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.

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.
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.  Even if you have to pay for them they are cheaper than paying for each attraction separately.  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.
  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 that seems to me and yet 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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

National Gallery of Canada - Ottawa

You can take pictures outside!
So first things first.  You aren't allowed to take pictures in most of the National Gallery of Canada so for the most part you will just have to take my word for it that we were actually there (twice!).    We went after visiting The Mint which is right next door.  My kids are pretty good at museums and art galleries but I wasn't sure how long they would last at an art gallery especially after just having done a museum,  so I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Gallery is free on Thursday evenings.
The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud
Can you guess the name of this piece?  
My kids loved the Contemporary Art Gallery the best.  They had a hoot trying to guess the names of the artworks.  They would come up with what they thought was a great, descriptive name only to find that it was "untitled".  My kids even liked the things like giant strings that go across rooms etc.
Attempting to solve an art mystery
We liked the National Gallery so much we went back on the Sunday when they had a bunch of kids activities going on.  My youngest daughter liked the mystery box activity the best.  You get a box that is filled with objects and you have to find the painting with those objects.  Don't worry they do provide hints as to which gallery it is so you are not wandering around for hours. They also had a book making activity which both my daughters liked a lot.
This sculpture is probably called "untitled".
My older daughter went with my husband to look at more art while my younger daughter finished up her book.  When we found them in the International Gallery with a docent who was telling them all about a particular painting.  Apparently they pick a different painting or two each day and visiters can learn about it in depth.  This is not aimed at children though so keep that in mind.  My daughter loved it but the particular painting they were learning about was this Klimt painting which may not be everyone's idea of a suitable kid's activity.  

Things to keep in mind:

  • Kids under 12 are free and on Thursday evenings everyone gets in for free.  Full admission information can be found here.
  • They have underground parking for those of your who are driving.  
  • It is right next to The Mint, a block or two away from Byward Market in one direction and a couple of blocks from the Parliament Buildings in the other direction.  It is about 1.5 km away from Museum of History (formerly the Museum of Civilization).
  • They do have a cafeteria with the usual assortment of soups and sandwiches.  
  • They have a free coat and parcel check service.  You have to check any large bag but you can leave just about anything there so if you have been shopping you won't have to lug around your bags.
  • The name of the artwork pictured is The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Royal Canadian Mint - Ottawa

Goofing around at The Mint
When we were planning our trip to Ottawa The Mint wasn't originally on our itinerary since we only had a few days and there is a lot of great stuff to do in Ottawa.  I didn't think touring a coin factory would be at the top of my kids' list of things to do, but a friend said it was surprisingly fun and the Science museum was under construction when were went so we figured we would give it a go.

Trying to lift the gold bar at the start of the tour.  
My friend was right!  It is surprisingly interesting and fun even for kids.  The tour is less than hour so it isn't too taxing for young attention spans.  Our tour guide was great and answered all my kids' questions.  Who knew kids would have so many questions about how coins are made?
You are only allowed to take pictures at the gold bar in case you are wondering
why I have included two pictures of that!
The Mint in Ottawa doesn't make coins in general circulation, only collector coins but it doesn't really matter to kids.  A coin's a coin as far as they are concerned.  I would recommend going on a weekday since they don't actually make the coins on the weekends.  You can still tour the facility but you won't actually see the coins being made which is most of the fun of the tour.
More goofing around
Highlights for my kids were watching the coins being made and seeing the coins from around the world that are made at The Mint.  Another big hit with my kids was seeing the Olympic medals from Vancouver which were produced at The Mint.  

The Mint is right by the National Gallery of Canada and a short walk from Bytown Market so you can easily combine a trip to The Mint with a visit to one of those other attractions.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Reservations are recommended.  When we went it wasn't busy so the man who wandered up and wanted to join the tour was able to do so but I suspect if it is busy you could be turned away.  You can make reservations by calling: 1-800-276-7714.
  • It costs $18 for a family of four to take the tour.  
  • They have a pretty good gift shop.  The tour basically starts and ends in the gift shop so you'll see it whether you want to or not.  We picked up some Christmas presents while we were there!
  • You can't take pictures during the tour.  The only place you can take pictures inside The Mint is with the gold bar.  

