Fun from the Empire State Building to the Staten Island Ferry

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Here’s something that I discovered about making my children hoof it around New York: It leads to good nights of sleep for everyone. Often when we travel, Tommy wakes up absurdly early and then is too exhausted by the time attractions like museums actually open to enjoy them (this happened to us last fall when we went to Washington, DC). But after a long day during which we covered most of the southern end of Central Park, to say nothing of the east side of Midtown, the boys were exhausted and actually slept until just past 6:30, a veritable triumph for us. (It didn’t hurt of course that Tommy was at the University of Delaware football game until 9:30 p.m. the preceding evening. I may need to schedule all our travel days so they follow night games.)

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We didn’t want to sleep in too late anyway as our game plan was after a hit of coffee and donuts to walk directly up 33rd Street from the apartment we rented to the Empire State Building. As I mentioned last week, this was the place the boys most wanted to go. It was a perfectly clear morning and getting there early worked – we made it quickly to the top and were able to enjoy the view without an overwhelming crowd. Tommy took loads of pictures, including one deeply blue one of the sky. There’s something absolutely stunning about being up that high over such a big city, and doing it with kids is even more fun. Tommy was most enthralled with the taxis flashing yellow below us and it made me look more carefully at the pageant below, so perfectly visible in the crystalline air.

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Travel-With-Kids Tip: Getting to the Empire State Building during the first hour of operation is a great idea (they open at 8 a.m. every day). So is buying tickets online in advance and printing them off. We did both things and were at the observatory on the 86th floor in 25 minutes. By the time we descended the lines were already twice as long. I’m glad I chose to skip the much more expensive Express Pass in favor of getting going early.

I’ll admit that I was a bit slapdash in planning this trip and didn’t think to bring breakfast food with us to Manhattan. This was a real oversight since we had access to a full kitchen. By the time we’d been up in the observation deck for about twenty minutes the boys were completely chilled and ravenously hungry (apparently a couple of donuts and some juice just doesn’t cut it until mid-morning). So we never did make it all the way to the 102nd floor observatory up in the needle. But that leaves something for next time right?

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After a coffee shop breakfast (and by coffee shop I really mean diner – think the place where Jerry Seinfeld hung out) we headed down to Battery Park at the lower tip of Manhattan where we met our friends Tom and Karen and their little boy and girl who are almost five and two respectively. The kids enjoyed the view of the Statue of Liberty and a good romp on a playground before we caught the Staten Island Ferry, one of those exceptions in life that proves the rule in that it is a) absolutely free and b) beautiful and fun.

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In addition, I’ve since discovered that the beers for sale on the boat are very cheap. I’m feeling a bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t notice this at the time, but will plead the exigencies of making sure my four-year-old didn’t fall overboard or get swept up with one of the hundreds of other families also occupying the deck. Of course, most of those families did just what we did at the other end, which was exit the boat, turn around, and get right on the next ferry heading back to Manhattan.

Travel-With-Kids Tip: DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT pay to ride a boat around the Statue of Liberty. The Staten Island Ferry is clean, fun, and most importantly, free. The view of the statue is fabulous and the ride takes about 25 minutes each way. It is in every respect an absolutely perfect outing with kids. And on the Manhattan side there’s a playground right across the street from the terminal.

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When we returned everyone was hungry. We wandered across the street toward the financial district to discover the New Amsterdam Village, constructed as part of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival. It came complete with a windmill, clogs, herring, and French fries. But it was also crowded and the food lines were slow, so instead of stopping we walked about ten minutes over to the South Street Seaport. This is another place that is very touristy and yet has its own specific charms. We had a forgettable lunch at the Heartland Brewery where the beer was better than the food, which took forever to arrive.

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But lunch was basically just a chance to sit down and get something in our stomachs and was far from the main attraction. While we ate, two different balloon-animal-making clowns showed up. Teddy requested and got a giraffe, but Tom and Karen’s son was the one to truly score, with two swords, a holster, and a balloon hat. He immediately decided he was a pirate. And so we swashbuckled our way past the tall-ship replicas, past the tourists buying margaritas in plastic cups, past the guests arriving for someone’s wedding, to the water’s edge, where the East River was our oyster.

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The steps at the end of the tourist strip are like one sitting in the middle of a Bryon Barton book about transportation. In addition to admiring the Brooklyn Bridge and watching the automobile and pedestrian traffic crossing it, there was a veritable feast of vehicles to watch including helicopters, tugboats pushing barges, speedboats (some of them with bows painted to look like sharks) and finally a replica clipper ship, which our very own Pirate King declared to be his. And as if in answer to his claim, the boat sailed up and docked right next to us while we munched on a tasty mix of root- beer and island-punch jelly beans.

