New York City: Exploring Midtown & Central Park with a Toddler

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Having grown up on the eastern part of Pennsylvania a little more than two hours from New York City, I’ve been there a countless number of times since I was a little girl.  Although my trips have become less frequent since I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, I still try to get there every chance I can.  When my husband was invited there on a work trip over Halloween, I jumped on the opportunity to take our son with us to finally share the fun and fast-paced city with him.

With Will being just shy of 18 months and this likely being the first of many trips with him to NYC, I decided we’d just visit places that we could access by walking from our East Midtown hotel (Intercontinental NY Barclay) versus trying to tackle the whole city.  Midtown is the central part of Manhattan with the biggest business district and many of the icons New York is known for, including Times Square, Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal.   For frame of reference, on this specific trip we generally stayed between 42nd street and 65th Street (going just past midtown into Central Park) and between 3rd and 8th Avenues. We were only there for 48 hours, but it was the perfect amount of time to advantage of the unseasonably warm weather at the end of October to explore.

Where We Stayed

The company sponsoring my husband’s trip covered two nights at the Intercontinental NY Barclay, and I was super excited to stay at a new hotel I haven’t been to (especially when it’s one that would typically be out of our price range!)  While it’s elegance and sophistication may not scream family friendly and we probably only saw one other little kid the entire time, the hotel totally surprised us in a great way.  It was in a good, central location for everything we wanted to see.  Plus everyone there, both guests and employees, created our super friendly toddler with smiles and waves as he wandered around the lobby and halls.  The hotel has an amazing lobby for gathering, which was great for when Will was getting stir crazy in the room and wanted to walk around a bit (and by walk, I mean run around like the crazy little person he is.)

Two things to consider if you’re staying here as a family.  1.)  The hotel primarily has showers (i.e. no tub for bathing that little person) and 2.) the rooms are fairly small, which is common in New York given how much of a commodity space is (and I’ve definitely stayed in much smaller rooms in the city!)  We just made the best of it and created a little space for Will in the corner of the room so he couldn’t peek at us while falling asleep.  The hotel also had the larger metal style cribs that I prefer over a pack n play (Will always seems to sleep better in them.)  They were more than happy to accommodate our crib and mini fridge request so that we could store Will’s milk and snacks without having to run out each time he needed something.  Tip: We love the inflatable Munchkin Inflatable Duck Tub when we’re staying somewhere for multiple nights that doesn’t have a bathtub.

Other family-friendly hotels I’ve stayed at in Midtown in the past and would recommend include:

Where We Explored

I’m an overplanner by heart, but since I committed up front to staying around Midtown it helped me feel like I didn’t need to tackle the entire city and could really enjoy the slower paced way of traveling I’ve come to love with my son.

This was Will’s first time in a really big city and he was perfectly entertained just by walking around and taking everything in.  We tried to take breaks from the constant movement in the stroller, whether it was window shopping with the decorations that were just his height for viewing, or making a quick stop to run around the many sculptures throughout the city.  I also found that by moving at a slower pace, we found some pretty cool art and sights we wouldn’t have otherwise seen if we were just quickly trying to get to our destination.

Bryant Park

With my husband being tied up in all day meetings one day, Will and I had an entire day to explore just the two of us, and the weather was beautiful for walking around.  Since many stores and attractions didn’t open until 10am and Will is an early riser, we spent much of the morning walking around before anything was open and Bryant Park was our first stop.  Tip: Mommy Poppins also has great ideas for things to if your little ones are “Up with the Sun” like mine is.

Bryant Park is one of my favorite places in the city regardless of the time of year, but especially during the winter.  They had just opened the Winter Village that week, which means ice skating and tons of cute Christmas shops to buy creative gifts for everyone on your list.  I was surprised how many early morning ice skaters there were (some in suits nonetheless.)  This was Will’s first time seeing anyone ice skating and he loved observing from the outer fence around the rink that was the perfect height for his viewing, although there’s also an observation deck if you want to stay a little warmer while you’re watching the ice skaters.  And if you’re there after 11am, there’s a lot to do all year round, including Le Carrousel, Art Carts with free crafts, ping pong and multiple board games and chess games available for everyone to use.    They also have several kid-friendly events throughout the week, including magic shows, story time and juggling, to name a few.

