What to Do: Midtown
This area of Manhattan is, by some measures, the center of the world.
It is certainly the center of the city and provides an excellent starting point for your adventures in New York. Most of the places listed below are within walking distance of each other for hardy folks, or short subway, bus or cab rides apart.
Mix and match as your children's ages and interests vary, and know that you'll enjoy just wandering around as much as any specific destination.
This is one of those iconic places that we all know a lot about even before a first visit. Soak it all up friends. Drag the kids out to the traffic island in the middle of the intersection and look up and around: the steaming giant cup of noodles, the huge video screens, the endless snake-like lines of new tickers, the crowds, the towering buildings, the theatres.
On most decent days there will be a police officer on his horse around, if not happy then at least content to pose for photos. Watch out for the frighteningly large mounds of horse poo. The Visitor's Center on Times Square has limited but free web access (yes, Dad wants to check email just once more), bottled water for a dollar and some ticket selling booths for other things. A gigantic Toys ‘R Us can't be missed and is worth a peek for the indoor ferris wheel (sadly, it costs to ride), a life-size moving T-Rex and huge piles of toys. The store is best visited for its clean, guarded restrooms and tidy drinking fountains.
In Times Square you will also find one of the most fragrant/stinky candy stores on earth, easily seen by your kids for its giant Hershey's Kiss and thousand times life size Reese's Peanut Butter cup displays. No free samples but lots of sold-by-the-piece candy and as mentioned, the smell. Alongside the Square are lots of not so expensive restaurants. They are all a bit crowded with kids, but you can have your choice of sandwiches, decent pizza and lots of other quick foods. If you insist, there is a huge McDonald's and a Hard Rock Cafe.
You can see what is going on right now on Times Square via a live webcam!
Watch out for general bumping and bustling, as this is a busy place. Free lance hawkers of Grey Line tour tickets are all over the sidewalks and can get aggressive. In the evening the crowd includes more folks who have had a drink and some unsavory types, but daytime should pose no problem.
You or your kids will soon notice the many theatres nearby. Live stage productions of “Beauty and the Beast,” “Lion King”, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and several others that appeal to kids have been running forever and will still be there long after this web site shuts down upon my own demise. Matinees are held Wednesday and Saturday, usually starting at around 2pm. With evening shows six or seven nights a week.
If you have a lot of money and little time, there are plenty of online ticket brokers, and most big hotels have booking agents. Top of the line sears can go for $100-300 a ticket, really. The good news is that it is easy. You can buy on line with a credit card or the concierge can deliver to your room. You'll get the show and seats you want for all but the most in-demand shows.
For those reading this who are not Donald Trump, there is another way, right there in Times Square. Look for the big red signs that says TKTS. After checking the web site, for opening hours, you line up in the morning and get to buy same-day tickets at about half price. Selection varies wildly from day to day, as do the lines. There is also a branch office at the South Street Seaport where the lines are much shorter and the selection is identical (it is all computerized). There are usually food carts around to amuse and entertain and feed.
A key thing is that TKTS only accepts cash or traveler's checks.
If you are going for matinee tickets, watch for shorter matinee only waiting lines. The South Street Seaport office sometimes sells matinee tickets the evening before, so you can get tickets for Wednesday's show on Tuesday night. Be patient, be flexible and save a bunch of money.
FYI, we got great seats for “Beauty and the Beast” the night before for half price and the kids were stunned by an actual live performance. Afterwards some of the cast wandered into the crowd and posed for photos and signed autographs.
NBC Studio Tour/Shop and Rockefeller Center
Not too far from Times Square is the NBC Studios, which will interest older kids. If you arrive at dawn on a weekday, you can be part of those weird screaming people in the background of the TODAY show. They broadcast from a glassed in studio and often conduct a segment outside with the weather dude. Next door is the NBC Studios in the historic Rockefeller Center. The shop is open and free to enter, and sells the NBC logo on every known object (coffee mugs, T-shirts, cooper's staves, pet grooming items, etc.). If your kids are fans of “Friends,” “The Apprentice”, “Scrubs” or any other NBC show, chances are they'll want to spend money here. For reasons unknown, there is also a huge candy store inside that you may want to avoid. There are also some cheesy pay a lot of money to get your face Photoshopped into scenes with NBC stars booths.
The big attraction is the studio tour. For our kids, the chance to see the Conan studio and the Saturday Night Live studio was a big deal, and suggests to me they should probably go to bed earlier anyway. You get a peak at the studios (a list is online) and some information on how TVs shows are made but overall the emphasis is more on gee whiz stuff than educational experience. More Disney than PBS. Be sure to make reservations to avoid even more milling around the gift shop.
Build-a-Bear and the American Girl Store
Not far from NBC Studios is the world's largest Build-a-Bear, at 5th Avenue and 46th Street. You know what they have to offer, though the NY store is the only place you can make every Bearemy's Kennel Pals friend ever introduced. Each of these playful pups goes home in their own Canine Condo™ carrying case, a NYC exclusive. The 5th Avenue Build-A-Bear Workshop store is also the only place you'll find bear-sized New York City Fire Department and New York City Police Department uniforms if that matters to you.
And if that is not enough sentimentality and sweetness for one afternoon, nearby is the New York American Girl doll store, at 609 Fifth Avenue at 49th Street. They sell everything you have avoided buying through numerous Christmas' and birthdays, so warm up your VISA card. There is a cafe which the store insists on describing as “whimsical” in that the tables include special little seats for the dolls. According to no less an authority than the New York Times, “American Girl Cafe has become the destination of choice for 4- to 12-year-old girls from all over the United States,” which is really just sad.
Some Really Cool Buildings
Though they will not interest the kids too much, you will be walking near/around some exceptional places that are worth at least a quick peak if not a more thorough exploration if time, patience and Build-a-Bear bribery allow.
Grand Central Station
Grand Central is the mother of all train stations, majestic in its architecture while remaining a practical, living terminus. Walk through the main concourse, check out the clocks and the platform archways (as copied for the SNL set design) and look downstairs at the clam bar and other restaurants. The space is especially beautiful in late afternoon when the sunlight tumbles in through the high windows. Also plenty of toilets, albeit a tad creepy compared with the ones in nearby fast food places.
THE icon of art deco and what once passed for “modern,” security concerns nowadays mean you can't tour the inside, and what IS up in that cone at the top anyway? Take photos of the beautiful gargoyles from afar, and peak into the lobby if you like to see the art deco touches, as well as the elevator doors made of rare Japanese hardwoods. Some people actually get to work here everyday.
New York Public Library
The lions out front are always available for posed pictures, and the steps always available for sitting and contemplating life, even on Mondays when the darn place is closed. There are often food venders and buskers around as well. Inside you can see some beautiful architecture and interior design, including the vast reading room. There is a small museum, clean toilets and ever so many books, but remember it still is a library, so quiet please, even if the tourists seem to out number the readers.
Right behind the Library is one of New York's nicest parks, Bryant. There is no playground gear or really anything special, just a very sweet, nice green space with a big lawn, plenty of chairs and tables, free Wi-Fi access (dude!) and during business hours, racks of free books and magazines to read and replace. There is also a small cafe and public toilets. During some summers, they show free movies on the lawn at night. Look up for a nice view of the Empire State building, and some very expensive apartments and boutique hotels that probably would not welcome your kids. Take a look at the web site for the park, where it is described as ”...one of the most sensual, graceful open spaces in New York City.” It is hard to disagree.