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Taking the Kids

Some Holiday Ins in New York City

December 17, 1995|EILEEN OGINTZ

The construction workers, grateful for steady work in the midst of the Great Depression, spontaneously planted a Christmas tree in the middle of their muddy building site. They gathered around its branches to receive their paychecks on Christmas Eve.

That was in 1931, when Rockefeller Center was being built, and ever since, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree has been a holiday tradition venerated by generations of New Yorkers and recognized around the world as a symbol of the season. It's also one tradition every family visiting New York during the holidays can share, regardless of budget. There's no charge to look at the tree or the skaters gliding by it on the ice rink below. Once the 25,000-plus lights are lit in early December, visitors can stand and admire the 75-foot tree as long as they like.

As with many other holiday amusements in New York, there are crowds, but the masses are fewer early in the day or late in the evening. To warm up a little, make a reservation for Breakfast with Santa or stop in for a midafternoon snack at the American Festival Cafe adjacent to the skating rink (212-332-7620). Or take a turn at skating: Skate rental and admission average $12 for children and $16 for adults during the holiday season.

Families visiting New York might also enjoy the Christmas Spectacular across the street at Radio City Music Hall, complete with a performance by the Rockettes and visits by Santa Claus and even a reindeer. (Tickets start at $25; call 212-307-1000).

Or, perhaps, splurge on the Big Apple Circus, a not-for-profit extravaganza that arrives in New York, unfolding its heated tent outside Lincoln Center every Christmas season. (Tickets start at $10; call 212-268-0055).

While Broadway shows are probably a little too long (and expensive) for the younger set, I took two 9-year-old, first-time visitors to New York to see "Cats," the famous Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on T.S. Eliot's poems. They were utterly transfixed by the production. (Call the Broadway Show Line at 212-563-2929 for a listing and description of current shows.) Trying to save money? Wait in line at the TKTS booth at 47th and Broadway in Times Square for tickets to the same-day performances.

Teenage and preteen girls might enjoy the Fashion Cafe at Rockefeller Center, where they can slurp soup while eyeing Elton John's red plastic suit or one of Madonna's bustiers. My gang of girls loved it.

No matter what the kids' ages, take a spin through FAO Schwarz, where the kids can ogle 15,000 toys. (To beat the holiday crowds--more than 50,000 a day--visit after dinner but before the store closes at 9 p.m.)

There's something about the holiday season in New York, from the intricately decorated displays lining store windows along upper Fifth Avenue down to the singing Christmas tree (formed by members of a chorus) at the South Street Seaport shopping area to the 13,000-square-foot Santaland at Macy's at Herald Square. (To avoid monstrous lines, go on weekday afternoons, Macy's officials suggest.) The kids might also enjoy a walk through Central Park with a stop to admire or join the skaters at Wollman Rink (call 212-396- 1010).

Light a candle in St. Patrick's Cathedral or head to the Winter Solstice Celebration at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Stop to see the 14-foot origami tree at the Museum of Natural History. It's decorated with more than 1,000 hand-folded origami pieces--all made by museum volunteers. Check out the green and red lights that adorn the Empire State Building.

Downtown, the Christmas tree in front of the New York Stock Exchange is every bit as spectacular as the one in Rockefeller Center, and budding entrepreneurs can watch the stocks trade from the Visitor's Center (call 212-656- 5168).

Wherever you go and whatever you choose to see, make sure the children understand safety and what to do if family members become separated. Establish an emergency phone number and meeting place.

Call 800-NYC-VISIT for 24-hour visitor information.

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Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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