Taking the kids to the Big Apple may seem like a daunting task, but New York is actually one of America's best cities for a family vacation. Almost every child knows something about New York from movies, books and television. This familiarity breeds a sense of excitement when seeing familiar popular media (see American Natural History Museum below).
New York is also great for kids because of the sheer number and variety of things they can do: museums and zoos, statues and skyscrapers, parks and beaches, boats and trains, big league sports teams and Broadway plays. You could vacation here for months and still not see everything. Given the great subway system and all those taxies and a grid pattern that makes it hard to get lost the city is easy to get around with kids.
• American Museum of Natural History
Even the most jaded kids are electrified by this treasure chest of nature, which also includes the Hayden Planetarium and an IMAX theater. Design your visit around "A Night at the Museum" scavenger hunt in which the kids try to find characters from the Adam Sandler movie from Teddy Roosevelt on his horse out front and the Pocahontas look-alike in the Plains Indians gallery to "Rex" the dinosaur and "Dum Dum" the Easter Island tiki. The food court in the basement is a great place for lunch. Your family can avoid the lines by purchasing and printing your tickets online beforehand (www.amnh.com); however, there is an additional $4 added on to the suggested admission prices when buying online. Suggested admission is $15 for adults, $8.50 for children ages 2-12, $11 for students and $11 for seniors.
• Bronx Zoo
Founded in 1899 and home base of the esteemed Wildlife Conservation Society, this zoo endures as one of the globe's great animal collections. It is known for enclosures that mimic the natural habitat of the wildlife. There are half a dozen highlights, including the Congo Gorilla Forest with its rambunctious simians, the monorail ride through the Wild Asia exhibit, the brand new Madagascar House with its leaping lemurs, and the World of Darkness for a close-up glimpse of nocturnal creatures. If there's one downside, it's the fact that several of the top attractions charge separate admission prices on top of what you pay to get into the zoo. Adults pay $15, and children pay $11 for general admission. A great deal now offered is a Total Experience ticket, priced at $27 for adults, $21 for kids (ages 3-12) and $23 for seniors, which pays for general admission along with seven admissions to the zoo's special rides and attractions.
• Central Park
The prototype big city park offers dozens of different ways to entertain kids, from something as simple as watching the squirrels to epic outdoor performances on the Great Lawn by the New York Philharmonic or al fresco Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theatre. Another top draw is the small but excellent Central Park Zoo and the adjacent Tisch Children's Zoo with its "hands-on" animals. The famous Wollman Rink, now owned by Donald Trump, offers ice skating in winter and rollerblading the rest of the year. One of the newest attractions is tethered hot-air balloon rides high above the park (July and August only). Kids and parents who want to test their skills on the park's various sports fields and ball courts can pick up a free "Discovery Day" kit with balls, bats, Frisbees etc at the North Meadow Recreation Center. A major plus of this attraction is the price it's free to see these outdoor performances, and it's also free to go squirrel-watching.
•Statue of Liberty
America's most famous lady keeps a watchful eye over New York Harbor, and you can visit her one of two ways: take a nonstop boat tour that cruises around Liberty Island, or take the National Park Service ferry from Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. There is no entrance fee to the island and statue, but the ferry runs $12 for adults, $5 for children (ages 4-12) and $10 for seniors. Reservations are highly recommended, especially on weekends, holidays and in between the months of May and September (www.statuecruises.com). Since 9/11, only the museum gallery and pedestal observation level have been open to visitors, but there is now talk of reopening the high-altitude crown observation area.
• Empire State Building
Children may not appreciate the classic Art Deco lobby or that the exterior is clad in Indiana limestone, but they'll be blown away by a view that can take in as many as five states with one sweep of your head. The building, created in 1931 and reaching 1,250 feet, according to about.com, is no longer the world's tallest building; however, it remains one of the most famous. From the classic black-and-white version of King Kong (filmed right after the building first opened) to the tear-jerking finale of Sleepless in Seattle, the "ESB" has appeared in nearly a hundred films. The New York Skyride on the second floor is a new virtual reality adventure tour of New York that "launches" from the top of the Empire State.
