The Best New York City Holiday Activities for Kids
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New York City has a special energy to it 365 days a year, but for a month or two around the winter holidays, the city takes things up several notches. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the real Santa at Macy's on 34th Street, the outdoor ice-skating rinks, the department store windows, the Rockefeller Center tree, the Radio City Rockettes and more make NYC a must-visit for my family during the holidays.
However, the city has a population of more than 8 million people, so experiencing the best of NYC during the holidays (without being crushed in a madhouse of other tree gawkers) takes a strategy and selective decision-making. Here's what to do, what not to do and where to stay in order to enjoy New York City during its peak holiday glory.
Visit Santa at Macy's on 34th Street
As I tell my girls, the real Santa goes to NYC to visit children because he needs to see as many children as possible — and that makes NYC one of his obvious destinations due to the large population concentration. To accommodate Santa, Macy's on 34th Street turns a large section of the eighth floor into Santaland. Santaland is 13,000 square feet of twinkling lights, snowmen, rainbows, Christmas villages, train sets, elves, presents and more. At the end of the path, through the decor, you will find Santa himself. Visiting Santa is a must-do for us when in NYC during the holidays, but if you want to see Santa, you now have to make an appointment.
Reservations are required (and free), but there will still be a very real wait to get to the big man, especially during the busier times and days. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when we made our annual trek to Santa, the wait was about an hour with a reservation. Also note that much of the line was quite warm, so try not to overly dress, if you can help it.
Should your family wish to visit an African-American or Spanish-speaking Santa, just let the elves know when you arrive. Those who require special accommodations to visit with Santa can call (212) 494-4495.
Skip the Rockefeller Christmas Tree
When I lived in NYC years ago, I thought it would be "special" to go to the tree lighting ceremony of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Unsurprisingly, my idea was not unique. The area was so congested I could literally not even get out of the subway station. After a few moments of failed attempts, I got right back on the train and kept heading Uptown to watch the festivities on TV while ordering Thai food — the real New Yorker way to ring in the holiday season.
In subsequent years of visiting NYC with a family, we have visited the Rockefeller Tree on more than one occasion, but it has always been far more hassle than enjoyment because of how busy that area can be when the tree is in all its glory.
My advice: Skip trying to get up close to the Rockefeller Tree unless you go really early, really late or are otherwise OK wading through a mass of humanity while keeping a tight grasp on your children.
Go Ice Skating, But Maybe Not at Rockefeller Center
My favorite holiday ice-skating venue in New York City is not the iconic patch of ice under the tree at Rockefeller Center. The mass of humanity at Rockefeller Center once the trip is lit for the season means we not only skip the tree, but also the ice skating that happens underneath it.
Instead, we prefer outdoor ice skating at Bryant Park or Central Park. The ice skating at Bryant Park is located just next to the Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Admission is actually free, if you happen to have your own skates; otherwise, it is $20 for the skate rental. They do take express reservations online, if you want to pay extra to avoid a potential line there, though we have had good luck without a reservation. If your child needs a "skate trainer" to hold on to while on the ice, that'll set you back another $22 — and don't take your eyes of it, or it will skate away with another child.
It is still probably going to be crowded out on the ice, but in general, the area is less claustrophobic than Rockefeller Center.
As an added bonus, Bryant Park brings in dozens and dozens of different stalls and vendors for the holidays, so it is easy for everyone to get a post-skate snack or entire meal at a reasonable price. My best tip for enjoying your outdoor meal is to walk outside of the main food stall area to find even more tables on the perimeter.
This year we ice skated in Central Park, which was a whole lot of fun, though pricier than Bryant Park at up to $19 for adults, $6 for kids and $10 for skate rentals. Also note that this was a cash-only situation.
The other caveat to ice skating in Central Park is that they did not have the skate training devices that the younger kids can rent and hold on to. Instead, your only choice is to help your kids learn the old-fashioned way and pick up a bit of a sore back in the process.
