Timeout New York Kids

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Cheap chills

Twenty great ways to spend a winter's day-indoors or out-for under ten bucks



Coney Island and the Polar Bear ClubConey Island and the Polar Bear Club

Photo: Gordon Gattsek

Coney Island and the Polar Bear Club

Fun for about: 2 hours

In winter, Coney Island is a virtual ghost town—and you and the kids can be the ghosts. Use the deserted stretch of beach as your own private playground where, depending on the weather, you can build sand castles out of snow or snowmen out of sand. If you go on a Sunday afternoon (around 1pm), you'll be treated to the surreal sight of the Coney Island Polar Bear Club taking its weekly dip in the icy-cold Atlantic. But the beach is just the tip of the iceberg. Finding open rides and attractions is like finding buried treasure, only louder. Now, finally, you'll have enough space to build up speed for your bumper-car attack, and you're practically guaranteed a prize at the water-balloon race. When you start to lose the feeling in your trigger finger, pop in on the penguins at the New York Aquarium.—Jill Weiner

New York Aquarium, Surf Ave at W 8th St (718-265-FISH).

Holiday Lights at the Bronx Zoo

Fun for about: 3 hours

Remember reading From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and its wondrous—illicit, even—evocation of what it feels like to hang out in a museum after closing hours? I spent a good part of my life trying to re-create that feeling, and when I visited the Bronx Zoo for Holiday Lights, I got close. The annual event, which takes place after regular zoo hours November 19 through January 9, is one of those things, no matter how crowded or cold, that doesn't disappoint.

Just ask my jaded four-year-old, who's been to the zoo, oh, about a billion times. When we walked our usual path, which was now ablaze with hundreds of thousands of lights on the trees and shrubs—indeed, everywhere—he was silent. Awestruck, I was guessing. Maybe even a bit petrified, but in a good way. The sense of wonder persisted throughout the evening.

Besides lights—which are arranged in the shapes of snakes, giraffes and elephants—there are other cool things to do and absorb during Holiday Lights. Kids can watch ice sculptors at work, gorge on s'mores and hot chocolate, visit the animals (many exhibits stay open late), hang out with reindeer and camels, take a train ride and see a performance of the Polar Express. The lights dim, bells ring, whistles roar....

But here's the bottom line: The zoo after dark is a different zoo, and half the fun is just being here, at a place you can't help but feel you're not supposed to be.—Sharlene Breakey

Bronx Zoo, Bronx River Pkwy at Fordham Rd (718-367-1010; www.wcs.org). Admission $10, seniors and children $7, under 2 free. Special offer for TONY Kids readers: One free child's admission with paying adult. For admission coupon, go to www.tonykids.com and click on You're Invited.

Aqueduct Racetrack

Fun for about: 3 hours

Yes, it's illegal for kids to play the ponies, but that shouldn't stop you from visiting Aqueduct Racetrack, a 192-acre oasis on the outskirts of JFK Airport in Queens. At the "Big A," children have a chance to see dozens of drop-dead-gorgeous racehorses in all their mane-flowing, hoof-beating splendor.

Let kids walk around the grounds, visiting the horses in the paddock and oohing as they parade past the stands. Watch youngsters marvel at the fleet of John Deere tractors that tend the surface between races. Spring for a Clubhouse seat—it only costs two bucks—or hang with the hoi polloi in the Grandstand, where you'll be treated to some very colorful language from overstimulated spectators. Ascot this ain't, but no matter: A day at the races in Queens will be remembered for years to come.—Eileen Morrison Darren

Aqueduct Racetrack, 110th St at Rockaway Blvd, Ozone Park, Queens (718-641-4700). Clubhouse $2, Grandstand $1; children free. Special giveaway dates Nov 26 (umbrellas), Dec 18 (stocking stuffers), Jan 1 (2005 Racing Calendars).

Xmas excess in Dyker Heights

Fun for about: 1.5 hours

Are your little elves so turned on by bright lights in the big city that they'd sell their scooters to see a megawatt holiday display? Forgo tourist-mobbed Rockefeller Center and make the trip to the kitschy winter wonderland of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, where you'll find minimansions adorned with blinking lights, giant reindeer, and enough spinning and flashing plastic to induce a seizure. On 84th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, look for a group of 20-foot soldiers encamped in a yard that also features a huge toy carousel. Around the corner at 83rd Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa form part of a huge cultural-diversity exhibition that includes a fully-loaded Ferris wheel and a parachute drop.

As you make your rounds, don't be surprised if you bump into a candy-totin' Santa or a proud home-owner offering hot chocolate to freezing gawkers.—Jill Weiner

Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Subway: R to 86th St, then walk to Tenth Ave. By car, take the Belt Pkwy to Exit 4. Check out the displays between 80th and 85th Sts from 10th to 14th Aves (the most elaborate displays are on 83rd and 84th Sts between 10th and 12th Aves). Decorations typically go up the Sunday after Thanksgiving and are taken down the Sunday after New Year's Day.

Inwood Hill Park

Fun for about: 3 hours

Uptown, snowy days mean one thing: hanging out in Inwood Hill Park. Behind the baseball fields, families whiz down what is certainly one of Manhattan's most scenic sledding slopes. To the north, the Harlem and Hudson Rivers converge, and to the west, the borough's last standing old-growth forest crystallizes from ice every winter. Down the hill, the soccer field fills up with snow angels and snowmen, while dogs chase each other through snowdrifts.

Parents who are keen on cramming their kids' heads with academic enrichment can sign up for park tours focused on Native American history, animal tracking or winter birding (call for dates). For the requisite cup of cocoa, try Baker Field Grocery, on the corner of 218th Street and Indian Road.—Franziska Bruner

Inwood Hill Park Nature Center, enter at Indian Rd and 218th St (212-304-2365).