Friday, January 9, 2015

Canadian Museum of History (Museum of Civilization) - Ottawa

Posing with some Totem poles in the First Peoples Hall
My family visited Ottawa and went to several great places for kids while we were there which I'll write about in other posts.  I'll start with my kids' favourite place, The Canadian Museum of History which was known as the Museum of Civilization until fairly recently.  I've taken my kids to lots of museums and art galleries and they have liked them all but I would say this was their favourite or at least tied for first with Science North.
Checking out some fancy schmancy snow machines
My kids liked the Grand Hall and the First Peoples Hall which was on the first floor.  You can actually touch some of the big totem poles and statues on display (although not all) which my kids liked.  The exhibit on the second floor about Snow was good but not as exciting for kids as the other exhibits.
They have a stage in the Children's Museum area with lots of costumes to try out.
My older daughter loved controlling the lights and sound for the stage.
The real fun for kids comes in the Children's Museum which is awesome.  My kids loved everything in this area and you could easily spend all day in this area and they wouldn't get bored.  Highlights for my kids were the stage area, the great Pakistani bus and the International Village but there was nothing that they didn't love about it.  
The bus, a highlight for my kids.
In the International Village kids can see how families around the world live.  They can dress up in clothes from around the world, try some games or their hand at drumming.
Trying out the drums in the Nigerian area
They have an area where you can load and unload things from a ship or you can run your own cafe.  
The prices were a little steep in this particular restaurant.
You can even run your own clothing factory or lay around in a Bedouin tent!

Trying out the sewing machine.
Each child gets a passport when they enter the Children's Museum which they can get stamped at various locations around the museum.  My kids loved this and still have their passports tucked away in their "special box" at home.  
Looking thrilled to bits to be learning about whaling in early Canada.
If you do manage to tear your children away from the Children's Museum there is still more to see in the rest of the museum.  When my husband mentioned that he had discovered an interesting exhibit about Canadian history upstairs I was ... skeptical.  I mean, I love learning about collectivized wheat distribution as much as the next gal but a whole floor of stuff devoted to Canadian history?  I didn't know if I was up for it or how big a rebellion I was going to have on my hands when I turned to my kids and said "hey, let's stop dressing up and riding on funky buses and head upstairs to learn about the fur trade in New France!"  
Listening in on some rebels as they plot.
It turned out to be great!  I don't know if I would say my kids liked it as much as the Children's Museum but they did like it and so did I.  The exhibits are fantastic, really well done and they have enough information so that you know what you are looking at but not so much that you feel overwhelmed or like you will be there until the end of time learning about the role of Ukrainians in the settlement of the prairies or whatever.  
Checking out an old timey school.
The exhibits are organized chronologically so you work your way through Canadian history right up to about the 1960s.  Along the way you will visit whaling posts, shops, houses, schools, churches, Chinese laundromats, factories, jails and airport lounges among other things.  You can touch things (although not everything) and listen to things and insert yourself into the action.

There is also an IMAX cinema but we didn't get to that because we spent all day in the museum galleries.  There is an extra fee for the movies.

Things to keep in mind:
  • It is actually not in Ottawa, it is technically in Gatineau, Quebec but it is a short drive from the heart of Ottawa.  In fact, I would say my husband and I could have walked it from our hotel (Lord Elgin) but the kids would have found that too much walking on top of the walking at the museum. Plus it was freezing when we were there.  You can take the bus.
  • They have a restaurant and a snack bar.  They are both about what you would expect to find ina  museum. 
  • The museum is very reasonably priced.  It is $32 for a family of four to go or $55 if you want to see an IMAX film.  They also have a deal if you buy admission to both the Museum of History and the War Museum but personally I can't see why you would take kids to a War Museum.  
  • Parking is extra, $12.50 for the day.