• Times Square
Really more a triangle than a square, New York's legendary gathering place is awesome by day or night (when it becomes a neon canyon). This is the heart of the city's theatre district, and there's always something child-friendly on the stage bill from all-time favorites like The Lion King and Wicked to newer musicals like Legally Blonde and Mary Poppins. The discount ticket kiosk is located on the "island" in the middle of Times Square (day of performance tickets only). Other attractions around the edge of the square include the giant Toys R Us store, the glass-fronted MTV TRL studio, and the forever hopping ESPN Zone.
• Metropolitan Museum of Art
This may be one of the world's great art collections, but it's often a tough slog with kids, especially those who don't have a natural interest in artistic works. If you have young kids, it is better to skip the Old Masters and head straight for the knights in shining armor, the reconstructed Egyptian temple and the modern pop art. A new addition to the Met includes "museumkids," which has programs for families and young kids, including "Learn about Color," "The Dancers and Degas" and "Childe Hassam, American Impressionist." The Met now has podcasts available on its website (www.metmuseum.org).
• Ground Zero
The giant hole where the World Trade Center twin towers once stood has become an unofficial national memorial. Tributes to those who died that day surround St. Paul's Church across the street from the viewing platform. A 1,776-foot high skyscraper and various permanent memories are planned for the sight, but squabbling between various government authorities is delaying development. While this remains a tragedy, it is an important site to see on your trip to NYC.
• Coney Island
This was Disneyland to kids a hundred years ago, a classic seaside amusement park that's equally tacky and enchanting. Among its timeless rides are the Wonder Wheel (1920) with its rocking cages, the Cyclone roller-coaster (1927) and three different bumper car arenas. The minor league Brooklyn Cyclones baseball team plays at the new KeySpan Park. And the larger of the two Nathan's eateries hosts the world championship hotdog eating contest annually on July 4th. There's also a wide, sandy beach (although be advised the offshore rip currents are often treacherous). The New York Aquarium, run by the same people as the Bronx Zoo, is yet another Coney Island attraction.
• Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
Of the city's many art collections, this is probably the most kid friendly, if for no other reason than youngsters seem to relate more to funky modern art than stuffy old portraits and religious paintings that aren't as entertaining. From Andy Warhol's iconic Campbell's Soup Cans to van Gogh's legendary Starry Night, MOMA boasts many a well-known work. When planning your vacation, make sure to remember that the MOMA is closed every Tuesday. Adults must pay $20 for admission, while seniors pay $16 and students pay $12; however, an added bonus is that anyone of age 16 and under is admitted for free.
• Rockefeller Center
Built in the 1930s, this complex of 19 buildings in Midtown Manhattan offers all sorts of distractions including its spectacular Art Deco artworks, its famous skating rink, the Top of the Rock observation deck on the 70th floor of the "30 Rock" building, and a chance to get your face on national TV as part of the early morning outdoor audience on the Today Show.
• Brooklyn Bridge
Opened in 1883 after 13 years of construction, it will not cost your family a dime to take a leisurely walk on the bridge. The elevated wooden boardwalk that runs down the middle of the span starts from Lafayette Street right behind City Hall. On the other side, you can curl around and down to Fulton Street landing and catch the water taxi back to Manhattan.
• Free Museums
Several museums are free of charge at all the times, including the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights with its vintage subway trains, trolleys and buses. Also, the National Museum of the American Indian in the old Customs House at the southern tip of Manhattan is free of charge (see Cheap in the City for more bargains).
• Street markets are another great way to entertain the kids for free, although they also may involve spending money. Some of them happen nearly every day like the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side (closed Sundays). Some of them every week like the Hells Kitchen Flea Market (every Saturday and Sunday on West 39th between 9th and 10th). Others are annual affairs. But on any given weekend, somewhere in Manhattan, some sort of street market is taking place. For a complete list, check out www.nycstreetfairs.com/sched.html.