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10 Affordable Family Activities in NYC

Updated on October 4, 2014
Climbing, free of charge! In Central Park...
Climbing, free of charge! In Central Park... | Source

Kid-Friendly New York on a Budget

Blessed with a wonderful aunt in midtown Manhattan, our kids have taken turns visiting New York City with a parent for many years now. It's one of those places where they charge you to breathe, it seems--but over time we've discovered the kids don't measure fun in terms of dollars spent. There actually are some fantastic family activities in NYC for little or no cash. If you're taking the kids & aren't sure what to do in New York, consider our family friendly favorites.

1. Central Park

Frolic all day for free!

Of all the wonderful spots in New York, Central Park is dearest to our kids' hearts. They'll spend a whole day there & wake up the next one demanding to go back. To our older guy, now 14, an NYC day without The Park is a day without sunshine.

Which is peachy for the pocketbook, because what my kids cherish most about this storied, 843-acre urban oasis is climbing around on its many glaciated rock outcroppings (pictured above). You'll want to keep an eye on the kiddos, especially little ones, when they head for the rocks, but they'll get some fabulous exercise while you soak up the scenery.

Other free aspects of Central Park my kids have enjoyed include its playgrounds (there are 21!), a game at the Chess & Checkers House, and the Strawberry Fields memorial to John Lennon. After many visits there's still more free fun to be had--like climbing Belvedere Castle and watching the wildlife at Turtle Pond.

The park is a treasure trove of affordable family fun
The park is a treasure trove of affordable family fun | Source

If you've got the budget, some activities do carry a fee. The Central Park Zoo ($18 adults, $13 for ages 3 to 12, $15 for 16+, free for 3 and under) is a delight and includes admission to a children's zoo area where you can feed the animals. (Parents of wee ones, if you don't get great photos here, I'm not sure what to tell you!) Our kids haven't outgrown the 1871 carousel, which actually whirls around at a pretty good clip and will set you back just $3 -- if you can limit your young'uns to just one ride, that is! Rowboats rent for $15 for an hour (cash only) and can hold up to 4 people. Model sailboating requires a bit more time (due to a waitlist of eager boaters of all ages) and -- at $11 to rent a battery-operated boat for 30 minutes -- money, but was a huge hit with our 12-year-old.

But really, it's entirely possible to have a fantastic family day here for free. Weather permitting, pack a picnic and just roam the park. Stay an afternoon, a morning, even a weekend. It's a perfect place to get lost on purpose.

~~~ Click here for a basic printable map of Central Park. ~~~

Making music at the (free!) Sony Wonder Lab
Making music at the (free!) Sony Wonder Lab | Source

2. Sony Wonder Lab

Tech-oriented entertainment, gratis

This midtown Manhattan attraction lives up to its name through the wonder of free fun for kids & families. Advance tickets to the Sony Wonder Lab are required but cost nothing. Game building, music, animation & moviemaking stations combine with educational activities like a "robot zone," virtual surgery station & mock news program (working as a team, kids act as director, reporter, cameraman, etc., with an environmental theme) to create a fun morning or afternoon for curious kiddos. It's popular, so call 212-833-8100 as soon as you know your dates. Same-day walk-ins are available but limited.

Take the ferry for a wallet-friendly peek at Lady Liberty
Take the ferry for a wallet-friendly peek at Lady Liberty | Source

3. The Staten Island Ferry

Amazing view of Lady Liberty--no money down

Boat tours are a wonderful diversion in NYC -- we've taken a couple -- but in terms of bang for your buck, it's hard to beat the Staten Island Ferry. This 25-minute free ride offers a picture-perfect view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and runs every 30 minutes, more often during rush hours.

4. Striking Viking Story Pirates

Sidestep Broadway & see this for a fraction of the cost

A stone's throw from Broadway, Striking Viking Story Pirates shows light up Saturday afternoons for people of all ages. The Pirates get their material from schoolkids, many of whom they work with through fun school-based writing programs, and turn them into mini plays, sometimes musical and often hilarious :] Years after seeing them, my kids are still talking about bits like one kid who imitates (to his parents' dismay) everything his dog does and another who refuses to turn down her boombox, even in the face of a bear-assisted policeman. I honestly don't know who enjoys this show more, kids or their parents. The $22 ticket price is a fraction of what it would cost to take junior to a Broadway show, and trust me, he'll have as much fun or more. Free cookies and ice cream after the show, too! What's not to love? :-)

A vintage engine at the Fire Museum
A vintage engine at the Fire Museum | Source

5. The NYC Fire Museum

Fun, educational & moving--$5 max

Set in a renovated 1904 firehouse in the vibrant Soho neighborhood -- great for a walk before or after the museum -- the NYC Fire Museum houses fire-related art and artifacts from the late 1700s to the present. Among its holdings are parade hats and belts, lanterns and tools, pre-Civil War handpumped fire engines and horse drawn vehicles. Kids enjoy trying on a firefighter's gear (really heavy!). The info on fire dogs also appealed to our boys.

On the first floor is a permanent memorial exhibit honoring hundreds of firefighters who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. Rather than visiting Ground Zero, this is the place I chose to pay tribute with my children to these heros. The largest indoor 9/11 memorial in existence, it centers around a wall of 343 tiles engraved with names and photos of those who died that day. There are also artifacts from Ground Zero and still and video images of the aftermath of the World Trade Center's collapse.

The NYC Fire Museum is located at 278 Spring Street between Varick & Hudson. Suggested admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children.