Location: Between 40th and 42nd Streets & Fifth and Sixth Avenues// Hours: Typically 7am-10pm (but its a park, so you can walk around whenever!)// Cost: Many activities are free; items are available to purchase including food and gifts; ice skating admission is free but skate rentals are $20.

New York Public Library

While you’re at Bryant Park, be sure to check out the Children’s Center in the Stephen A. Schwarzian Building of the New York Public Library.  It wasn’t yet open when we were there on this trip, but it houses the original Winnie the Pooh and it’s also known for one of the best story times in the city.  So much so that you usually need to get there early to get a ticket (they’re free) given the limited space within story time.  Even though we didn’t go inside, Will got to see the Lion statues (his favorite animal of the moment) and spend some time running around on the steps.

Location: 42nd St & 5th Ave// Hours: Open Every day, hours vary (check website) // Cost: Free

Rockefeller Center

This is another great place to just walk around and take in the sights.  With many of the popular television stations located nearby, there’s never a shortage of events or promotions going on in the area.  When we were there they had just set up the Grinch Christmas Tree to promote the new movie and the #grinchforgood campaign, and they were getting ready to bring in the “official” tree of New York into Rockefeller for lighting on November 28th.  Having been there around Halloween, we also had a chance to catch the Fall decorations that were still there while the rest of the city, including Rockefeller, was prepping for Christmas.  Some of our favorite things to do here include:

  • Stopping at the Channel Gardens, which typically change with the seasons.  This time they had a beautiful Fall display, and since Will is currently obsessed with pumpkins we spent a good amount of time here. (I haven’t quite figured out how to break the news to him that pumpkins are a seasonal thing.)
  • Going shopping or just walk around to look at the window displays.  Our favorite was the Lego store with the Rockefeller Center made of legos that was displayed in the window.
  • Visiting the Top of the Rock Observation Deck with amazing views of the city and something I plan to do again in the future when Will is just a little older (kids under 6 are free!)
  • Ice skating here is also something that should be done at least once in your lifetime, although personally I prefer Bryant Park or Central Park for ice skating since it tends to be less crowded and is also less expensive.

Tip: To avoid the crowds around Rockefeller Plaza, go early.  We were lucky enough to be there on a quiet Thursday morning when Will could run around and play with the pumpkins without me worrying about him getting run over as he toddled everywhere.

Be sure to take a peek inside the beautiful St Patrick’s Cathedral on 5th Avenue before or after your stop at Rockefeller Center since it’s right across the street.  It’s open to the public and is worth at least a few minutes to look around inside.

Location: Between 48th and 51st Streets & Fifth and Sixth Ave// Hours: Vary by attraction but the plaza itself is open to walk through 24/7 Cost: Free if you don’t purchase anything (which can be hard to do!) Top of the Rock starts at $36 for adults and $30 for kids 6-12.  Ice skating is $25+ per session for adults depending on the day, $11 per session for kids under 11 and skate rentals are $12.50.

Central Park

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We lucked out with the weather and spent a good amount of time exploring Central Park on this trip.  The park itself is huge (843 acres in fact) so we stayed around the South End on this trip since it was the easiest to access from our Midtown hotel.  Our favorites for little kids in the southern end of Central Park include:

