Contrary to its image, New York is brimming with kid-friendly finds.
The urban equivalent of white noise, the Big Apple has so much going on that neophytes can be overwhelmed to the point they have no idea where to begin, and end up doing nothing. Even better, at first glance, New York is about as anti-children as it gets. It’s big, it’s loud, and once the sun goes down, and even a little bit before, it is Over 21. At first glance.
Take it from a native: New York is a city where the double take is everything. The city, with its oh-so adult trappings, hides a bonanza for impressionable minds that still makes a New York vacation a “New York vacation.”
Get Outta Town
But there is an irony to New York: It is so big you can’t see it. The concrete canyons formed by the many towers are so deep that the fabled city skyline is obliterated entirely. The usual ways around the claustrophobic perspectives are the lookouts at the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, or Rockefeller Center, which prove you can indeed get rational people to pay $40 to stand in a line for two hours. Consider yourself warned.
On the other hand, for around the same price, the Circle Line gives a vista as top shelf as anything from the air, a nifty trick considering you are at sea level. Looping around Manhattan for the last 75 years, Circle Line river cruises thrill onlookers with panoramas of the ever-changing NYC cityscape, and with views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and bridges galore. While most sightseers opt for leisurely ferry rides, adrenaline-junkies head to The Beast, the line’s 45 mph speedboat, whose 30-minute whirlwind tour from the Upper West Side to Lady Liberty and back is an unmatched, if bumpy, intro to the city. There is even food in the deal. Who needs altitude?
Parks and Creation
But whether from the heights or from the depths, New York is BIG. Mid-range hotels like The Gem and Skyline are scattered. Chomping it all up into bite-sized pieces is not so much for ease as necessity.
And while not exactly “bite sized,” Central Park is one of the best places to start. Manhattan in microcosm, museums, and Instagram-ready moments line its outer fringe and pack its glades and meadows, all arranged with about as much order as New York will allow.
A seriously underrated gem, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan is one of the few places in New York made from the get-go for the Nickelodeon crowd. Interactive and play-oriented, the CMOM introduces New York to your kids with its NYC & Me: A Little Bite of the Big Apple exhibit wrapping New York City sights, sounds, flavors and frenzy in one clean, crisp, immersive package. Doning uniforms inspired by the real things, kids literally take over the Big Apple’s sidewalks, streets, parks, plazas, public transportation, subway, and even the sky overhead, all while learning the city from the inside out.
But when you are “with child,” the rest of Central Park’s cultural landscape takes on a whole new topography. Few will question the grandeur of the Guggenheim or Frick Collection, but they can be cerebral to the point of abstraction to a six-year-old. Far more hands-on, the American Museum of Natural History, with its meteorites, butterfly room, and dinosaurs (including a rearing barosaurus in the lobby that starts things off with a bang) introduces minds young and old to the beauty of nature on the smallest and grandest of scales. Attached to the museum is the Hayden Planetarium and you can’t miss it — a scale replica of the solar system housed inside a glass cube. Serendipitously, a straight shot across the park is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Focusing solely on the beauty of man’s creation, the Egyptian mummies, samurai swords, and winged Mesopotamian lamassu definitely get the curiosity cogs chugging.
The rearing barosaurus in the American Museum of Natural History lobby
And don’t forget Central Park itself. If your kids have a thing for Pixar, they already know the “Lung of Manhattan” for its zoo, made famous as the setting for Madagascar (the movie took a few liberties, FYI). Shot through with playgrounds, including the sparkling Heckscher, the park is particularly child-engaging. But why settle for a swing set? — the Wollman Rink doubles as an amusement park in summer and ice-skating rink in winter, and the Central Park Carousel can twirl younger generations into a New York state of mind while parents catch a breather. The true Central Park experience, however, is renting a rowboat and paddling around the sculpted shores near Bethesda Fountain.
Brian and Ferd's daughter Ella on the SeaGlass Carousel (l) and the Pier 62 Carousel
The Lullabye of Broadway
Broadway nicks the park’s southwestern corner at Columbus Circle, and a quick jaunt down its stories sidewalks plants you firmly in Times Square, and to miss the Crossroads of the World is like going to Mars and never leaving the rocket. Aside from all the selfies you will undoubted take among the no-hold-barred wattage competitions, pay close attention to the fact that Times Square flanks the Theater District. Disney spectacles such as The Lion King and Aladdin promise all the G-rated fun New York isn’t famous for.
And speaking of singing, a Times Square bonus is the Stardust Diner. Those doing “The City” on a budget will scout out Manhattan’s diners — the Waverly in Greenwich Village, the Cosmic Diner in Midtown — as they give the best burger for your buck (check out Citypass.com for discounts on the best of the city). But the Stardust is a standout for the “Anything You Can Sing I Can Sing Louder” brouhahas between waiters. It’s all in good fun and gay parents are as likely to get swept up in the melodies as much as their kids.
Treks and the City
While getting a Metrocard and downloading a subway map are the best ways around NYC, it is ironic that this is one of the most walk-friendly cities in the country. Put your kids’ hyperactivity to good use and stroll Broadway all the way down to the FiDi aka the Financial District. One of the few streets to wander through the rigid Manhattan street grid, Broadway sweeps through so many disparate neighborhoods that hoofing it is an adventure all on its own.
And a few judicious detours can spice things up. At Spring Street, hang a left and when you come to Mulberry, presto! Little Italy and the famous desserts at Ferrara. Follow Mulberry down to Canal St. and cut over again to Mott and you enter Chinatown territory. Amid the cheap qipaos and 5-for-$20 T-shirts kiosks is the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, one of the great unsung heroes of the city.
Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
In the FiDi, keep the map handy: the very southern tip of Manhattan was foundation point of New York, and the squiggle of streets prove urban planning wasn’t a big deal in 1624. Even natives get lost, but there is a plethora of “meet-here” points: the free National Museum of the American Indian, the New York Stock Exchange, and the 9/11 Memorial overlooked by the gleaming World Trade Center. In historic Battery Park is the trippy SeaGlass Carousel, an aqueous phantasmagoria of LED-lit fish-forms swirling in a setting somewhere between “The Little Mermaid” and Pink Floyd.
“But there is so much to do!” you may say. “How do I get it all in?” you may ask. That’s easy.
Plan a second trip.