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Minor Adventures

Clare Ellis needed an online guide to kids' activities, so she created one

June 04, 2002|SUSAN HOWLETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At parks and school bus stops, in Everytown, U.S.A., there have always been neighborhood kaffeeklatsches, places where kid-friendly travel ideas are exchanged along with diaper coupons and teething tips.

Enter the Internet age and GoCityKids, a Web-based guide for parents that has moved the "what-to-do-with-the-kids" quandary into cyberspace. Clare Ellis, a mother of two, created the Web site after moving with her family from Massachusetts to San Francisco two years ago.

Ellis, former editor of Disney's FamilyFun magazine and of BabyCenter, an online site for parents, found herself roaming the local bookstore in search of a city resource of activities for children.

"We were in a rut, going to the same places over and over again, and I had the distinct sense we were missing out on the best our city had to offer," she said. But at the bookstore, Ellis says, she found only tourist guides that fell short when it came to the younger set.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and as it turns out, Ellis became the mother of an invention that has become a resource for parents across the nation--a Web site that has the kid world covered city-by-city, including Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco.

By the end of the year, the site plans to cover 25 cities. Currently it has editors in 10, with an average of 700 listings per city. The site includes an age-based activity finder, weekly newsletter, calendar of family-oriented events and a parent rating system of various attractions.

"Now I take my boys everywhere," says Ellis, 44, who runs the growing dot-com franchise from the San Francisco home she shares with her husband, Kip Webb, a pediatrician and health care consultant, and sons, Ryland, 9, and Gordy, 5.

"We go to museums, shows, playgrounds, take tours, stay in hotels, try out restaurants. It's a blast," she said, "just what I was hoping would happen when I first came up with the idea."

GoCityKids.com and its parent company, Rooftop Publishing Inc., operate with a staff of about 20 parents, who serve variously as editors, designers and in business development, Ellis says.

"We are a grass-roots, home-spun organization," says Ellis, who logs on each day at 7 a.m., juggling bowls of Peanut Butter Bumpers, sleepy kids in pajamas and school lunches. "But we like it that way," she says, adding that GoCityKids editors are asked to visit and experience everything they publish on the site so other parents can benefit from their firsthand experience.

The site is used by parents who want to discover hidden, kid-friendly treasures in their own backyards as well as by those traveling to unfamiliar city destinations. Users navigate the site by clicking on a desired city, then choosing an activity or attraction based on everything from the age of the child, to what he or she likes or dislikes.

When David Stier planned a "guys trip" with his two boys to visit their grandmother in south Florida, he went to www.gocitykids.com in search of adventure in the greater Miami area.

"I have two energetic sons, so we were looking for activities outdoors," said Stier, a 44-year-old medical research consultant from San Francisco.

"All of the listings on the site have little blurbs from the perspective of a child or parent who tell what it was like to go there," he said. "I had used GoCityKids for things to do in San Francisco, but never for a trip.

"We ended up finding the greatest place, the Everglades alligator farm," he said. "We never would have found it otherwise."

Keeping parents and their children busy also keeps GoCityKids editors hopping, says Drew Kristofik, the site's editor in chief based in Westport, Conn.

"I have done just about everything," says Kristofik, 43, a childhood friend of Ellis', mother of two and former director of content for the Nickelodeon Web site.

"I even ran a scavenger hunt from September to November, with clues all over New York City," she says. "Everywhere you look, we have something to do."

Kristofik says many parents use the site from afar. "We get a lot of users from Australia, Europe and Japan," she says. "I assume they are looking at the calendar and checking out places to stay and where to eat when they travel to one of our cities. We keep things up to date."

Keeping the activities and listings on the site current is key, says Kristofik, adding that outdated information is a common problem with printed city guides.

"I would find a great restaurant in one of the books, and I would drag my kids all across town to get there, only to find it to be gone or out of business," she says. "We don't let that happen at GoCityKids. With the Internet, we can turn on a dime."

In addition to its coverage of California's three biggest cities, GoCityKids covers New York, Boston, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Later this month, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Atlanta are expected to be added. By August, an additional round of expansion is planned to take in Austin, Houston, Portland, Ore., and the Twin Cities.

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