  • Walking up to the Cop Cot and take a snack break on the bench outside of the covered pavilion, with a beautiful view of the city.  Fun Fact: Cop Cot is actually Scottish for “little cottage on the crest of the hill” and it’s the largest wooden structure in the Park.
  • Exploring Heckscher Playground and the multitude of swings, slides and play areas, including a sand pit and water channels.  It’s the perfect oasis for little kids in the middle of the city, and Will’s favorite part was running around on the patches of grass and soft ground after a day and a half of being cooped up.  Fun Fact: Heckscher is the both the oldest of all the parks in Central Park, built in 1927, and the largest at 1.8 acres.  Tip: There are fairly clean public restrooms here along with a changing table if you need it.
  • Taking a ride on the Carousel, which is one of the largest in the United States.  The hours vary and while we walked to it on our trip we it unfortunately wasn’t open for us to ride, although I loved it growing up.  Tip: Call the park at 212.439.6900 (ext. 4) if you’re anxious to ride the carousel and want to make sure it’s open before walking over there.
  • Stopping by the Chess & Checkers House to play a game and pick up a Discovery Pack
  • Ice skating if you’re there during the cooler months. Wollman Rink between 62nd and 63rd is my favorite at Central Park. Admission is $12 for adults ($19 on weekends and holidays) & $6 for children, plus skate rentals are $9.
  • Visit the Central Park Zoo along with the Tisch Children’s Zoo (see below for more information)
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    Central Park Zoo & Tisch Children’s Zoo

    Out of all the times I’ve been to New York and Central Park, this was my first time visiting the Zoo.  If you’re thinking about going, just keep in mind it’s right in the middle of one of the biggest cities in the world, so it’s likely not going to be at the same scale as other zoos you may be used to.  This was the case for us after all our visits to the Pittsburgh Zoo with it’s spacious areas for the animals to be in a natural feeling habitat.  (Plus all those years of watching Madagascar 2 totally mislead me into thinking there are more animals like the like lions, zebras, hippos and giraffes.)  We still enjoyed it though, and anything the zoo may be lacking in space or animals is definitely made up for with the amazing views of the city throughout.

    In the main part of the zoo, Will loved watching the sea lions swim and the snow monkeys climb back and forth between the rocks.  The snow monkeys were situated in the middle of the zoo in an open area, and I had a hard time bringing him to the next exhibit after he created his own game of peek-a-boo with the monkeys.  I should also mention that the main part of the zoo isn’t necessarily set up for moms pushing strollers, so keep the following in mind if you’re going here with your little ones:

    • Many of the animals were in separate, inclosed indoor rooms and they require you to leave your stroller outside.
    • The viewing areas can be difficult to see for little kids, and some of the rooms are darker inside, so if your kid’s anything like mine, they may not love it! I ended up carrying Will most of the way in the unseasonably warm weather, something I wasn’t prepared for on this solo sightseeing day with no extra hands.
    • Some of the paths (particularly at the top of the hill by the bears) aren’t stroller-friendly and you’re required to take a different route.

    For some of the downfalls of the main part of the zoo at this age with the stroller limitations, the Tisch Children’s Zoo totally makes up for it.  It had the cutest areas to run around and explore.  From the moment we entered, we were greeted by a multitude of birds and fun pathways to walk on. Will’s favorite part was the animal feeding, since he LOVES goats.  Note: There’s a separate entrance to the Children’s Zoo but it’s included with the price of admission.

    Tip: Stop by the adorable animal lined Delacorte Clock on your way to or from the children’s zoo to hear the chimes and nursery rhymes every hour.

    Location: Central Park, 64th St & 6th Ave// Hours: Currently 10am-4:30pm daily until April. Check the website before visiting as they vary by season Cost: $19.95 for adults (although we were there on a Thursday in November and my ticket was only $13.95)  Children 3-12 are $14.95 and kids under 2 are free

    FDNY Fire Zone

    This store and free exhibit is small, so you can easily miss it when walking by the 51st street entrance.  It’s definitely worth the stop though, especially if you have kids obsessed with firefighters/ trucks/ anything that moves like ours.  At the FDNY Fire Zone Fire-Safety Center, you can:

    • Climb onto a firetruck and push buttons, pretend to steer, call someone on the intercom and strap yourself to the back seat.
    • Try on the jackets and hats that firemen wear
    • View the many badges from hundred of different fire stations
    • Meet real fire fighters
    • Buy a souvenir from the extensive gift shop, which is great for all the little firefighter fans out there
    • Watch the simulated fire safety presentation to learn what to do if you’re caught in a fire and how to prevent them (recommended for ages 5+)

    Location: 51st St between 5th & 6th Ave// Hours: Mon-Sat 9am-7pm and Sun 11am-5pm// Cost: Admission is free; fire safety presentation is $6 for adults and children.

