Escape to New York City for Holiday Family Fun


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The bright lights of the big city shine even more vividly during the holiday season. If you don’t mind the cold, there’s even more to see and do around New York City at Christmas than at other times during the year. And while some parts of the trip can come with a high price tag, with a little flexibility, a family can enjoy a trip to New York with some money left over for holiday gifts.

Starting with the basics

One big expense on any trip is hotel accommodations, and even small rooms in the heart of Manhattan can be pricey — especially in the weeks around the holidays. Consider staying outside the city, but just a quick trip away, to cut expenses.

When our family of five visited New York last December, we stayed in nearby Weehawken, N.J., where we had two larger rooms for a fraction of the price we’d have paid in the city. Online rates for the week of Christmas show suites available in New Jersey for about $100 less per night than a single room in Manhattan. Weehawken is just across the river from the city, easily accessible by ferry, and the chance to ride across the Hudson by boat was an added bonus as far as our boys were concerned.

Mass transportation is so easy and accessible in New York that renting a car, or driving into the city and paying top dollar for parking if you can find it, isn’t necessary. Buses, subway and cabs are available, and depending on the route and time of day, the buses are sometimes free. For kids from the Triangle area, where their closest experience with mass transit might be a carpool, the chance to tackle these new experiences adds to the adventure.

Whatever you plan to see and do in the city, you’re going to need to eat, which can be particularly expensive in a place that prides itself on its restaurants. One of the best ways to minimize cost is to avoid hotel and upscale eateries and enjoy the city’s plentiful ethnic restaurants, pizza parlors, bagel bakeries and street vendors. Ask your hotel desk clerk for the best place to get a slice or a falafel, and she may end up in a heated debate about favorites with a colleague. You might leave with two suggestions, not just one. As an added bonus, these tiny establishments tend to be kid-friendly and low-key.

With the basics of housing, transportation and food covered, the big question becomes what to do. Or, more difficult, what not to do. Depending how much time you have and the interests and ages of your traveling party, here are some suggestions, all within the heart of Manhattan.

Great outdoors in the big city

If you’ve seen a movie or television show set in Manhattan, you’ve probably seen Central Park. Its more than 840 acres in north-central Manhattan offer such family-friendly features as a skating rink, zoo and carousel. Twirl on the ice, shiver with the polar bears (it is December in New York, after all) or take a spin on one of the hand-carved horses. All of these activities come with a fee, but just touring the famous park is free and could easily take much of day. Visit the statues of Balto and Alice in Wonderland or get a picture of the kids sitting in the lap of the Hans Christian Andersen statue. To learn more about the park, visit www.centralpark.com.

Historic fun

While you’re at that end of Manhattan, the American Museum of Natural History is a great stop for kids. A visit to the museum, the setting for the 2006 hit movie Night at the Museum, can be expensive; admission ranges from $8.50 for children 2 and older to $15 for adults. But if your family includes anyone who loves dinosaurs, the fossil halls alone are worth the price. And, for the first time in the museum’s history, visitors can enjoy a synthetic ice rink, built around a 17-foot-tall polar bear statue decorated with pine boughs and twinkling lights. Prices for a twirl range from $6 to $10, depending on age, and that includes skate rental and a 45-minute skating session. More information about the museum and rink is available at www.amnh.org.

Window shop or shop for real

Window shopping along Fifth Avenue and the adjacent streets doesn’t cost a cent and should be a requirement for native New Yorkers and visitors alike who want to get into the holiday spirit. If you dare go inside any of the stores, such as FAO Schwarz for example, you can resist temptation and still have fun visiting everything from the Harry Potter shop to the giant piano keyboard that Tom Hanks danced on in the movie Big. There are amazing doll and Lego collections, and just about any other toy imaginable. Grownup kids find this store amazing, too. For any teens or tweens who feel they’re too mature for such foolishness, the nearby Apple store might tempt them.

Dancers and skaters abound

Also in the center of Manhattan, the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall features the world-famous Rockettes. The show was a surprise addition to our holiday trip, and I was even more surprised when our three sons, ages 15, 13 and 9, seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Tickets become more expensive as Christmas approaches, ranging from $42 to $250 each.

Skating at nearby Rockefeller Center won’t set you back nearly as much, and peeking in the windows of the Today Show during a morning telecast is absolutely free, as is admiring the giant Christmas tree. Visit www.christmas.radiocity.com, www.rockefellercenter.com or www.rapatina.com/iceRink to learn more.

Give my regards

It doesn’t get much brighter or noisier than Times Square, which feels like the center of the busiest place on earth. While it might be a little overwhelming for very young children, there also is plenty to fascinate them, including a huge Toys “R” Us and a multilevel M&M store with every variation on the candy imaginable.

Of course one of the main attractions in Times Square is the array of Broadway theaters and the shows they house. Tickets can be expensive, but if you’re willing to wait in line, tickets for shows that day might be available for as much as 50 percent off. You won’t be able to travel to New York with your heart set on a play or musical and be certain that it’s the one you’ll see, but odds are good that you can see a show at a considerable savings. One place to look and learn more about same-day tickets is www.tdf.org. Keep in mind, Broadway theaters “go dark” on Mondays, so there are no performances that day.

If we’d had more time

One New York holiday tradition that we missed, but would be a great addition to anyone’s trip, is the New York Ballet’s performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Performances set to Tschaikovsky’s unforgettable music are almost daily through Jan. 3, 2009. Tickets range from $10 for some standing-room-only spots to $215 for the best seats on the best nights, all held at Lincoln Center. Visit www.nycballet.com for more information.

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