How many children have fallen in love with dinosaurs in the echoing galleries of this world-class New York City museum? And the dinosaurs are only the tip of the iceberg: Over the years, Holden Caulfield brooded over its collection of Northwest Indian totem poles in The Catcher in the Rye; in the planetarium, Woody Allen wooed Diane Keaton in the 1979 film Manhattan; and curious scientists plunked Darryl Hannah's mermaid into a tank to examine her in the 1984 movie Splash. It's one of America's great museums, and invariably engrossing for children.
When you enter the magnificent rotunda at the top of the Central Park West steps -- named for Theodore Roosevelt, the outdoors-loving President who helped found the museum -- a rearing skeleton of a mommy dinosaur protecting her baby from a small, fierce predator clues you in that the dazzling interactive fourth-floor dinosaur halls are the perennial star attraction. But our favorite sights are the superb dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals -- the grizzly bear raking open a freshly caught salmon, majestic elks lifting their massive antlers, wolves loping through eerie nighttime snow -- or, on the floor above, the bi-level Hall of African Mammals, where you can circle around a lumbering herd of perfectly preserved elephants or check out the giraffes browsing by their water hole. In the dimly lit Milstein Hall of Ocean Life, a gargantuan model of a blue whale swims overhead while dolphins arc through plastic waves. Around the corner, the less-well-visited Hall of North American Forests dioramas are our family secret -- a peaceful part of the museum where you can hunt for blue jays in oak trees and rattlesnakes behind the cactus. Haunting music playing in the African and Asian peoples sections lull you into studying precisely detailed displays of cultural artifacts: a Chinese bride's ornate sedan chair, a pygmy's blow darts, a re-creation of a Siberian shaman healing rite, a Yoruba ceremonial costume made of red snail shells.
The stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space, a 95-foot-high glass cube, includes an interactive exhibit on the nature of the universe, where you can step on a scale that shows your weight on Saturn, see an eerie phosphorescent model of the expanding universe, and touch cosmic debris. There are an IMAX theater, a space show, and always at least a couple of traveling exhibitions (my only quibble with the museum is the substantial extra fees charged for these, on top of an already hefty admission price). But there's enough to do here that you don't need to go for the extras. Wander at will, keeping your eyes open and your imagination at the ready. It's a magical place.
Nearest Airport: John F. Kennedy International, 15 miles. Newark Liberty International, 16 miles. LaGuardia, 8 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Excelsior Hotel, 45 W. 81st St. (tel. 800/368-4575 or 212/362-9200; www.excelsiorhotelny.com). $$$ Le Parker Meridien, 119 W. 56th St. (pedestrian entrance: 118 W. 57th St.; tel. 800/543-4300 or 212/245-5000; www.parkermeridien.com).