~~~Our secret weapon~~~

We found treasures like the NYC Fire Museum and Sony Wonder Lab in an earlier edition of this book. There's something here for every age & budget.

Stunning views and relaxation await
Stunning views and relaxation await | Source

6. Brooklyn Heights Promenade

Jawdropping views and a playground, too

A friend living in Brooklyn Heights introduced us to this1,800-foot DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) gem with stunning views of downtown Manhattan, the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. Lined with flowers and benches, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade has a playground, too. It was the perfect spot to walk off our equally fabulous Grimaldi's pizza (coal-fired pizza is a good choice for relatively cheap and kid-friendly, but still distinctive, NYC eating).

NYC hustle & bustle, with extra kid appeal
NYC hustle & bustle, with extra kid appeal | Source

7. Grand Central Station

Straight out of a movie scene

This soaring 1913 Beaux-Arts terminal (technically it's Grand Central Terminal, not Station) at 42nd Street and Park Avenue never fails to fascinate our kids. His last time there, one son used the digital camera to create a sort of stop-action movie of trains pulling in. Of all the movies featuring Grand Central over the decades, the one your kids might remember is Madagascar. On the exterior, look for the giant sculptures of Minerva, Hercules & Mercury and the famous Tiffany glass clock. Inside, another clock -- brass, four-sided, and hanging over the info center -- stands as a famous symbol of this massive, bustling terminal.

Rest those sore feet here after a long New York City walk
Rest those sore feet here after a long New York City walk | Source

8. Washington Square Park

Stroll the Village and kick back here

Mingle with street performers, folksingers & chess players in this Greenwich Village landmark at the foot of Fifth Avenue, anchored by a large fountain that people of all ages enjoy dipping their toes into on steamy summer days. If yours, like mine, aren't city kids, it's a blast just to experience the density and diversity of folks hanging out here and enjoy all the sights and sounds. Walk through the Village before or after for more local color.

MOMA: one of the Gotham's most colorful spots!
MOMA: one of the Gotham's most colorful spots! | Source

9. Museum of Modern Art

Free on Friday evenings!

UNIQLO sponsors free Fridays for all ages from 4-8 at MOMA, 53rd St. between 5th & 6th Aves. Lines can get long, so try coming after 6. Most kids won't want to spend more than an hour or so in an art museum anyway, even a cool one like this. And at a cost of zilch, you don't have to feel guilty about the short stay.

Best of all, MOMA now offers wide-ranging programs for kids and families, including hands-on creative workshops; free printable art cards with activities and questions to guide children's exploration of the collections; kids' audio clips for pairing with specific pieces; and family-friendly films, apps, and gallery talks.

Can't make the Friday p.m. time slot? Except when they're visiting in groups (class tours, etc.), youths 16 & under are always free at MOMA! Even with adult tickets set at $25, divide your adult cost by the number in your family & you'll still get much artistic magic for your money.

Just give in & go--for a few minutes, anyway.
Just give in & go--for a few minutes, anyway. | Source

10. Times Square

Sensory overload, but a thrill for kids

Avoid the money traps here (Toys'R'Us, Virgin, etc.) by staying outside and just taking it all in. The crowds, the lights, the magnitude of everything makes Broadway & 7th Avenue a must-see spot for many families visiting New York. My sister-in-law & I have about a 5-minute headache limit with Times Square, but the kids could stay there forever. It's especially fun at night. Bedtimes are futile in the Big Apple :}

Have you taken the kids to NYC? What worked, what didn't? Any cheap thrills to add to my list?


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