Thursday, April 16, 2015

Central Park Zoo - New York City

Everything I know about the red panda I learned from a volunteer at Central Park Zoo.
We visited lots of places while we were in New York City but the my favourite was Central Park Zoo.  It isn't huge but again when travelling with kids I find bigger isn't always better.  You can do the whole zoo in half a day and it is, as the name would suggest, centrally located so you can definitely combine it with another attraction.  FAO Schwartz is right by the entrance to the park and both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History are close by. We walked to MOMA which is a bit farther away but can be done in half a day so is also a good one to combine with another attraction.

The Sea Lions are the highlight of any trip to the Central Park Zoo.  
We arrived right at 10:00 (when the zoo opens) on a slightly drizzly Tuesday in March and there were maybe a dozen other people at the zoo at the same time.  New York City is awesome but it is crowded and loud so the calm and quiet Zoo was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city.  Arriving right at 10:00 not only means that the place isn't crowded but it also means that you can experience the Delacorte Music Clock chiming as you buy your tickets.  My kids loved this and actually stayed and waited until the clock was done before entering the zoo.  We watched the sea lions for a few minutes and then made our way into the penguin house.  A volunteer named Chandra told us all about the penguins and let us know that the penguin feeding would happen at 10:30 so we hung around for that which was a hit.
My daughter thought it was hilarious that one of the bears has the same name as her.
After checking out the penguins we wandered around the rest of the zoo.  We manged to see the mongoose feeding in the Tropic Zone building and make it back for the Sea Lion feeding and exercise program which my kids would have happily stayed at all day.

You can get pretty up close and personal with the birds in the Tropic Zone Building
One of the best things about Central Park Zoo is the volunteers.  I mentioned Chandra who was so friendly and knowledgeable about the animals but there were others too.  I failed to get the name of the lady who told us all about the red pandas and did the commentary for the sea lion feeding but she was also great.  Maybe it was just because the zoo wasn't busy when were were there but it felt like we had our very own tour guides.

Things to keep in mind:

  • They have a 4-D movie theatre.  If you will be buying a ticket for that it is cheaper to do it online.  General admission tickets can only be bought at the Zoo.  For admission with the movie it will be about $60 (USD) for a family of four, general admission is $38 for a family of four.
  • Central Park is pretty low on maps.  We came in on the other side of the park from the Zoo and had a heck of a time finding it.  We stumbled upon an information booth but there was nobody in it.  We did find one map but it didn't help much since it didn't have a "you are here" on it.  We asked several people for directions and were told about 12 different ways to go, including at one point a young man was giving us directions and a woman came over to offer her two cents and they wound up literally pointing us in two different directions.  We did finally get there!
  • One of the polar bears had died shortly before we arrived so the remaining polar bear was not on display when were there.
  • The Zoo is located at 64th Street and 5th Avenue.
  • They do have a snack bar and a gift shop.  
  • They also have a petting zoo area which is included in the general admission price.  

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Museum of Modern Art - New York

I am in the minority of people who actually like this painting. 
I have mentioned before that my kids enjoy looking at modern art so we knew we had to make a trip to the Museum of Modern Art when we visited New York.  Plus, it's included in the City Pass and it was walking distance from our hotel, so why not?
Despite what "Home" would have us believe, Starry Night is not at the
Louvre, it's at MOMA.
The first thing you should know about the MOMA is that "modern" is quite broadly defined as art created any time after around 1860 and that emphasizes individual experimentation and expression.If you are envisioning an entire museum devoted to paintings with three stripes you will be in for a surprise.  The MOMA does certainly have its fair shair of unusual and, uh, thought provoking art works but it also houses paintings like Starry Night by Vincent Van Gough, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, Water Lillies by Monet and many more famous and accessible works of art by great artists like Picasso and Klimt.
This one is tiny, smaller than a piece of regular paper.
I would go so far as to say that if you have kids who want to see a bunch of great, famous paintings, the MOMA might be a better bet than the Met, if for no other reason than most of the ones that will interest kids are all close together at the MOMA (fifth floor) .  You can spend two hours at the MOMA and see just about everything that will interest kids (depending on what the special exhibition happens to be) and that includes the long line for the coat check. The Met definitely has more art works and artefacts but for some little kids that might actually not be a good thing.  Having said that, if you have time I would recommend doing both museums.
I don't want to spoil the surprise but there actually isn't an air rifle shot in this wall. 
No visit to MOMA is complete without checking out at least some of the more unusual pieces, so be sure to wander through some of the other galleries when you visit.  You never know what you might find if you do. We stumbled upon the Andy Warhol pieces and the Jackson Pollock ones that way and well as things like a helicopter, Bjork's swan dress and the beauty pictured above.
No flash photography at MOMA so this is the only half
decent picture I have of my kids' visit.
Things to keep in mind:

