When then-mayor Rudy Giuliani started cracking down on "quality of life" crimes like jaywalking and Times Square started to reflect a newly-polished shine on the apple, people joked that New York City was becoming like Disney World.
Big Apple fans will be pleased to know that's not entirely true, but if you're looking for a good destination for a family vacation, there are few places in America offering the quantity and quality of sights as New York.
Heading east for a quick visit of the best of family-friendly New York, settle in at the Hotel Beacon, on Broadway at West 75th Street on the Upper West Side.
Check the rates and you'll find that the Beacon's clean, understated, modern and comfortable suites are a great deal. The bedroom / living room set-up is perfect for families. There's also a kitchenette, which is handy if you're traveling with little ones and also allows you to whip up basic meals and have access to a refrigerator. Considering how much of your dollar will go to restaurants in the Big Apple, this is no small amenity.
In addition to being situated in a vibrant neighborhood with great restaurants and shopping -- to say nothing great views of the lovely Parisian-style Ansonia building across the street -- the Beacon is a couple blocks from Central Park and a five-minute walk to the American Museum of Natural History, which is where we started our ambitious tourist itinerary.
In the days before "A Night at the Museum," the Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at West 79th Street, was best known to kids for the huge whale hanging in the Hall of Ocean Life. Now, you can follow the families as they bee-line to the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples to take a picture next to the Easter Island head and take turns saying, "you give me gum gum." (Guilty as charged!)
But don't stop there. The museum and the attached Hayden Planetarium are a wonderland of science and anthropology made accessible to everyone through dioramas, artifacts and incredible objects.
Afterward, stroll the park on the 81st Street side of the building and watch the dogs romp in the fenced dog run.
Grab some slices of New York pizza for a quick lunch, or if you're looking to recreate the Milwaukee experience because you already miss home, check out Shake Shack across from the museum on Columbus Avenue at West 77th Street. You'll find butter burgers and custard at reasonable prices. But you'll likely also find a line snaking out the door. A block west, on Amsterdam, is the "original" Chirping Chicken, a carry out or eat-in chicken and burger joint. Portions are large, so don't go crazy or you'll end up with a lot of leftovers you can't carry (but you could pop back to the hotel and put them in your fridge!)
Next, enter Central Park and start a leisurely stroll toward the zoo (at East 65th Street and Fifth Avenue). Bring a map and check out the lovely -- and famous Bow Bridge (at 74th Street), pass Strawberry Fields with its John Lennon "Imagine" mosaic at 72nd Street (Lennon lived and was shot across the street at the Dakota apartments) and check out the thrum of humanity that gathers around the Bethesda Fountain a bit to the southeast. Head south along the mall with its astonishing canopy of American Elms and then east over to the zoo.
The children's zoo is on the left and admission to it includes entry to the main zoo a little further up the road. Even if the great storybook attractions that once made the kids' zoo famous are now long gone, the weird looking pignosed turtle, the wandering guinea fowl and the goats and sheep eager for gumball machine food pellets make for great fun for tots.
On the way to the larger zoo, you'll stroll under the Delacorte Music Clock. Try to get there on the hour or half-hour to hear the chimps chime the bell and see the parade of musical animals as they dance around the clock.
The Central Park Zoo is a classic of old-style zoos and it is thoroughly modern and worth a visit.
If you're staying at the Beacon, head back for dinner at Viand Café, a diner with a diverse menu and a killer Prosciutto di Parma panino, located in the hotel. On a clear day, if you room faces west, don't miss the spectacular sunsets over New Jersey.
Save a visit to the Empire State Building for the next day. Walk south on Broadway from the hotel to get the 1, 2 or 3 train at 72nd Street. Buy an $8 MetroCard and you'll have two round-trips at the ready. Remember that kids ride free. Leave the stroller at the hotel because there's nowhere to leave it at the ESB and you can't take it up to the observation decks. (But for future subway rides with a stroller, enter from the south side of the 72nd Street station where the stationmaster can open the gate for you.)
Exit at 34th Street and walk three blocks east. For reassurance that you're headed in the right direction, simply look up and you'll see the Depression-era Art Deco masterpiece towering 1,454 feet above everything around it. The entire building has been undergoing a facelift that is due to end in autumn, but the work isn't hampering visits because most of it is done during overnight hours.
Take some time to marvel at the ornate lobby before heading up.