    Times Square

    If you’re in Midtown, you definitely need to at least walk through Time Square.  We were able to stop and find a spot that wasn’t crowded to let Will out of the stroller for a minute, which he loved.  While the crowds can be overwhelming for a little one, two toddler-friendly stores to stop in are the Hershye’s Chocolate World, the M&M Experience and the Disney Store.  Note: If you had ideas of taking your kid to the Toys ‘R’ Us store with the big ferris wheel like I did, it’s unfortunately closed like the rest of the Toys ‘R’ Us franchise.  On the bright side, F.A.O Schwartz is re-opening in Rockefeller Center November 18, 2018 (yay!)  I’m super excited to take Will back in the future, since F.A.O Schwartz was always the highlight of our trips to New York City growing up.

    Grand Central Terminal

    We completely forgot about it on this trip, but if you have time while walking around, be sure to stop at the Grand Central Terminal entrance at 42nd Street to see the iconic and beautiful building inside.  And if you’re there from November to February with little kids, there is a holiday train display at the NY Transit Museum Gallery that shouldn’t be missed.

    Halloween in East Midtown

    While this isn’t an activity that can be done any time of year, I can’t go without mentioning it.  We arrived on Halloween during our trip and were super excited to experience a different type of trick or treating than we were used to in the suburbs. Having consulted my family travel groups and friends in the city with toddlers, I ultimately decided to trick or treat in East Midtown, sponsored by the East Midtown Partnership.  The decision was originally more for the convenience of not wanting to have to take him to a neighborhood like the Upper West Side (known for its trick or treating and and decorations) after a long drive there.  I was so glad we did it though and would highly recommend for anyone looking for a different trick or treating experience next year in New York City.  East Midtown Partnership did a great job with the event, and all of the shop owners were very welcoming and friendly to our little shark and the other trick or treaters.  If you ever find yourself in New York City over Halloween, there are also a ton of amazing parades and neighborhoods that go above and behind for Halloween.  Mommy Poppins was also a great resource to figure out where all the best Halloween celebrations were.

    Tip:  You’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so make sure you have a stroller that’s small enough to get around and doge the crowds but sturdy enough to get up and down the sidewalks with low impact to your little one.  The Summer Infant 3-D Lite stroller is perfect for this kind of trip.  While the subway is doable, keep in mind there are stairs everywhere and elevators or ramps are often difficult to find.

    Where We Ate

    When traveling we try not to eat every meal at a sit down restaurant, since it’s a lot of sitting and waiting to ask of a 17-month old.  We also avoided some of the overpriced touristy spots on this trip, although I have all intentions of hitting those up once Will is a little older.

    Breakfast

    Bread + Butter: This place is great for any meal of the day and has any type of food you can imagine.  The set up is a little overwhelming at first since there are so many stalls to order from separately.  Once you order from any of the endless options, you pay for everything in the middle of the store.  I had a yummy egg white, veggie and turkey bacon breakfast wrap.  Tip:  The upstairs seating is a little difficult to get to with a stroller, but there’s downstairs seating with only a few steps that’s easy to get to.  We were the only ones sitting there at the time and Will enjoyed the downtime to run around and play for a solid 20 minutes, which was great since I knew he’d be in the stroller for a while that morning.

    Milk + Honey: It’s not a trip to New York without freshly made, New York style bagels loaded with cream cheese.  I had the lox spread on multigrain with veggies and my husband had the scrambled egg sandwich on a plain bagel, while Will devoured the fresh fruit and nibbled on a multi-grain bagel.  We stopped here more for the convenience of being in the area and wanting something that wasn’t a chain that we could sit down, but I’d definitely stop here again for a bagel. P.S. This place is Kosher if that’s something you’re looking for!