  • A five story musuem sounds daunting but the floors are quite small so fear not!  Plus, as I mentioned most of the popular paintings are on the fifth floor.
  • MOMA is free for children under 12 but $25 per adult.  Special exhibitions will be more.
  • The coat check is free but, at least when we were there, a very slow moving system.  
  • There are three eating establishments in the MOMA, only one of which would really work with kids. There are a million places to eat in the immediate vicinity though so you won't starve.  
  • They do have a gift shop but it actually wasn't that great for kid stuff which was sort of surprising.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Metropolitan Museum of Art - New York City

When we were planning our trip to New York I read a bunch of books set in New York with my kids. Their favourite one was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler which is about a brother and a sister who run away from home and live at the Met for a week.  So we had to make a trip to the Met while were were in New York.
One of the many treasures we stumbled upon while looking for bathrooms
The first thing you need to know about The Met is that it is huge.  You won't be able to see it all in one visit.  You can find a bunch of suggested itineraries on the Met website or you can make your own based on the interests of you and your kids.   They don't have a Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler tour, mainly because some of the places and items in the book either aren't there anymore or never existed but there is this handy guide that for some reason is buried in the media section of the Met's website. They also have a bunch of information booklets about various parts of the Museum.  
No touching!  But you can hang out with the statues.  
You will want to check out the website and gallery map before arriving so you have some sense of where the things that interest you are in the gallery.  My kids wanted to see the Egyptian galleries, the Armory and the late 19th and early 20th century French paintings.  So we made sure to hit those areas and see the highlights.  My daughters loved the Armory which has dozens of full sized suits of armour, some of them on horseback.  Their favourite painting was "Joan of Arc" on the second floor in hallway leading to the Impressionist gallery.
Alas, there was no postcard of this one in the gift shop.  
We also discovered all kinds of great stuff wandering around (usually lost).  The American Wing is great and definitely worth a visit as are the Medieval galleries. If you are looking for a quiet spot to take a break for a bit the Chinese garden in the Asian Art section on the second floor is lovely, bright and peaceful.  They even have a Koi pond.  My daughters loved it.
Taking a break in the Chinese garden
Things to keep in mind:
  • Kids under 12 are free.  Adults are $25 each though.
  • The Met is located on the perimeter of Central Park.  You can take the subway to the 86th Street station and then walk the few blocks to the Museum or take the bus.
  • If the weather is nice you can go outside to have a picnic in the park.  They do also have places to eat inside the Met including a cafeteria downstairs and a small cafe by the American Wing.   
  • They have a coat and parcel check and it is free.  
  • No flash photography allowed in the Museum.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Times Square - New York City