After skating at Central Park, head to the Plaza Hotel's food hall for a variety of delicious things to eat in a warm building.
If you have your heart set on ice skating in Rockefeller Center right under the tree, but hate lines, consider splurging on a VIP ice-skating session complete with cookies. Be aware this is a pricy option at $60–$150 per guest, depending on the time and date selected; prime times sell out well in advance.
Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular
There can be as many as six daily showings of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starting as early as 9am and as late as 10pm. Prices vary (dramatically) by date and time but don't be tempted to save money by taking a young child to the 10pm showing — because we all know how that is likely to end. However, saving money by going to an early morning showing at 9am may be the perfect way to maximize the experience in a child- and budget-friendly way. Here are other tremendous ways to save money when getting tickets to the Rockettes.
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In my family, everyone from the grandparents to the preschooler has thoroughly enjoyed seeing this festive and fast-paced 90-minute show.
Head to Brooklyn to See Christmas Lights
On my list of things to experience when we make our next annual holiday NYC visit, are the Christmas lights in the Dyker Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. You can take a (longish) subway or Uber out to Dyker Heights; there are even organized bus tours available. Once you arrive, you can benefit from the friendly neighborhood decorating "competition" that has spurred the decor to grow and grow since the 1980s. There should be plenty of lights and decorations to see from 11th to 13th avenues between 83rd to 86th streets in Dyker Heights, but be ready to do at least 20 minutes of walking to take it all in.
Pick the Right NYC Hotel
Being selective about which hotel you book with a family in NYC is always a good idea, but I think it is even more important for a special holiday visit. An all-around great hotel option to book with points in New York City for a holiday visit is the Andaz at Fifth Avenue. It is directly across from the Central Park Library and Bryant Park, and a very easy walk down to Macy's on 34th Street.
From the Andaz Fifth Avenue, it is also an easy walk up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center (if you dare) and to some of the nearby decorated department store windows on Fifth Avenue, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf and more.
The cluster of Times Square kills a little of the holiday magic for me, so I don't personally look to stay at hotels in that zone during the holidays. The Andaz on Fifth Avenue is just far enough removed from Times Square that it offers (relative) calm in the middle of the city holiday insanity.
Staying at the Andaz Fifth Avenue will run you 25,000 World of Hyatt points per night that you can earn with the World of Hyatt Credit Card. Paid rates here can be between $400–$500 per night around the holidays, so using Hyatt points is usually a good plan. If you splurge on room service breakfast, be sure and try the (rich and delicious) lemon poppy seed pancakes!
If you are OK with a splurge, the St. Regis New York at 60,000 Marriott Rewards points per night is my absolute favorite NYC hotel during the holidays.
This hotel has over-the-top butler service, hot chocolate and hot cider in the lobby, plus kids' amenities and toy soldiers welcoming you outside, making this a special place to stay.
The Park Hyatt New York at 30,000 World of Hyatt points is another tremendous choice for a holiday visit. Other NYC hotel options on points include:
- New York Marriott Marquis (50,000 Marriott Rewards points per night)
- The Westin New York Grand Central (50,000 Marriott Rewards points per night)
- AC Hotel New York Times Square (35,000 Marriott Rewards points per night)
- Hyatt Place Midtown (20,000 World of Hyatt points per night)
- Hyatt Place Long Island City — If you really need to stretch your points (12,000 World of Hyatt points per night)
A final fun NYC holiday idea (that may be hectic) is to visit the (new) FAO Schwartz store in Rockefeller Plaza. On our trip the tree was not yet lit, so Rockefeller wasn't as crazy as it will be in December, but there was still a line to get in the toy store. I thought it was a little bananas, but my 8 year old thought it was worth the wait.
Visiting New York City during the holidays is an absolute must in my book, even if it is just a "once in a lifetime" visit. Come mentally prepared for crowds, choose your hotel wisely, be selective with your activities, dress in layers and get ready to make some holiday memories to last a lifetime.