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MIRAGE DOLPHIN HABITAT & SECRET GARDEN

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The Mirage

3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.

Las Vegas, NV 89109

702-791-7800

website

$19.95 Adults

$14.95 Children 4-12

Free Kids Under 4

Mon-Fri 11am-5:30pm

Sat-Sun 10am-5:30pm

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AT A GLANCE

What is it?

The Dolphin Habitat is a multi-pool, certified sanctuary for bottle nose dolphins while the Secret Garden is a small zoo for animals that were once featured in the Siegfried and Roy show here at the hotel before, you know, one of said animals had a disagreement with Roy. It's mainly jungle cats in the Secret Garden including the famed White Tigers.

Where is it?

At The Mirage on the Center Strip.

Is it worth the cost?

Without a doubt! This is the most un-Vegas thing in Vegas and it is worth every penny.

What else do I need to know?

For extra costs (hundreds of dollars) you can swim with the dolphins or even get the to paint with you (they hold special brushes in their mouths while you hold the canvas). Oh, and by the way, no, the tiger that ate Roy is not on display. Come on, you know you were curious.

What's the bottom line?

This is a unique diversion in Las Vegas, especially if you are into animals.

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FULL REVIEW

Since it opened with The Mirage in 1989, Siegfried & Roy's Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat have been the best un-Vegasy thing to do in on the Vegas Strip. If the general mayhem and excesses of Sin City are getting to you, come here and watch a white tiger strut or a dolphin leap and what happens in Vegas will stay somewhere outside the gates.

Originally constructed and operated as two separate facilities, the two attractions have been merged into one with a single entrance and admission. Of the two, the Dolphin Habitat should garner most of your attention.

It is easy to have some pangs of environmentally conscious guilt over the idea of dolphins in captivity, but all of the animals were either rescued or born here and it is considered to be one of the most well-run and most highly respected facilities in the world. The trainers and staff have an obvious affection and respect for their charges and the animals themselves seem to be flourishing, with some of them living well past their 30-year life expectancy (which is about double what they get to in the wild).

A regular admission gets you unlimited time around the multiple pools, where trainers regularly exercise and show the dolphins. Although there is a regular schedule of Sea World style performances, the real serene bliss comes just from hanging out poolside, watching them swim and occasionally splash or otherwise interact with people.

If you want to get more involved than just a spectator level, there are several programs that will allow you to do so. A VIP tour can be arranged for small groups taking you behind the scenes to both facilities; a Trainer for a Day program gets you into the pool as you feed, learn how to give commands, and swim with the dolphins; and the Painting with the Dolphins program unleashes a creativity streak for both you and the animals as you make a masterpiece.

I got to do the latter program and it was a blast. First, a trainer gives you the basic do's and don'ts, which add up to listen to everything the trainer says and do whatever they tell you. Dolphins don't like surprises. Next you get a blank canvas and pick your three paint colors and head toward the pool.

The trainer dips a specially crafted brush into the paint and the dolphin holds it in its mouth while you hold the canvas out over the pool. The dolphin comes up out of the water and literally paints a picture for you. Your input is mostly limited to choosing which color goes on the brush and which area of the canvas to have the dolphin focus on. It's a giddy thrill, especially since you get to keep the final product.

My dolphin painting buddy was Osborne. Check out the pictures in the gallery above.

Afterward you get some dolphin 101 from the trainer, educating you on their bodies, their habits, and even their personalities. The biggest surprise for me? That the texture of their skin feels like vinyl. You get to touch them and even issue a few basic commands. It's more fun than it has any right to be.

Prices for the painting experience start at $200 and the trainer experience starts at around $500 depending on the season. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Totally!

The Secret Garden, meanwhile, is basically a small zoo that houses animals once used (or descended from animals once used) in Siegfried & Roy's magic show that played at the hotel years. That show ended spectacularly badly when Roy had a disagreement with one of the white tigers and in case you are wondering, no, that particular tiger is not on display here.

Instead you get a menagerie of big jungle cats that mostly just lays around in the shade, which is much smarter than the idiots standing in the hot sun trying to take pictures of them. Don't get me wrong, the animals are beautiful and it's cool to see them, but it's not a terribly exciting thing. I mean it's not like you get to watch them stalking a wounded gazelle or anything.

I loved this attraction when I first visited more than 20 years ago and I still love it today.

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