Times Square is crowded, loud and garish and my kids loved it.  So much so that we went three times during our stay in New York City.  We were lucky enough to stay at a hotel that was within walking distance to Times Square which definitely helped.  It's also a great place to go in the early evening after all of the museums have closed.  All of the stores are open late, usually until midnight so you can hit them after dinner if you still have energy.  You can also spend a little or a lot of time there so it is a very flexible activity.  It roughly covers the area between about 42nd street and 52nd street and between 7th and 8th Avenue. This is where you will find the Broadway theatres which add to the energy and ambiance.
One of many very big things in the Toys R Us.
My kids' favourite was the giant three storey Toys R Us.  It has all of the usual things that a Toys R Us has (i.e. toys) as well as a full size Ferris wheel, a giant animitronic dinosaur, a candy store, a big Barbie house and lots of toy demonstrators who do things like magic tricks and fly airplanes around the store.
I was trying out a new camera and my poor kids had to stand there
forever until I could get it to work.  Hence the sour faces.  I also have several 5 second long
videos of them that I thought were pictures if anyone wants to see those!
My kids were very excited about the M&M shop as well.  You can buy specific colours of M&Ms and for some reason this is very exciting to young kids (ok and some of us adults).  Our first night there we got some mint flavoured M&Ms and munched on those for the rest of our stay.  We went back a second time to get some treats for friends back home but for some reason they had closed have their cash registers and the line up was about an hour long so we bailed on that.  There is also a Hershey store right across the street so it is basically chocolate lovers paradise.
A real missed opportunity to make good use of "Yoo-hoo!  Big summer blowout!"
in the adjoining bathing suit section.
There is a giant Disney store in Times Square with a life size Sven which my daughter liked.  They also sell the usual assortment of Disney goods.
One of the many elaborate begging schemes in Times Square.
The thing my kids probably liked best about Times Square was all of the interesting things to see as you just wander around.  There are people dressed as statues, buskers, people dressed as super heroes, break dancers, vendors etc.  All of them are trying to sell you something.  The people dressed as Minions and superheroes who come up to your children and offer to have their picture taken are not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts, they expect you to pay them.  Outright panhandling seems to be banned in Times Square, probably because it scares away tourists, but there is still no shortage of people trying to get you to give them money.  They are not all completely innocent either so I would not encourage them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Statue of Liberty - New York City

I looked at books and videos of things in New York City with the kids before going and asked them what they were most excited about seeing and doing and the first thing they mentioned was the Statue of Liberty so it was on the to-do list!
On the windy ferry on our way to the Statue of Liberty.
The most important thing to know about visiting the Statue of Liberty is you have to buy your tickets in advance.  The number of visitors to the Statue of Liberty is limited each day and tickets sell out weeks in advance during peak times so if you know when you will be there it is a good idea to book your tickets as soon as possible.  For instance, I am writing this in March and the next available time is in June. You will have to select a time for your visit as well when you buy your ticket but they don't seem too fussy about that. We showed up 30 minutes early and they let us right in.

You have a couple of options when it comes to visiting the Statue of Liberty, you can either go up to the pedestal level which is included in the ferry ticket price or you can pay an additional few dollars to go all the way up to the Crown.
My daughter took this picture from the ferry boat.
Keep in mind the only way up to the Crown is to climb the stairs.  There are no elevators up, not even for people with disabilities.  There is also nowhere along the way to stop and sit although there are a couple of places where you can stop for a breath if you need to.  The stairway is very narrow and a spiral.  Having said all of that, it is not that bad.  It is only 156 steps which is about 15 flights of stairs.  Both my girls managed it fine.  I would say that the descent is harder than the climb since the stairs are so narrow.
Peeking out the Crown.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you will have to go through two airport type security checkpoints. One before getting on the ferry and one before entering the Statue.  You have to leave backpacks, umbrellas, drinks other than water etc. in a locker in the gift shop.  The lockers take a fingerprint scan which my daughter thought was great until we couldn't open our locker when we returned!  Don't worry, just let the person behind the counter at the gift shop know and they will come and open it for you.

It can be pretty warm in the Statue so you will want to leave your coats in the locker. Speaking of weather, it can quite cold on the ferry so you will want to make sure you dress in layers.

 Things to keep in mind:
  • The ferry schedule changes based on the time of year and the day of the week.  You can get the schedule here. You can catch the ferry from either Manhattan (Battery Park) or New Jersey.
  • There is a museum at Ellis Island that you can also visit.  The same ferry stops at both locations.
  • There is a gift shop and a snack bar at the base of the Statue.

Friday, March 20, 2015

American Museum of Natural History - New York City

When my family visited New York City over the March Break our very first stop was the American Museum of Natural History.  My kids have seen the Night at the Museum movies and were eager to see many of the exhibits featured in the movie.  It is pretty consistently rated as the top attraction for families in New York City so it made sense to start there.
Checking out Rex in the Dinosaur exhibit.
Well, let's just say we weren't the only ones with that idea.  It was a rainy Saturday afternoon and the place was packed.  We had to wait in line since the museum was at capacity and couldn't allow anyone else in.  I would say that waiting in line is a bit of a recurring theme in New York City in general and definitely at the AMNH.  There was the line up to get into the Museum, the line up to buy tickets, the line up for the coat check, the line up for the movie (included in admission) etc.  So be prepared to wait if you go when it is busy.

