircraft in their hangar.

A nice break from a shopping marathon at the Forum Shops is the Fall of Atlantis fountain show, presented (free) every hour on the hour between 10 a.m. and 11 p.m., Sunday through Thursday (until midnight, Friday and Saturday). The show features animatronic figures that come to life in a dazzling, high-tech production.

Another free fountain show is the breathtaking dancing Fountains at Bellagio. Every night, the lake in front of the hotel comes alive as water and music harmonize in a spectacular display.

Other great outdoor shows are the Pirate Battle at Treasure Island and the exploding volcano at The Mirage (both free). The pirate battle begins daily at 4 p.m. and goes off every 90 minutes until 10 p.m. (until 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday).