|The author’s son, Drew, 3, sees the landmark Chrysler Building from his hotel window in Midtown Manhattan. (CHRISTOPHER KLEIN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)|
Children see all as amusements and big thrills
As I walked with my son, Drew, down Fifth Avenue, a surprise awaited us on every corner: a golden retriever to pet on 18th Street, a six-story-high crane hoisting construction materials atop a roof on 17th Street, and a pair of New York’s bravest waving to us from a fire engine on 16th Street. If only we had found a pirate leading a dinosaur down 15th Street, it would have been a little boy’s Nirvana.
Forget Disney World. For Drew, 3, and his sister, Sydney, 1, New York is the ultimate amusement park. It’s a true magic kingdom, still filled with its share of goofy characters, but without the mind-numbing lines and vertigo-inducing admission fees.
Gotham’s sheer scale amazes all its guests, but to kids, the buildings are that much taller, the lights that much brighter, the noise that much louder. Plus, those everyday moments of city life that adults zip right by fill a child’s eyes with wonder. Drew gawked at the construction crews filling potholes as Sydney’s head spun like a swivel trying to keep up with the yellow blur of rushing taxis. Who needs “It’s a Small World’’ when there are Con Ed repairmen down a manhole on 38th and Lexington?
Parents can have plenty of fun with their pint-sized travelers as long as they adhere to a cardinal rule: Don’t over-program. It was a lesson we learned in typically blunt New York style on our first family trip there. Squeezing too much into our itinerary left our kids restless while our vagabond shoes were longing to stray.
Our mistake was a common one, says Meryl Pearlstein, author of “Fodor’s Family New York City with Kids.’’ “When you visit New York, you want to do it all, but you just have to realize that you need to scale back. Parents think kids can handle the same things as adults, but they can’t. They need down time and a chance to run around. Be realistic, and know that you’re going to come back another time.’’
Luckily, we got that second chance on a return trip last month. This time, we pledged to dial back the itinerary.
Our spacious one-bedroom suite at the Affinia Dumont was very family-friendly with a separate room for the kids to sleep in and a kitchen with a refrigerator and stove. Drew and Sydney - and Mommy and Daddy, too - were entranced by the view from our room on the 23d floor. They didn’t know whether to look down at the traffic and rooftop gardens or gaze up at the soaring Midtown skyline. What they did know was that they wanted to take the elevator down to the lobby, high-five the friendly doorman, and get swept up in the action of the concrete jungle.
Pearlstein says that in addition to the Affinia hotels, the Loews, Ritz-Carlton, and Marriott chains are particularly good at catering to families with young children. She recommends staying away from the noisy Times Square area and convention hotels. “More so than a particular neighborhood, look for full-service hotels. If you need a doctor or some baby-proofing supplies, the bigger hotels can make these things happen quickly,’’ she says.
While hotel prices here can be as steep as the Empire State Building, the good news is that dining out doesn’t have to be expensive. We picked up tasty bagels at our Murray Hill neighborhood market and fresh fruit at the corner stand (four bananas for $1). The diner around the corner, which sported a menu nearly as thick as the Manhattan Yellow Pages, satisfied even our picky 3-year-old, and the kitchen in our hotel room allowed us to pick up groceries and eat in the room some nights. And if you want comfort food that will please both your tot and your inner child, you can’t do better than Sarita’s Mac and Cheese and Peanut Butter & Co.
For a schedule of free kids’ events and discounted admissions to city museums and attractions, Pearlstein recommends picking up a copy of Time Out New York for Kids. There are also plenty of kid-friendly attractions that are always free, such as the main branch of the New York Public Library. Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions guarding the entrance, are big hits with kids, and adventures await between the lions. The children’s center hosts story time hours, musical and theatrical performances, and author and illustrator appearances. We had fun reading books with the kids and seeing the original Winnie-the-Pooh, the small stuffed bear of Christopher Milne that inspired his father to write the famous children’s tales. The original Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger are also on display.
Inside the city’s most famous toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz, we encountered a menagerie of life-size stuffed animals much bigger than Pooh and his 100 Acre Wood gang. We successfully avoided the temptation of the first-floor candy land and the siren’s call of toys, toys, toys. Drew enjoyed the full-size LEGO blocks statue of Jack Sparrow (there’s the pirate) and the giant T-rex (and the dinosaur). Both Drew and Sydney tickled the ivories with their feet on the store’s giant floor piano, made famous by Tom Hanks in the movie “Big.’’ It wasn’t as melodious as “Heart and Soul,’’ but the music sounded sweet to us.
We found animals of a more mobile variety at the Central Park Zoo. While the full-throated roars of the sea lions managed to drown out the Midtown cacophony, things were a little quieter in the tropical pavilion as we wandered on the elevated platforms amid the free-flying birds atop the rain forest treetops. In the polar pavilion, the penguins waddled along the rocks and darted underwater. They didn’t look nearly as shifty as their cartoon counterparts from “Madagascar.’’
Sensing that the zoo animals weren’t the only ones in Manhattan seeking to roam free, we took the kids to the Heckscher Playground, the largest and oldest playground in Central Park. The 3-acre area features a maze of elevated concrete walkways resembling castle ramparts that ends at the base of a massive bedrock outcropping sure to lure any budding rock climber.
Our favorite playground, however, was the gem in Union Square. The line of Bugaboos, Maclarens, and other strollers parked outside testified to its popularity. Opened in 2009 at a cost of nearly $4 million, the playground is lined with a colorful checkerboard of cushioned rubber tiles, rather than skin-scraping asphalt, and the interspersed Japanese evergreens and boulders add a bit of a rustic touch. Drew swayed on the life-size cattails, made of bendable metal, as Sydney dug in the massive sandbox. We all had fun channeling a little bit of Alexander Graham Bell and Mr. Watson as we whispered messages to each other from other sides of the playground through large talking tubes.
Of course, just getting around New York with kids is part of the fun - and part of the challenge. Drew was captivated by the underground wonder of the subway, particularly getting to gaze out the window of the first car as we rattled along the tracks, but lugging Sydney up and down a labyrinth of staircases in her stroller definitely felt like boot camp.
Since city cabs aren’t equipped with car seats, we had decided to skip taxi trips, Manhattan’s version of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,’’ and stick with public transportation. But many parenting dogmas have been slain by convenience, and when we found ourselves laden with gear 30 blocks from our hotel during rush hour, yet another principle met its demise. Luckily our ride was uneventful, but we found that the bus offered the best of both worlds, a chance for the kids to see the passing city streets without feeling as if we were in a demolition derby.
For the kids, though, the bus had nothing on the Roosevelt Island Tramway, an aerial gondola connecting the East Side to a narrow sliver of land that looks like an overturned racing scull in the East River. The tram glides to a peak of 250 feet above apartment buildings and the Queensboro Bridge before arriving on what was once known as “Welfare Island,’’ home to smallpox hospitals, asylums, and penitentiaries. Today, Roosevelt Island is a much more inviting destination with a riverside promenade lined with cherry trees. It’s a great place from which to watch the Circle Line cruises and oil tankers sail down the river.
Every night, when darkness shrouded the city, our hotel view of New York revealed one last bedtime surprise for the kids. Towering over the twinkling skyline was the shimmering spire of the Chrysler Building, lighted in all of its Art Deco beauty and standing tall like a night watchman making sure the city and all its adventures would be there when they awoke.
This may be the city that never sleeps, but just try telling that to tuckered-out toddlers and their petered-out parents.
Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein.com.