There are two observation decks, one on the 102nd floor that is enclosed and small and a larger, open-air one on the 86th floor. If you have time, see them both. If not, select one; you can't really lose either way. The 360-degree views of all five boroughs and New Jersey are pretty much the same. Of course if it's cold and rainy, 102 is for you. But 86 has an amazing view up to the spire, so don't assume higher is better. And besides, being outside on a nice day provides an effervescent feeling.
Returning to the lobby, pop into the Starbucks for a quick pick-me-up and stroll north to Times Square (42nd Street) and on to Rockefeller Center, where there are shops and restaurants perfect for lunch. In between you might want to stop in at the M&M's World on Broadway for three floors of M&M's gear and paraphernalia. Most enticing are the dispensers offering M&M's in every color of the rainbow and some New York-specific combinations. At more than $12 a pound, though, it's easy to rack up an absurd bill at the checkout, so be careful in there.
Best item on view? A Statue of Liberty M&M dispenser ...
Which takes us to day three, when we venture out onto the high seas -- ok, just New York Harbor -- to check out the Statue of Liberty (and, if you've got the stamina, Ellis Island). I won't bore you with a description of the lovely Miss Liberty and the handsome park in which she lives. I will, instead, give you some advice based on a recent trip.
Buy your tickets online in advance at the Statue Cruises Web site. That will allow you to head to Battery Park on the southern tip of Manhattan (take the #1 train from 72nd Street and ride it to the end of the line -- South Ferry) and get right in line to pass through security and get on a ferry. When you show your ticket, you'll be extremely relieved when the guard points you to the considerably shorter of the two lines.
Even with this benefit, on a recent weekend visit, it took fully two hours from joining that line to enter the actual Statue of Liberty (after a second security screening). Kids in the various lines took turns melting down. Even the Web site counsels that you're likely to wait in at least 60 minutes worth of lines. Add to that travel time on the ferry, etc. and you should steel yourself for a very long day, especially if you choose a weekend.
Suggestion No. 2: go on a weekday.
The ferry leaves Battery Park and stops first at the Liberty Island to unload and load passengers before proceeding to Ellis Island and then back to Battery Park. There is no admission to the islands because they are National Parks. But the ferry is $12 for adults. Kids 3 and under are free. Ages 4-12 are $5. It costs extra and you must book in advance to climb the steps up to the crown. It's a long climb, so you might want to take a pass on it if your kids are young.
Some more advice when visiting the admittedly alluring and must-see Statue of Liberty:
Pack light. Everything goes through the x-ray machine or metal detector and when you prepare to enter the Statue, most everything must be checked in a locker. No backpacks, no strollers, etc. If you're wearing an infant in a carrier, the baby must come out and the carrier goes on the x-ray belt. The more you bring, the bigger the hassle.
The food service on the island is staffed by the surliest people you're likely to meet, at least in our experience. It's easy to drop nearly $30 on some pretty unappetizing fast food. Pack a lunch, eat it before getting in line for the Statue and you'll save a lot of money, another long line (remember, there will be another line to get back on the boat, too!) and a bit more frustration.
Take some time to enjoy the park on the island, which offers great skyline views of Manhattan, but also views of Staten Island, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Governor's Island and Ellis Island. It is the perfect place for stunning photos and for that picnic lunch you were smart enough to bring.
Ellis Island is, for me, the most affecting site in the United States and if you haven't been there, try to make time to stop there (you don't pay extra for the ferry if you do) and see the first place that many of our ancestors experienced in America. You won't regret it.
However, a visit to Liberty Island alone makes for a pretty long day. If you've got young kids, doing both in a single day might be pushing it. Only you can judge.
When you get back to Battery Park, enjoy the break dancers, the tchotchke vendors and head back to the South Ferry station and back up to the Beacon. Treat yourself to some gelato at Gelateria GROM, just up Broadway at 76th Street. It's pricey, but for some of the best gelato you're likely to taste outside Italy, it's worth it.
Wrap up your trip with a nice al fresco dinner with the kids at Citrus, on 75th and Amsterdam Avenue, just around the corner from the hotel. Mixing Latin and Asian flavors, the menu is interesting but with something for everyone. And kids will love the glowing orange wall nearly as much as they loved Mr. Gum-Gum, the Empire State Building and Miss Liberty.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.