New York City has been a favorite destination of mine for decades and it’s fun for me to see how the city has changed over the years. I know a lot of people who don’t want to go to NYC today because they’re old enough to remember its not-so-distant dark past. In the 70s and 80s, the dangerous city warned people away as it hovered near bankruptcy, cutting firefighters and police officers to the quick and cautioning people that being out after 6 PM meant risking your life. Looking back, I should have been afraid, too, but having earned a lifetime membership in the International Thespian Society as a kid, MY New York got its heartbeat from its theatre. It never occurred to me that maybe New York wasn’t the place to travel with kids.
Luckily (and with a great deal of strong leadership and hard work), real change from a tourism perspective began to show around the late 90s. By the time our older (now 26 and 28 years old) kids were old enough to start appreciating travel, taking kids to New York was considered relatively safe, so long as you took certain safeguards. Interestingly, the first time I took my kids to New York was the first time I ever felt a pang of nervousness and a genuine awareness of which neighborhoods we visited at which time of day. We avoided Central Park and only used the subway once (just to show them what it was like).
Today, I have no qualms whatsoever taking kids to New York. Obviously, parents must take the same general, common-sense precautions they should when traveling with children to any big city, but I would, and have, visit all five boroughs with kids. Perhaps a sign of the times, however — we had to have an impromptu Internet Safety lesson when we realized our stalker was tracking our every move on our son’s (now private) Instagram account. While we’re well-practiced at obscuring personal details to throw the stalker off our scent (I’m rarely where the Internet says I am at the time of my posts), we had neglected to share these good online habits with the kids. Once we got back off the grid, we all felt perfectly safe everywhere we went in the city.
Now we have learned over the course of many family vacations that life is easier of you settle a couple of things before you ever leave home. One, every child gets a set amount of spending money that they may spend however they wish. This eliminates any “will you buy me… (ice cream, toy, etc.)” conversations and meltdowns. Two, have each person select one “must-do” thing that interests them, and then fit in other small things around those plans as we had time and interest. This helps a lot with age differences and with the inertia that comes from trying to force everyone to agree on everything. Generally we find that everyone ends up picking something that everyone enjoys, even if it isn’t something everyone would inherently choose themselves.
Emma selected the Central Park Zoo. I absolutely adore Central Park – a love that grew out of my running hobby, but like a lot of “touristy” places in New York, I had never been to the Central Park Zoo. Tip learned the hard way: if you go to the self-serve kiosk, you can only buy the “Total Zoo Experience,” if if you just want the zoo (and petting zoo), skip the kiosk and get in line.
The zoo itself if pretty small so it only took us an hour or so to see everything. We spent the rest of our afternoon exploring the rest of Central Park. The kids enjoyed Alice and Wonderland, but seemed to enjoy climbing all the rocks the most.
Harwood said he wanted “food” – meaning anything ethnic and/or not easily found in the South, so Harwood got to recommend where we ate. In addition to the massive amount of street food, Harwood also chose: Serendipity 3, Max Brenner’s, “real” NY Pizza delivery, Cafe Lalo, Sprinkle’s Cupcakes, and Tony’s Di Napoli. This was great fun, but be forewarned of the 10 pounds you’ll gain if you give a male teenager with no metabolism cap all food decision authority.
My choice was a no brainer since my Yankees were playing the Red Sox. It was off to Yankee Stadium, baby! The lesson learned on this one: if you’re going to take kids, consider an afternoon game. Poor Emma feel asleep somewhere around the 6th inning since the game didn’t even begin until 7:30.
My husband selected the American Natural History Museum that, despite the crowds built up by the afternoon (driven indoors by the rain, I presume), was a huge hit with the tween, the teen, and the adults. In hindsight, we would do museums on weekdays and other not-as-touristy stuff on weekends. The cafe is expensive for not particularly good food, so I recommend hopping out to the slew of food trucks lining the streets around the museum for lunch instead.
Even at the fast clip we have in museums, we didn’t see but maybe half of all the museum has to offer and we were there when the museum opened. It really is worth carving out an entire day AND planning out what you want to see so you know what you can leave for the next trip.
A quick thought on being there when it opens: don’t bother. The line is deceptively long (seriously the place is gigantic) and if you wait another 30 minutes, you’ll walk right in. We experienced the same at the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC.
In addition to our pre-selected “must-dos,” we all agreed on a couple of places we wanted to see. In all the times I’d been to New York, I’d never seen the Statue of Liberty, so we carved out a morning to visit, along with a trip to Ellis Island. We enjoyed the boat ride and did a small amount of sightseeing, but I have to say, like with many places that solely exist to draw tourists, I can probably live the rest of my life without feeling the need to do it again. We had intended to look up my grandpa who came through Ellis Island from England as a kid, but found out you can access all the same information online for free without waiting in line (no, there’s no giant book you flip through – it’s on the same Internet you have at home).
We had much more fun wandering through the stores selling all the things the kids love. We hit Dillon’s Candy Bar, the Nintendo Store, The Lego Store, Strand Books, and a group favorite, Forbidden Planet. We collectively chose to skip stuff like the Empire State Building, Top of the Rock, and the 9/11 Memorial. I’ve been to each of these and can say I’ve never seen a kid who didn’t look bored there. With so many (fun!) kid-friendly things to do, there’s really no reason to stick to tourist traps.
One of Emma’s favorite local amusements was the Hippo Playground in Riverside Park, since hippos are her favorite animal. We thought about making the trip to Coney Island to hit up Luna Park, but that train ride takes OMZ fo-ev-ah, so we decided to wait for another time when we could see the mermaid parade. The list of things we did not get to do is long and the kids are already asking when we’ll go back. I go at least 3 or 4 times a year for various reasons, so I’m sure they’ll get another chance soon. I’m thinking they need to see New York at Christmastime – that’s when the city is REALLY magical.