Disney meets Vegas: Atlantis in Bahamas can be (very) pricey, but offers a lot for families

photo Ewan Abercrombie, 11, particularly enjoyed the dolphins.

Time was, my wife Gail and I couldn't get our toddler son to go anywhere. Especially if it involved running errands.

These days, 11-year-old Ewan still hates shopping but wants to go everywhere so when we asked him where he'd like to go last summer vacation, he said, "How about Paris?"

Fair enough. We'd taken him in recent years to Italy and Scotland. But for this trip my wife and I wanted something much closer. In the end, we settled on Atlantis Paradise Island, a resort and amusement park in the Bahamas. Less than a couple hours by plane from Tampa, where we live, Atlantis promised something for all of us: An exotic locale, good food and wine and lots of waterpark rides and opportunities for our critter-crazed son to interact with all manner of animals, including dolphins.

What's more, because Atlantis is located on its own island, my wife and I could breathe easier knowing our son quite literally couldn't get lost in a foreign country.

photo A aerial view of Atlantis, Aquaventure, The Cove and The Reef.

One day in June, we flew from Tampa to Miami, where we caught a turboprop plane to hop the last few hundred miles over turquoise ocean to Nassau, located on the Bahamanian island of New Providence. On the short cab ride from the airport to Atlantis, Ewan was delighted to find that locals drive on the left side of the road, "just like in Scotland."

Reachable from New Providence by a bridge or boat, Atlantis is big even as mega-resorts go. We're talking 171 acres of Texas-size fun for adults and kids alike, including the biggest casino and water park in the Caribbean. Atlantis also boasts that it has the largest open-air aquarium in the world.

As my wife and I soon decide, though, Atlantis is what would happen if Walt Disney World and Las Vegas eloped in the Caribbean.

Atlantis does not offer all-inclusive deals, but it does have package deals and dining plans. Adult dining plans run from $89 to $149 per day and kids under 12 eat free with the purchase of each adult dining plan. Be forewarned, though, there's a 15 percent gratuity added in for all food so don't double tip. And Atlantis also charges extra for such amenities as the gym, Wi-Fi and other items.

What you pay for the room depends on where you stay. Atlantis has six different hotels on its island, and prices vary between them. For two adults and one child looking to go in January, for instance, costs range from about $570 per night at the Reef to $237 per night at Beach Tower. Those prices came directly from Atlantis' website, and they're cheaper than those found at priceline.com, but it's always a good idea to check several travel sites.

After we check into our sky-high room at The Reef Atlantis, among the snazziest of the sprawling compound's half dozen hotels, we head for lunch downstairs at Mosaic, billed as a Mediterranean-influenced casual restaurant. Deciding what to eat from buffet that seems to stretch for acres is daunting, but after a taste of sliced sirloin, Ewan declares it the "best steak ever." At nearly $70 a plate, Mosaic - like most of the 40 restaurants and bars on the island - isn't for the faint of wallet.

An hour later, we've changed into swimsuits, which will be our standard garb over the next couple days. Even for folks spoiled by regular visits to the picturesque beaches of Florida's Gulf Coast, we marvel at the sugar powder sand and emerald waters of the Bahamian seaside.

Naturally, Ewan is eager to hit the water park. Gail and I are game for the tamer rides, like the mile-long Lazy River Ride, just a meandering float. We join a flotilla of kids and grownups slowly bobbing on bright-blue inner tubes along an artificial river that snakes through the property. But when it comes to the bigger thrills - which for Gail and me means most everything else - we decide instead to take a break for adult drinks, seemingly available every few yards throughout the resort. Tropical rum tipples in hand, we watch while Ewan plunges 60 feet from a waterslide made to look like a Mayan temple and into a clear tube running through a shark tank. Of all the water rides he'll sample this weekend, Ewan says this one is the, "most awesome."

Over the rest of the day, we wander the park, dipping into any of the resort's 19 swimming pools when we need to cool off. By evening, waterlogged but happy, we opt for a quick bite at Virgil's Real Barbeque and an in-room kid's flick.

The next morning, Ewan is awake earlier than most weekends. But then, he knows we've scheduled a Shallow Water Interaction experience for us at Dolphin Cay, a 14-acre outdoor aquarium that's home to sea creatures such as dolphins and sea lions. Squeezed into wetsuits, we stand waist-deep in cool water, coaxing frisky bottlenose dolphins to perform tricks, and rewarding them with fish treats and hugs.

Before Ewan has kissed his new dolphin pal goodbye, Gail and I decide to indulge him again, this time with a Deep Water Swim adventure. Soon, Ewan is using a hand-held water scooter to glide alongside dolphins underwater. A finale involving a dolphin propelling him like a speedboat through the water by pushing his foot with his snout has Ewan grinning all the way back to our hotel.

Atlantis may attract its share of devoted gamblers, but I visit one of the resort's three casinos only because it's a shortcut to reach the shop where I can buy a Cuban cigar, legal here. If not for the windows, you could be in most any big-time casino in the world.

Looking for a break from the sun, we also check out some indoor activities, which for kids includes everything from pottery classes and video arcades, to culinary classes and kids-only nightclubs. The typically teens-only nightspot Crush opens to a younger crowd earlier in the evening. Pre-teen that he is, Ewan shuns the dance floor for a turn at the floor-to-ceiling gaming tree festooned with two dozen gaming consoles.

It is true, just as the brochures say, that there are many adult after-dark attractions here. But after another fun, but tiring day, Gail and I skip the nightclub scene for the balcony. Ewan joins us to watch the sunset. We agree for the umpteenth time this weekend that the near-constant Caribbean breeze feels wonderful.

"This is even nicer than Florida," Ewan says.

By the time we're packed and heading back to the airport, we're already planning to come back.

"Next time, let's do even more stuff with dolphins," Ewan says.

Paul Abercrombie is a former newspaper reporter who has written travel articles for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Tampa Tribune, ESPN and National Geographic Traveler, among others.