Lasker Rink

Fun for about: 2 hours

Nestled at the top of Central Park is what my neighbors and I consider to be one of Harlem's great hidden wonders: Lasker Rink. Lasker has all the qualities a parent looks for in a kid's first rink—it's small, it's homey and it's never crowded. Last year, when I launched my then-three-year-old son onto the ice for his first wobbly glide around the rink, he looked up at me and shouted gleefully, "It's my size!"

The admission at Lasker is also pint-size—about half the price of its more popular sister rink, Wollman. A concession stand offers a limited selection of items (none of which are fruits or herbal tea) and keeps unpredictable hours, so you may want to pack a snack. And definitely call before you go—Lasker Rink closes early to the public for hockey-league games at least twice a week.—Catherina Villafuerte

Lasker Rink, Central Park, just south of park entrance at Malcolm X Blvd (Lenox Ave) and 110th St (917-492-3856; www.wollmanskatingrink.com). Admission $4.50, kids $2.25. Skate rental $4.75.

Carl Schurz Park

Fun for about: 2 hours

In the days of the Giuliani administration, when the mayor actually lived in Gracie Mansion, it was possible to catch a glimpse of Hizzoner as you sledded down the big hill in his backyard. The mansion is located at the northern end of Carl Schurz Park, a riverside gem tucked away in the quiet Upper East Side enclave of Yorkville. But celeb sightings are hardly the big draw up at Gracie's grounds, as any local kid will tell you. When you're finished sliding downhill, continue southward in the park (on the promenade, along the East River) and watch the large and small dogs (in separate dog runs) romp in the snow as their owners sip coffee and gossip. And if you have a kid who lives for swings and climbing equipment, Catbird Playground, at the bottom of the park, is one of the city's finest.—Howard Blas

Carl Schurz Park borders East End Ave from 84th to 90th Sts. Gracie Mansion is at the north end; Catbird Playground, the south.

Roosevelt IslandRoosevelt Island

Photo: RIOC

Roosevelt Island

Fun for about: 3 hours

There's a Gothic lighthouse only minutes from midtown Manhattan, and anybody with a MetroCard and some good walking shoes can get there. From 59th Street, hop on the aerial tram to Roosevelt Island and witness the awe-inspiring view of the Queensboro Bridge while your kid gets a kick out of flying 250 feet above the East River. Once you land, head north, keeping the river to your left. Tell the kids to watch for sculptor Tom Otterness's The Marriage of Real Estate and Money, a playful art installation that looks like an enlarged, flattened penny mounted along the the isle's northwest shore. At land's end, you'll find the lighthouse, which was designed in 1872 by James Renwick Jr., architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Convict laborers built the structure with stone that was quarried right there on the island. When you've braced the winds long enough, return to Manhattan and warm up at Serendipity 3—with a frozen hot chocolate.—Howard Blas

• The Roosevelt Island tram runs every 15 minutes from 59th St at Second Ave.
• Serendipity 3, 225 E 60th St between Second and Third Aves (212-838-3531).

Snow Days

Fun for about: 3 hours

In the 'burbs, school gets canceled at the merest flurry. In NYC, it takes a blizzard for the Department of Education to call it a snow day. But when those miraculous days do occur, the City Parks Department is at the ready to make urbanites feel a bit more...suburban. As soon as the Department of Ed makes its announcement—hurrah!—the Parks recreation staff leaps into action to prepare the grounds for a day of flake-filled fun, complete with sledding, snowman building, music, prizes, hot chocolate and more. There's only one hitch: This doesn't happen every time there's a snow day, and trying to find out whether the parks are hosting icy fun can be like trying to find a needle in a snowdrift. The announcement is always made at the last minute, and unless you're tuned in at the right time and paying attention, you can easily miss the news entirely.—Martha Tuber

For snow-day information, tune in to local news reports, call 311 or go to www.nyc.gov/parks first thing in the morning. Snow days are from 11am to 3pm in Manhattan at Central Park's Pilgrim Hill, Fifth Ave at 72nd St; in Brooklyn at Prospect Park's Monument Hill, above the Sugar Bowl at 9th St; in Queens at Forest Park's Mary Whalen Playground, Park Ln South at 79th St; in the Bronx at Crotona Park, Fulton Ave between Crotona Park North and 174th St; and in Staten Island at Clove Lakes Park, Martling and Slosson Aves.

Socrates Sculpture Garden

Fun for about: 2 hours

An outdoor art exhibition in the winter? With kids? If that sounds implausible, how about this: A riverside public park dotted with large-scale site-specific sculptures that invite physical play as well as imaginative wandering. This season at Socrates Sculpture Park, in Queens, you'll find "EAF04: 2004 Emerging Artists Fellowship Exhibition." The show includes several surprising structures that kids can run around, through and over, including Isidro Blasco's Just Before, a deconstructed and partially reconfigured wooden house; Jacob Dyrenforth's funny ode to the classic Paramount logo (climb the "snowcapped" minimountain), Opening Credits; and Marie Lorenz's Man is man wherever you find him, a take on Thor Heyerdahl's boat, which, by January, could be beached in snow. The kids' favorite here is Karen Olivier's It's not over 'til it's over, a dreamlike, slowly revolving carousel with a lone chair on which to sit and watch the Manhattan skyline.

When the chill sets in, head to the nearby Noguchi Museum, show kids the work of this sculptor—including his models for playgrounds (no touching!)—and wrap your hands around a cup of tea in the café.—Barbara Aria

Socrates Sculpture Park, Broadway at Vernon Blvd, Long Island City, Queens (718-956-1819; www. socratessculpturepark.org). Free. Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Rd, between Vernon Blvd and 10th St, Long Island City, Queens (718-204-7088). Admission $5, seniors $2:50, children free.

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