    Lunch

    We opted for the convenience of food halls for lunch both days since were able to grab something and take it back to our hotel to take a break from the crowds.  Urbanspace has two food halls in East Midtown, and we ended up going to both of them since they were located on our walks back to our hotel both days.  stopped

    • At UrbanSpace Vanderbilt we had We had a sushi burrito and amazing tuna poke bowl at Hai Street Kitchen & Co.  (Will had PB&J when we ate sushi, but there are also other more kid-friendly offerings like tacos, pizza, fried chicken and grilled cheese available at various stands.)
    • At UrbanSpace @570 Lexington Will and I shared the green falafel platter that was loaded with falafel, hummus and veggies, plus a yummy grilled pita. the next day for lunch.  Both are food halls in Midtown East with similar offerings.

    Both spots were a little crowded to navigate with the stroller, which was another reason why we ate back in the hotel, but it was totally doable and they do both have ample seating available.

    Dinner

    Dos Caminos: After an early afternoon of trick or treating on our first day there, we ended the night with dinner at Dos Caminos, which was recommended by our hotel.  There are a handful of locations throughout the city and we went to the one at 50th St & 3rd Ave. They had a great kids menu (always a plus for us!) and if you read my post on kid-friendly restaurants in Pittsburgh, you know that our son LOVES mexican food.   It’s a little dark but it was super spacious and we had a corner to ourselves without feeling like Will was going to disrupt someone while he was jamming out to the music.  He had the cheese quesadilla with grilled corn that had the coolest braided corn husk, and the kids meals also came with a drink and ice cream to finish off the meal.  I had amazing grilled fish tacos and Frank enchiladas made two ways.  Extra points to Dos Caminos for honoring Anthony Bourdein on Dia de los Muertos.  Tip:  The bathroom I used didn’t didn’t have a changing table, so make sure you have a changing pad if it’s an emergency.

    Bareburger: This burger joint has several locations throughout the city and we met a friend at the one at 52nd & 2nd for dinner one night.  It was my first time at a Bareburger, and it’s focus on organic, locally sourced food and sustainability and the unique menu to go along with that makes it different from most burger chains (the sweet potato and kale burger was amazing.)  Plus they have a “Cubby” kids menu with several options to choose from.

    Sweet Treats

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    We grabbed 2 scoops of Cookie Do in Urbanspace @570 Lexington, wanting to see what the hype was all about (especially after all those years of my mom telling me I would get sick from eating cookie dough.)  We tried the birthday cake and the halloween special and both were amazing.  They were so rich that it took the 3 of us pretty much a whole day to finish the 2 scoops, but I definitely recommend giving it a try.

    Trick or Treating with East Midtown Partnership also allowed is to visit some of our old favorites for dessert (thankfully Will was too young to thing that trick or treating every year will include cupcakes, cookies and chocolate covered strawberries!):

    Additional Midtown recommendations for some of the more well known (aka more touristy) places that are worth it for the experience include:

    After our first trip to New York City with Will, I already can’t wait to go back and explore more of the city with him.   This trip was also a reminder to me that the best forms of entertainment at this age are often the ones that cost nothing.  Aside from one admission to the Central Park Zoo, the rest of our sightseeing was totally free.  Will had a blast, the three of us somehow had the best nights sleep in a small hotel room (a rarity for traveling with kids) and our 6 1/2 hour drive each way was painless. And even if it didn’t go so smoothly, as can be the case with many trips with a little one, the look of amazement on his face when we drove into the big city for the first time and he took in all of the taxis, flashing lights and beeping horns would have made it worth it alone.


    Will’s Trip Stats: New York City (Midtown & Central Park)/ October 2018/ 17 Months Old

    Children’s Book Inspiration:  Go, New York, Go by Josh Cleland

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    4 thoughts on “New York City: Exploring Midtown & Central Park with a Toddler

    1. What a great trip! Traveling with a toddler has its challenges, but the slowing down and “planning small” part is something I’ve really been enjoying. When we traveled before kids we were always moving and rushing. Now we are forced to slow down and plan less and I really kind of love it!

    2. How have I not been to the Big Apple yet? I’ve always thought it’d be a place I’d explore without kids. Maybe not after reading this.
      Thanks for linking up to #fearlessfamtrav

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