While children will enjoy most New York City's attractions, there are a handful of museums, zoos, and aquariums especially geared to the tastes of the Sponge Bob set.
Central Park Zoo
Obviously, there's much to keep children busy in Central Park -- from playgrounds every 5 blocks or so (always on the perimeter of the park, rarely in the interior) to the carousel at 64th Street off the park's baseball field to rowboats on the lake. But the Central Park Zoo (behind Fifth Ave. at 64th St.; tel. 212/439-6500; www.centralparkzoo.com) tops them all, a delicious little jewel box of a zoo, with just enough animals to keep everyone entertained until their feet begin to tire. Founded in 1864 and completely overhauled in 1988 to make it a more animal-friendly environment (with glass and moats replacing cages), the zoo actually has two halves. The main section, at 64th Street, has a seal pond in the middle (look at the schedule for feeding show times) and three areas representing different climactic zones. Because you're going to be moving from zone to zone, it's important to dress in layers, as you'll be sweltering in the rainforest exhibit with its fluorescent frogs, melancholy Colobus monkeys, and parrots; and freezing in the arctic zone as you watch the penguins waddle and polar bears pace (the bears here are famous for being manic-depressive, so behaviorists were brought in to stop their compulsive behavior by creating hunting games). There's also an outdoor woodlands area, where you'll see badgers, beavers, and the like.
About 1 block's walk from the main zoo, still in the park, is the "Children's Zoo," featuring animal encounters where the kids get to interact with animals that don't bite, and a lot of fun places for children to climb, run, and blow off steam.
As the mother of two young daughters (aged 5 and 9 as I write this), I've probably spent more time in New York's children's museums than some of the staff. I'm very grateful to both the Children's Museum of Manhattan (212 W. 83rd St. btwn Broadway and Amsterdam Ave.; tel. 212/721-1223; www.cmom.org) and the Brooklyn Children's Museum (145 Brooklyn Ave. at St. Marks St.; tel. 718/735-4400; www.brooklynkids.org; $5 children and adults; July-Aug. Tues-Thurs noon-6pm, Fri noon-6:30pm, Sat-Sun 11am-6pm; Sept.-June Wed-Fri 1-6pm, Sat-Sun 11am-6pm) for the shelter and excitement they've brought to rainy days over the years, and we patronize both on about an equal basis since I live fairly far downtown.
There are significant differences between the two. The Brooklyn Museum involves much more of a trek; families have to make either a half-mile walk from a subway station, or catch one of the infrequent trolleys that the museum provides on weekends. Despite this inconvenience, the Brooklyn Museum has a blessed serenity that the Manhattan one lacks, getting half as many visitors in a space that's a bit larger (thanks to a recent expansion). The oldest children's museum in the nation (in fact it started the movement), Brooklyn was designed from the ground up to delight kids and has such whimsical touches as a small enclosed stream that runs along the ramp that leads from floor to floor, allowing kids to splash and dip their fingers as they go; and a small greenhouse with a tiny zoo of snakes and lizards attached (it's here where nature classes are given).
The Manhattan Museum is a glitzier affair of changing exhibits that highlight the kiddie zeitgeist of the moment: Dora the Explorer, Maurice Sendak, and William Wegman's dog art were just a few of the recent exhibit themes. Those with toddlers should go directly to the Child Development Center on the fourth floor, where youngsters can finger paint to their hearts' delight, play with little stoves, and send rubber balls rocketing down a twisted tube from a loft to the floor (there were days when I never got past this room). Older children will want to take part in the classes and special exhibits, and since these fill up fast, it's important that you stop by the small desk in front of the elevator on the first floor where you sign up for these options. One word of warning: Although the museum is easy to get to from anywhere in Manhattan, there will often be quite a wait just to get in, or to check your stroller. Try to arrive here early in the day on weekends, or plan your visit for a weekday afternoon when the place tends to be deserted.
Fire Trucks and Subways
What kid can resist a big red fire engine roaring by, or a room full of swooping red fire hats? You'll see both in abundance at the New York City Fire Museum (278 Spring St. btwn Varick and Hudson sts.; tel. 212/691-1303; www.nycfiremuseum.org), which has one of the largest collections of firehouse memorabilia in the nation. It also has the good sense to hand out a free scavenger hunt map on arrival, which should keep even the most restless of youngsters amused.
