10 New York City Holiday Events to Do with Children

Note: I know it's barely fall, and you might be thinking that I am rushing the season. But trust me, you need to plan ahead when it comes to the holidays. Having a plan (and in most cases, a firm reservation) will make any experience with children go a lot smoother- especially when you're going to a big city like New York. I made my NYC plans back in July, but thought it might be a little risky to share this post in the summer. The holidays are a-coming and if you can, you'll want to make time to bring the kids to New York.

New York City is magical any time of year, but there is something extra special about visiting during the holiday season. Whether it’s the department store window displays, the streets lined with twinkling lights, or the endless concerts and shows going to “The City” will put everyone in the holiday spirit.  

Now, while many adults could enjoy simply taking in the sites with a walk, children need to be kept busy. Entertained. Contained. Walking down a busy avenue with a toddler or young child is not a leisurely stroll. My family and I frequently go into New York, but we always have a plan. A destination. A place where my children will be contained. We usually make a stop at the Rockefeller Tree for an annual photo and we’ve done lunch at Serendipity and Carmine’s. Each year I try and find something new to do to celebrate the holidays. Here are some of my favorite activities to do with kids in New York City:

1. New York Botanical Garden Train Show: We go every year. I love the New York Botanical Garden so much we have a membership. You can read about why I love the Garden here.  The entire show is held within the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, which is warm and inviting with sunlight spilling in from every angle. There are dozens of trains zigzagging through the space and hundreds of replicas of famous New York (and International) buildings. Have you child look out for the Thomas, ladybug, and bumblebee trains. Your ticket to the train show also allows you to explore the grounds of the Garden. Officially, the Garden campus is located in the Bronx, but it’s an easy drive from any direction, and there are frequent subway stops within a five minute walk. Been-There-Tips: They do not allow strollers inside the conservatory. Plan on 90 minutes to tour the train exhibit. Book reservations online and go early in the day. It gets very crowded from lunchtime through the afternoon. And you don’t have to rush to get there before the holidays; the exhibit is open through mid January, and it’s much calmer after the first of the new year. Note: My children are "boo-ing" the replica of Yankee Stadium. We're die hard Sox fans.

2. The Christmas Spectacle featuring the Rockettes: You must see the 40 Rockette ensemble in this New York holiday musical dating back to 1932.  The ninety minute show features about a dozen choreographed dances, with two dances remaining the same since the beginning. Have your child look out for the real life animals and ice rink that appear in various scenes. They’ll also love the 3D glasses to see Santa’s trek to New York.  Been-There-Tips: There are 4 levels of seating at Radio City Music Hall and usually there are six shows a day. I would try and splurge to get as close as you can- the third mezzanine makes it hard for little ones to see much. Ask for a booster seat to help raise your child, and prevent him or her from sliding into the fold of the chair. Try for the first show of the day- the lines are very long, and the streets become very crowded after the first show. Children under the age of two are allowed to sit on a parent’s lap and don't need their own ticket.

3. The Nutcracker, performed by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center: I took my daughter last year and it is such a special memory for both of us. Tiny dancers will love seeing the ballerinas performing in beautiful Lincoln Center and all children will love the costumes, music, and special effects like the 40 foot Christmas tree that emerges from the floor, the dancers that come from under Mother Ginger’s costume, and the sword fight scenes with the mice. The show runs about 2 hours, with a twenty five minute intermission.  Been-There-Tips: There are 5 levels of seating at the Koch Theater and there are not booster seats. If you can splurge, I would plan to get seats in one of the first balconies and sit toward the ends of the center rows.  In addition to nightly performances, there are afternoon performances on Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, and a few Fridays.

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4. Tea with Eloise at the Park Plaza Hotel: This past year, I finally took my daughter to the tea. You can attend teas with Eloise all year (and they host birthday parties too!) but there is something special about seeing the Park Plaza all decorated for the holidays. There are two sittings, at 11am and 4pm. The one hour event includes a thirty minute dining portion inside the Eloise suite with finger sandwiches, petit fours, desserts, tea and festive drinks for children followed by a private visit with Santa. Santa will read a holiday story to the group (which has a limit of 29 guests, so it’s an intimate setting) and pose for individual photos. Children receive copies of the photos as well as an Eloise- themed gift bag. Been-There-Tips: This is a great activity for any child ages two and older.  The variety of food options will appeal to both children and adults.  Restrooms are located right outside the Eloise boutique on the lower level of the hotel.