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After we had filled up on jelly beans and the view, Tom and Karen decided it was time to head for home. Matt and I didn’t have a clear plan for our next move, so we happily crossed South Street to the small playground that Tommy had spied with his eagle eyes. While the children were delighting in the crowds of kids playing there and making new friends left and right, I got the idea that instead of dinner, we’d just have dessert and that I would take them up to Serendipity3, an Upper East Side landmark famous for its frozen hot chocolate (or frrrozen as the menu says) and ice cream sundaes, to say nothing of the kitschy gift shop and celebrity sightings. (I had my own brush with glory there when I was 16 and ran directly into Bryan Adams as he was leaving. He literally had to help me up off the floor while I gaped and sputtered.)

Unfortunately, after a zippy subway ride up there on the Lexington Ave. Express, we discovered that the line for the restaurant was ridiculous. Since being a blogger doesn’t exactly make me famous enough to walk right in (looking at the website I can see they only get excited when the Jonas Brothers or Brad and Angelina drop by), we didn’t even bother to ask how long the wait was but instead walked a block back to Dylan’s Candy Bar, much to the boys’ delight.

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Travel-With-Kids Tip: When you’re traveling, a playground is pretty much always a good idea, especially if there are other children on it. Don’t assume that because to you it looks lame or untended or because there’s already been a playground break in your itinerary and who needs another one? that your children will feel the same way. They will relish the chance to run, yell, and interact with others their own age who are not their siblings. And assuming your kids are old enough not be in continual mortal peril, you can sit on a bench and relax. That is what I call a win-win.

We had visited the store on the previous evening as well, for an orgy of candy buying. This store really is amazing, decorated as if by a trippy Willie Wonka with giant lollypops and gummy bears. Even the illuminated steps have candy embedded in them. I’m not even certain I really saw everything that they had on offer, but the website says they offer 5000 kinds of candy and I believe it. I know that they do have:

  • Every kind of chewy sour candy you can imagine from Cherry Coke Bottles to Sour Skittles
  • Gum balls the size of my fist
  • A rainbow selection of rock candy, jelly beans, and M & M’s
  • A dizzying array of chocolate bars, including milk chocolate with bacon
  • An entire section dedicated to vintage candy including Charleston Chews, which I hadn’t seen since I was about ten years old
  • Cotton candy

Unfortunately, I don’t have such favorable things to say about the café on the top floor, which is where we headed on the second night. The décor is as bright and whimsical as the rest of the store, and there is the added enhancement of videos that show and endless loop of old candy ads. A favorite of mine was the bride and groom kissing for the duration of the Big Red commercial – at the end the maid actually dusts them off with a feather duster

I was able to enjoy this ad, along with all the others, multiple times as the service in the café was slow to the point of absurdity. Matt had to wait in line for at least twenty minutes to place our order. Then the befuddled staff took another ten minutes to serve him his cupcake and make Teddy’s ice cream sundae. Tommy and I had ordered frozen hot chocolates (only one r on this menu) and we waited and waited and waited with no sign of them. When I went up to check on their status after fifteen minutes I got blank looks and the explanation that “we ran out of whipped cream and had to make more.” It was another ten minutes before they finally served our treats and when they did I discovered that they had made me the wrong one. By then I was in no mood to complain.

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And really, what did I have to complain about? I watched Teddy devour his Perfectly Peanut Butter sundae and Tommy alternate munches of chocolate-covered marshmallow with slurps of his Simply Perfect frozen hot chocolate and thought that every child should have a chance to enjoy dessert for dinner as part of a Manhattan spree. Eloise herself would be proud.

As we walked back to our apartment, Matt pointed out the illuminated Chrysler Building, which prompted us to look back at the Empire State Building all decked out for Labor Day in red, white, and blue. “I like New York at night,” Teddy said. I agreed.

I hope you’ll visit the first post of our New York City story as well as Day 3, in which we finally got a good meal as well as a good dose of dinosaur bones.

New York City Family Travel Tips

Reader Responses

9 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. I love the tip about taking the Staten Island Ferry in leiu of paying for a trip. I did this last year and was not disappointed. The view of the statue was great, especially for FREE!
    .-= Chelsea´s last blog ..Why is it so hard to get anything done, ever? =-.

  2. What a great picture of NYC view from the top of the building! I tend to let go of poor service during vacation time as well. Sometimes it’s just not worth the fuss. I can see that his smile will already wash away all those nuisance from the service. Can’t wait for Day 3. :)
    .-= Amy @ The Q Family´s last blog ..Bookworms On the Loose @ Decatur Book Festival =-.

  3. I’m so sorry I missed you while you were in town! I was out of town for playing and then when i got back i had more playing to do. So it goes. Looks like everyone had a great time. I hope to catch you next time…

  4. I REALLY like how you have highlighted specific travel tips for kids. All of these sound great – especially the one about arriving early, and playgrounds. On one of our trips last year, I ended up feeling like it was an international playground tour! But hey – what’s wrong with that? The team was happy! Fun detail and photos.
    .-= Lorraine´s last blog ..Travel Planning =-.

  5. We are headed to Manhattan this weekend for Grandmom’s 70th b-day party. We will probably stay near the Park/Upper East Side, but I am so going to check out Dylan’s. How can you cover so much territory with two young kids?! Amazing.
    .-= Meg Keough´s last blog ..Celebrate National Farmers Market Week at a Historic Home. =-.

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