I'd say the New York Transit Museum (corner Boerum Pl. and Schermerhorn St., Brooklyn; tel. 718/694-1600; www.mta.info/mta/museum/index.html) is pretty irresistible too, for both kids and adults. Heck, how many other museums are set wholly underground in a recreated subway station? Along with dozens of interactive exhibits on the history and engineering behind the city's trains and busses (my daughters love pretending to be bus drivers here), are actual and gorgeous antique subway cars in the sub-basement leading me, for one, to long for the days when the windows opened and the straps were leather. The Museum is the largest in the U.S. devoted to the topic of public, urban transportation.
The Bronx Zoo
If you count number of animals as well as acreage, The Bronx Zoo (Fordham Rd. and Bronx River Pkwy.; tel. 718/367-1010; www.bronxzoo.com) is still the largest zoo in the United States and an innovative, unbeatably entertaining place to spend the day. But with over 4,000 animals and 24 exhibits, you need to strategize your time wisely so you can see what you want without meltdowns from the younger set. When I visit with my girls, I most often make a direct path to the Congo Forest first ($3 extra; it gets mobbed), a remarkable exhibit of 24 silverback gorillas that begins with a short film. Once the film is over, curtains dramatically part to reveal floor-to-ceiling windows, with cavorting gorillas galore (unlike other animals at the zoo, the gorillas are always awake if you visit in the daytime; along with the adults there always seem to be half-a-dozen baby gorillas in sight as well). From here we hop over to the nearby "bug carousel" or the butterfly exhibit (a tent with thousands of beautiful butterflies fluttering about your head), or to lunch at nearby Flamingo Park. Then we blow off steam for a bit at the children's zoo-with all the usual farm animals, a spiderweb jungle gym, and a prairie dog park where children crawl into tunnels and pop their heads up right next to the critters. There are dozens of other animals, a fun monorail ride, feeding shows, and more to keep you entertained.
A word on transportation: Although you can take the subway (see above), I prefer to take the BXM11 Express Bus that runs up Madison Avenue, going express after 99th Street. It usually is faster than the subway, though be sure to check the bus schedule at www.mta.nyc.ny.us, as it runs only every half-hour or so (the schedule varies by day and time of year).
New York Aquarium
Finally, you can use a visit to the New York Aquarium (Surf Ave. and W. 8th St.; tel. 718/220-5100; www.nyaquarium.com) as a great excuse for taking in the gritty delights of Coney Island. Take the subway out here for a day that's partially educational, partially nostalgic, partially beachy (if you visit in summer), and a heck of a lot of fun.
The aquarium is (obviously) the educational component of the adventure and it fulfills that role magnificently, with over 8,000 animals from all parts of the globe spread across a 6-acre complex. There's a performing sea lion show, a mesmerizing exhibit on stingrays (some in a tank where you can touch them), exhibits on every variety of fish and mollusk, plus regular craft activities for children on weekends. Because this is an indoor/outdoor facility, it's important that you dress appropriately for the weather, as part of your visit will be spent outdoors. It's also a good idea to get a schedule of feeding times when you arrive-a highlight of any visit here.
Once you're done with the aquarium, you can wander down the boardwalk to the honky-tonk paradise that is Coney Island. It's currently in the midst of a major upgrade, but it's still possible to ride some of the classic attractions from times past, including the Cyclone (a huge wooden roller coaster, one of the scariest you'll ever ride because you'll do so with the knowledge that nearly a dozen people have been killed on it over the years), and the Wonder Wheel (a Ferris wheel with gliding compartments). Prices on rides vary but average between $2 and $5; most rides are open roughly between Easter and Labor Day (the weather is a factor). The best food in the 'hood is Totonno's Pizza, one of the first parlors in the city; it's located at 1524 Neptune Ave. between West 15th and 16th streets.
If you visit in summer, don't skip the Freak Show, which features the tattooed man, a snake charmer, a man who hammers nails up his nose, and other odd performers. It's one of the last shows of its kind in the U.S., and though it sounds unsavory, it's G-rated. You also have the beach itself here, a motley swatch of sand where gaggles of Brooklynites gather daily in summer to pitch their umbrellas, practice kung fu, listen to boomboxes, picnic, and swim. It's a very social scene, with many different ethnic groups represented, and fascinating in its own way.
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This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's New York City, 2nd Edition, available in our online bookstore now.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts at Pauline's page on Frommers.com.