5. Bryant Park: There is so much to do at Bryant Park all year long (read my seasonal tips here) but it’s definitely worth a visit for the holidays. The whole park transforms into a  Winter Village with a patriotic themed decorated tree, an ice skating rink, enclosed and open air restaurants, and over one hundred boutique pop up shops with tons of unique, handmade clothing, housewares, holiday decor, and gifts. The Rink is the only one in New York City that is free of charge for skaters. There are charges to rent equipment and lockers, and the (must have?) skate aids. There are also premium rates to reserve a specific date and time so you can bypass the lines. The website states the the shops, restaurants, and rinks will be open at the end of October. Been-There-Tips:: Bring a stroller. It’s crowded (more so in the afternoon and evenings) and you’ll want to contain little children (and have a place to store anything you purchase). The rink opens at 8am, which is great if you have early risers and catch a warmer day. And don’t feel like you have to rush there for December; The Rink stays open until early March.

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6. Ice Skating at Rockefeller Center: A just as, if not more, well know place for ice skating in Manhattan, people wait in long lines to show off their skills in front of the thousands of people who come to Rockefeller Center each day. You can beat the majority of crowds and go in October or early November, or wait for the iconic tree to arrive in mid November, or postpone even further until the tree is officially decorated in early December. There are lots of times each day to make a reservation (I highly recommend it) or you can gamble with a general admission, ninety minute session. The earlier you go in the day, the smaller the crowds and short the lines.  There are a variety of packages, and if you’re really into skating, you can buy a season pass, or book a skating lesson. Been-There-Tips: There are no lockers, but a check in area that will hold your items, including strollers (they must be folded). There are restrooms on site. Children under the age of four are free, but must have skates. 

7. Breakfast with Santa at Rockefeller Center: If you want to eat before you skate and check in with Santa at the same time, have breakfast with him right at Rockefeller Center. You can pick from two restaurant choices: The Sea Grill is the more formal experience and includes view of the ice skating rink, a visit from Santa right at your table, and holidays gifts for the children. In addition to the family style serving of food at the table, there are stations of charcuterie, chocolate fountains, and bagels. The Rock Center Cafe might be the better option for younger children. Breakfast here, served family style but no additional stations,  also includes views of the rinks, souvenirs of the visit and photos with Santa. Bonus: there’s a Candy Station where kids can create personalized candy bags. At the Cafe, guests go to Santa in a separate room, which might be good for the fidgety toddler crowd who need to move around more frequently. You’ll receive skating tickets for skating at breakfast, which you can use immediately after breakfast, or save for any other day during the season.

8. Gingerbread Lane at the Hall of Science: Another event not officially in Manhattan, but if you can hop on a train or take a quick car ride to Queens, you’ll enjoy exploring the museum and being inspired by the dozens of gingerbread houses on display. The houses are handmade- AND EDIBLE!- and the Hall of Science has made the Guinness Book of World Records for largest gingerbread village several years running. If my memory is accurate, the gingerbread houses are displayed up high, so parents don’t have to worry about enthusiastic children wanting to get a too-close look. The museum has plenty of open spaces for little ones to run around, and many fun, interactive exhibits. The gingerbread houses are usually on display mid November through mid January, so no pressure to visit only in December. We went in November a couple of years ago and my children had a lengthy list going of things they wanted to copy. Been-There-Tips: Admission is included in your entrance fee, and if you’re a member of the National Association of Children’s Museums or the Association of Science and Technology Centers, you get reciprocity benefits.

  My son spent close to an hour just at the bubble stations at the New York Hall of Science.

My son spent close to an hour just at the bubble stations at the New York Hall of Science.

9. SantaLand at Macy’s Herald Square: If you’re looking to recreate a scene from any number of holiday films, you have to go to Macy’s Herald Square. There’s no charge to visit with Santa, and even though there are elves selling photo packages, if you ask nicely the elves will take a photo with your camera. You’ll want your own camera to take photos of the entire SantaLand, which begins with a pretend train ride to the North Pole filled with displays of stuffed animals, toys, decorated trees, and a sleigh of wrapped gifts. SantaLand usually opens the day after Thanksgiving, and on some days on December, can open as early as 7am. Shorter wait times at 7am is a good (albeit small) reward for the up-and-at-‘em early toddler crowd. The elves are known for being super patient and super friendly with children.  Been-There-Tips: If you only want a photo with Santa and don’t mind skipping most of Santaland, you can reserve a spot (for free!) online and skip most of the wait. Bring the stroller to keep the kids close at hand, and bring dry snacks and books to keep everyone entertained. Macy’s is also a great place to play “I Spy” while in line.

Bonus: If your children really do just want to walk (or run) around and burn off some energy, I have heard very good things about the Ginger Bread Houses in Madison Square Park. The life size, completely decorated homes (and I have been told children can go inside some of them) are on display for a couple of week in December. It’s free to visit, and a couple of years ago, folks from Folger’s (they’re a sponsor) were passing out complimentary coffee to parents. I could not find info for this year (I guess not everyone has the holidays on their mind yet), but here’s the scoop from 2016.