We asked adults who grew up in the city to recall their favorite family traditions. Then we tapped their kids for modern delights that didn't exist back when dinosaurs roamed the parks and the streets were lined with public sculptures called pay phones. The result: our essential checklist of things to do, see and taste in NYC during the wonder years.
By Jennifer Cegielski, David Fear, Jennifer Kelly Geddes, Howard Halle, Rory Halperin, Dorothy Irwin, Julia Israel, Carolyn Juris, Christy Purington, Amy Richards, Katharine Rust, Maureen Shelly, Elisabeth Vincentelli, Marci Weisler
Shake your booty at Baby Loves Disco
Why should dance clubs be limited to the over-21 crowd? Thanks to Baby Loves Disco parties, the under-seven set can get the Studio 54 treatment at Manhattan's Le Poisson Rouge. Replacing the previous night's aroma of beer, the air is heavy with bubbles, the dangling strings of balloons and the scent of popcorn. As the disco ball spins, the dance floor comes alive with jumpers, slitherers and stompers, all waist high. Kids and parents alike adore the classic hits from the '70s and '80s. Noisemakers, juice boxes and snacks are also available.
Order a Bagel with the works
Real New Yorkers eat their boiled dough one way—and that happens to be the best way. Have your kid tell the deli man she'd like a bagel with cream cheese, Nova, tomato and sliced onions. Then see if she can avoid getting cream cheese all over her face. For the ultimate at-home taste sensation, head to smoked salmon mecca Russ & Daughters to pick up the schmear and other toppings, and to Ess-a-Bagel, purveyors of the most flavorful, moistest bagels in Manhattan, for the base of the meal. That's what we call being a well-rounded kid. Russ & Daughters, 179 E Houston St between Allen and Orchard Sts (212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com); Ess-a-Bagel, 359 First Ave at 21st St (212-260-2252, ess-a-bagel.com) or 831 Third Ave at 51st St (212-980-1010, ess-a-bagel.com)
Top of the Rock vs. Empire State Building
Sure, the 86th floor Observatory at the Empire State Building is the original place to go for an eagle's-eye look at New York, and it's located atop a global icon. But at 70 stories up, the observation deck at Top of the Rock Observation Deck at Rockefeller Center affords a spectacular vista of Central Park without the crazy lines. Plus, the sprawling subterranean mall at 30 Rock offers amenities like shopping and eating. Advantage: Top of the Rock. Enter on 50th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-698-2000,topoftherocknyc.com).
Stay up to watch the balloons inflate before the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
We're not sure what's more exciting to little ones: traipsing down the street past bedtime, or seeing favorite characters grow from deflated parachutes to 3-D figures as tall as an apartment building near theAmerican Museum of Natural History the night before the big procession. Kids who do this once will forever feel like insiders when they watch the parade—even if it's on TV.
Dress up and see a Broadway musical
With good behavior come great rewards: That's the lesson children learn when they not only don itchy tights and starched shirts, but also manage to sit silently and still for two and a half hours. The experience will instill either a love affair with musical theater or a lifelong hatred of show tunes. For the former reaction, go with our pick: The Lion King.
Explore life underground
More than 150 works of art have been installed in more than 142 subway stations in the MTA's Arts for Transit program, but among New York's small set, Life Underground is surely the most popular. Constructed by Tom Otterness in his Gowanus studio, the installation consists of some 100 bronze sculptures placed throughout the multilevel station at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue. They represent lore associated with New York belowground (witness the alligator emerging from beneath a manhole cover, a man clamped in its chompers) as well as the construction of the subway system and straphangers' daily use of it. Yes, the figures are cute—their rounded proportions, money bag heads and clunky, outsize shoes evoke early cartoons—but they're also devious (the fare jumper), pushy (a fellow clutching a bag of loot claims a seat on a bench) and industrious (separate figures sweep pennies, hoist a beam and haul a giant token). That insistent busyness, as much as the sculptures' whimsy, accounts for their vast appeal. This is art kids want to touch, and for once, they can. Subway station at Eighth Ave and 14th St. For a list of all the artworks in Arts for Transit, visit mta.info/mta/aft/index.html or download a brochure at mta.info/mta/aft/about/publications.html.
Taste the immediate gratification of dim sum
Eat out without the wait. At Shun Lee Café, a casual version of the famed Shun Lee West, elegant carts stocked with fragrant steamed and fried wontons, egg rolls and dumplings circle your table while you peruse the menu. Translation: No more listening to whines of "Where's our food?" 43 W 65th St between Central Park West and Columbus Ave (212-769-3888, shunleewest.com)
Learn the value of Patience and Fortitude
Even the most ardent young bibliophiles might have difficulty picking Mo Willems out of a lineup, but they'll instantly recognize the New York Public Library's leonine guardians: Patience and Fortitude. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia named the marble cats for the character traits he felt would get city residents through the Great Depression, and we can certainly use those qualities today. In front of the NYPL's Humanities and Social Sciences Library, Fifth Ave at 42nd St (nypl.org)
Eat a Slice, New York style
For most kids, pizza is a fifth food group, and one of our inalienable rights as citizens of this city is our ability to get a slice on practically any corner. Younger diners have to suffer the indignity of eating bite-sized pieces with a fork, but a real rite of passage arrives when your kid is old enough to visit the local parlor and handle a slice like a true New Yorker: fold that cheesy triangle lengthwise, hold it with one hand, and let the rivers of orange grease run down the wrist. Heaven on a paper plate. Check out our roundup of great NYC pizza parlors.
Ice-skate at Wollman Rink
This is no ordinary piece of ice. Clutching a grown-up's hand, tots wobble and glide before a backdrop of trees and midtown towers. The crowds can be daunting, but encourage youngsters to be brave: This training ground will prepare them for navigating everything from alternate-side parking to sample sales. After taking a spin around, warm hands and bellies with a hot chocolate piled high with whipped cream.Open October to April. Enter park from Sixth Ave at 59th St (212-439-6900, wollmanskatingrink.com). Ice-skating rinks in NYC.