If your kids have seen Night at the Museum you can follow a tour based on the movie. If that doesn't interest your kids there are also the Highlights tour, an Earth and Space tour or a Dinosaur tour, one of which is bound to interest your kids.  If you wander around without a plan you will see lots of interesting things but you will also miss a lot of interesting things so it is definitely worth taking a look at the tours and floor plan before heading to the Museum.

If you are hitting the Highlights, be aware that everyone else is too.  We couldn't even get into the Hall of Ocean Life to see the Blue Whale as there was a line up to get in and it was closing before we would have made it in.
We wandered into the Hall of Mammals looking for a wash room!
We ended up staying about an hour since there was so much to see.
The Museum is huge.  You won't be able to see it all even if you have unusually indefatigable children so I strongly encourage you to pick a handful of things you want to see and hit those or content yourself with wandering into the nearest gallery and meandering around.  Like I said, you won't see everything but what you will see will be great.
Watching a chipmunk stuff three acorns into its tiny face is worth the
price of admission alone.
The admission ticket you get with the City Pass includes either the Planetarium or a 3D movie.  I was surprised my kids opted for the 3D movie which was Tiny Giants when were there.  They were not disappointed.  It was hilarious, adorable and informative.  My kids are still talking about it and imitating the mouse in the movie a week later.  My husband went to the Dark Universe show at the Planetarium and he said it was great so if you have a space buff they will enjoy it.

The Butterfly Conservatory.  One of the many things we didn't get to  - this time.
So I realize this is almost sacrilegious to say since the American Museum of Natural History is so beloved but it wasn't our favourite thing we did in New York, not by a long shot.  The sheet size of it is daunting and a bit frustrating since you know there is something awesome just around the corner but you have run out of energy or time and can't see it.  It being so crowded also takes some of the fun out of it, partly because you have to keep a really close eye on your kids or you will lose them and partly because of the waiting and missing things because you can't get in due to the crowds.  I don't think there is ever a time when the Museum isn't busy but a weekday afternoon would probably be better than a Saturday afternoon.  Having said all of that, my kids did like it and would happily go back any time.
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Things to keep in mind:

  • The Museum of Natural History is on the West Side of Central Park at 79th street.  The Museum has its own subway stop on the B and C lines.  Once you come out of the subway stop you won't have any trouble finding it, just follow the crowd!
  • They have a cafeteria which is pretty standard.  They don't sell bottled water but you can fill up a cup with water for free.  
  • You can park at the Museum, they have their own lot, but it will cost you around $35.
  • The coat check is $2 a person.
  • You can use flash photography in the Museum
  • They have a great, huge gift shop and a couple of smaller ones such as the Dino shop.  
  • For admission to the museum and either a movie or a special exhibit it will be about $80 for a family of four.  
  • You can use the City Pass for the Museum of Natural History.  

