There’s lots to do in the vicinity of Times Square and Rockefeller Center with kids, and the nice part is, you can easily walk from point to point. Start out in the afternoon to visit the Rockefeller shops before they close (which is surprisingly early) and save the Times Square portion of this pit stop for evening, as this is its time to shine. (I liken visiting Times Square in the day to visiting the county fair before dark…fun, but not in its full glory.)
Adults will enjoying seeing the plaza where NBC’s Today Show is produced, and 30 Rockefeller, the site of Tina Fey’s 30 Rock (not to mention the Rainbow Room), but kids love this area, too. In winter, they can skate of course, but in summer, there’s still much to see. Our kids spent much more time and cash than we’d budgeted at the Lego Store (on 50th), home of the tallest ‘pick a brick wall’ in the world, where kids can view a miniature version of the center they’re standing in and create their own Lego people at various stations. Nintendo World (10 Rockefeller) is just around the corner, housing two floors and 10,000 square feet of gaming heaven (including lots of opportunities to try out new games). We didn’t even buy a thing here; just considered it an attraction!
The observation deck at Top of the Rock is a great place to view the city (especially if you have a CityPASS, as it’s included), though I recommend visiting the iconic Empire State Building as well (more on that below), and nearby, St. Patrick’s Cathedral (on 50th) is breathtakingly beautiful and often open to the public (just remind kids to use their quiet, respectful voices).
It’s possible to walk from this area to the Empire State Building (350 5th Ave), but while the views are fabulous at night, this stop is best as your first of the day. Why? Crowd control. Wait times later in the day and at night can stretch for literally hours, and it can get very stuffy and hot in that building while waiting. We recommend visiting the Empire State Building early in the morning (it opens at 8 am) to avoid lines! (If you really want a night-time view, try Top of the Rock; it’s always less crowded.) And bring your own quarters if you think your kids will want to use the view-finders at the top; there are no change machines! This is a great attraction to use your CityPASS, as you get to skip the ticketing line. (Note: help boost the Empire State Building’s Kidscore if you find it kid-friendly! Learn more about Kidscore.)
If you’re fortunate enough to take in a matinee Broadway show (Disney’s The Lion King and Wicked are highly recommended by my kids), you’ll already be in Times Square as you exit, but if not, plan to explore Rockefeller Center then make your way here (only a few blocks). After staring slack-jawed at the brightly lit marquees surrounding the square, start at Discovery Times Square, the Discovery Channel Center at 226 W. 44th, as it closes first (at 8 pm). This center features limited time exhibits that are part show, part museum artifact, and completely engaging. Right now, it’s featuring the Harry Potter Exhibit, which we naturally had to check out. It took us about an hour to go through it, and we weren’t disappointed. The exhibit takes visitors through many props, costumes, and displays used in the movies, from Hagrid’s cabin to OWLS tests, the Weasley twins’ stash of joke shop contraband, and Professor Umbridge’s office, complete with kitten plates and all things pink. We saw all the main characters’ wands and robes, firebolts and Nimbus 2000s, and tried our hand at throwing a Quaffle. At the gift shop, the boys stocked up on Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. The cost of admission is steep at $19 for kids and $25 for adults, but is well worth it if you have true Harry Potter fans in your midst.
Kids will also love a visit to Toys R Us (i.e. kid heaven) on 1415 Broadway. I resisted, thinking we could visit a Toys R Us in any city in the U.S., but I’m glad the kids coaxed me in: the indoor, three-story ferris wheel won Toby’s heart (even if he did end up in a pink Barbie compartment) and the older boys went crazy for the huge Lego section, animatronic dinosaur, and life-sized Star Wars figures on the third floor.
After you’ve dragged them out, the rainbow ‘wall of color’ in the My M&M’s Candy Store is worthy of a visit, but don’t plan to buy any unless $12 a pound seems reasonable to you. This store is otherwise filled with retail junk, but all the bright colors and fun gizmos kept my kids entertained. It’s also fun to give the M&M mood machine a try; when you stand on it, it will determine your personal M&M color based on your mood.
Getting there: A cab ride from any part of Manhattan will probably cost between $7-$12, and via subway, you’ll want to get off on the 42nd Street/Times Square station. Both Rockefeller Center and Times Square are within walking distance of most locations in midtown, including our hotel, Affinia 50.