New York City with kids

There are a couple of things that are essential to a fun and successful trip to New York City.
  1. Your kids (and you) need to be used to walking.  If your kids don't like to walk or don't do much walking I would actually suggest warming them up by going for walks or hikes in the weeks before you go because the museums alone will require quite a bit and then you have to get from place to place.   There are of course other ways to get around in NYC but you don't want to drive in NYC (seriously, trust me on this one!)  So that leaves, subway, taxis and walking. Taxis solve the issue of parking but you are still constantly fighting traffic and they can get expensive fast.  The subway is great but I was shocked at how inefficient it is, a lot of times it is faster to just walk than to find the subway station that has the right line running to it and then waiting for the subway and then the actual trip and then walking the three blocks from the subway (assuming you don't come out the wrong exit and it is actually five blocks).  So, that leaves walking.  Not only is it the cheapest option (the subway is $2.75 per person per ride; you can save a bit of money by buying a preloaded metro card but not much) but it also allows you to see all kinds of interesting things along the way. For my family, half the fun was seeing tall buildings, people breakdancing, people dressed up as Captain America etc.  Plus we stumbled upon some stores that we probably wouldn't have found otherwise like the Lego Store on Fifth Avenue.
  2. The next most important thing is to pick a hotel that is centrally located for the things that you want to do.  This probably means Midtown.  In my opinion it is worth spending an extra few dollars a day to get a good location.  If you have to spend an hour just trying to get into Manhattan young kids will be done before you even make it to a museum of monument.  We stayed at The Salisbury on W57th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue and it was perfect.  We could walk to Times Square and Broadway, Central Park, Rockefeller Centre, American Museum of Natural History, The Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. 
  3. There are several different discount ticket options for attractions in New York.  Once you have an idea of what you want to see and do pick the one that works for you.  We bought the City Pass which allowed us to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The American Museum of Natural History, The Museum of Modern Art, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and either the Guggenheim or the Top of the Rock.  We used our air miles to buy the adult ones and the kids got theirs as gifts from their grandparents for Christmas. We used all but one of our passes (the Guggenheim/Top of the Rock one) so we definitely got our money's worth out of the pass.  Having said that, if you want to go to the crown of the Statue of Liberty you will have to buy tickets online and those tickets will include the ferry boat ride which is what the pass is for so that one is worthless unless you only do the pedestal tour.  You can use that pass for a sightseeing cruise though if you don't use it for the Statue of Liberty.  The adult ones definitely pay for themselves but I'm not as convinced about the child ones since the MOMA and Met are both free for kids under 12 anyway.
  4. The price of food and drinks will break most families' budgets.  I would strongly recommend finding a grocery store or well stocked drug store and getting things like apples, baby carrots, yogurt, goldfish and drinks and keeping them in the bar fridge in your hotel. Even just getting four drinks at a museum cafeteria will set you back $15 so it adds up fast.  We had a small grocery store right across from our hotel so we bought bagels and cream cheese and yogurt parfaits for breakfast which probably saved us $100 over the course of a few days.  Delis are also your friend!  They usually have great salad bars and hot food buffets for much cheaper than a sit down restaurant.  Kids can pick what they like and you pay by weight so you're not paying full price for a meal that will only be half eaten.
  5. I would recommend looking at a map to get a sense of where everything is and I would also recommend New York City with Children, a guide book organized by area.  
  6. You can get the kids excited about the trip to New York City by reading some books set in New York.  You can find a long list on goodreads.  We read, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, All-of-a-Kind Family, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and When You Reach Me.  
  7. A word about the subways!  They are designed for locals who use them all the time and not for tourists. For instance, we rode the subways probably a dozen times and only one station had anyone working at it (the 57th Station) so if you need help figuring something out your only options are to rely on the kindness of strangers or find a call box and ask for assistance.  You pay for your ride using the MetroCard kiosk in every station.  They are pretty easy to use but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  You can only get $8 maximum returned to you in change so if you are paying for a single ride and only have a $20 you are out of luck.  You will have to find somewhere to break that $20.  You can get a metro card and put $20 on it and use it over the course of your stay but there were no instructions anywhere (that I could find) saying whether more than one person could use the same Metro Card (the answer is yes, I did ask the guy who worked at the 57th Station).  Little kids seem to be free although I couldn't find anything official saying that.  The nice man working at the 57th street station told me my youngest (who is 7) could duck under the turnstile.  Also, they don't have much in the way of signs so, for example, when you arrive at the station for the Empire State Building there is no sign anywhere to be found telling you what exit to go out to get to the Building.  Don't worry, you'll find it but it holds true at lots of stations. 
Assuming you stay in a central location you can pack a lot of stuff into a few days so you can do four or five days in New York and see a lot.  We were there for four days and we did the following things:
We also managed to catch some of the St. Patrick's Day parade.  This is the one time when having kids who wake up at the crack of dawn is a good thing!  My kids are up at 6:00 in the morning anyway so we were always ready to go by 8:00 so we were able to hit places like Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty first thing in the morning when they aren't as busy and still have the rest of the day to do other things.