NEW YORK CITY -- We didn't go to the top of the Empire State Building. We didn't climb the Statue of Liberty or visit Ellis Island. We didn't go near the much-touted, brand-new Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History.

``No museums!'' my 14-year-old tour guides decreed. So we skipped them. And we had a blast, exploring the city lights -- those they wanted to see -- from Times Square to Soho to the Lower East Side.

New York is enjoying a much-deserved resurgence as a tourist mecca, especially for families and teens. This is, after all, the city where thousands of kids crowd Times Square outside the MTV studios every afternoon to cheer their favorite bands -- and try to get on TV when the hit show ``TRL'' (Total Request Live) is taped. (Check out www.mtv.com to see who will be there when you visit. The show is taped 3:30-4:30 p.m. weekdays.)

Sixteen percent of Big Apple tourists now are families -- more than 3.3 million a year and growing fast, New York tourism officials say, their numbers helped by the booming economy and New York's safer, friendlier image.

That was underscored when parents surveyed around the country for Yesawich Pepperdine & Brown's Portrait of Family Travel ranked New York as one of the top five places they want to take their children on vacation.

Even better, this is one destination that won't get a glassy-eyed look from your teens. The reaction was just the opposite when I suggested a whirlwind tour of the Big Apple to my daughter Reggie and her two camp buddies, Chicagoans Samantha Nisenboim and Kirby Mages, who were planning a visit East.

The same kind of short adventure would work in any city -- a night or two in a hotel, glitzy restaurant dinners, a play and lots of shopping if girls are along or pro sports events for boys. The key: allowing the kids to set the itinerary.

I made two decisions. I chose the hotel, opting for the Avalon, a lovely newly renovated small downtown hotel between Fifth and Madison avenues not far from Macy's and the Empire State Building (wishful thinking that we'd squeeze in one tourist site). Most of the rooms are spacious junior suites. Even better, breakfast was included in the price. The girls loved the marble bathroom and the terrycloth bathrobes -- one for each of them.

The best deal is the $450 two-night Key to the City Package that includes breakfast for the gang and two adult City Passes with entrance to six top attractions, including the Guggenheim Museum, the Empire State Building and the American Museum of Natural History. Call the Avalon at 1-888-HI-AVALON or www.theavalonny.com.

The Fitzpatrick Grand Hotel (on East 44th Street at Lexington Avenue) is another small family-friendly enclave with special amenities for kids along on parents' business trips. Rates start at $229 in the summer for a suite. Call 800-367-7701 for rates.

My second right decision: I chose ``The Lion King'' for our foray on Broadway. These oh-so-sophisticated teens weren't persuaded I'd made the right choice until the curtain came up and they were wowed. The girls loved everything about the spectacular prize-winning production -- the staging, the costumes, the puppetry, the terrific voices. ``This would be wasted on younger kids,'' Kirby said. She was right.

(The downside: You must book tickets to ``The Lion King'' months ahead. Call 212-307-4747 or www.disneyonbroadway.com. This fall, ``The Lion King'' will begin performances at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. Tickets go on sale in May.)

As much as my gang enjoyed the theater, that was about all the culture they could take. The next morning, they were ready to shop till they dropped. But not uptown. Instead, we wound our way through Soho, which is far more mainstream than avant garde these days but proved perfect for my young trio. The most important stop: Sephora. Among Europe's largest beauty retailers, these shops are favorites with the young crowd because they can sample all the products. (There's an even bigger store at Rockefeller Center. Visit www.sephora.com.) Who needs museums when you can spend all morning deciding the exact shade of pink lip gloss to buy?

We browsed our way down Broadway, in and out of tiny boutiques and stores such as Urban Outfitters, to lunch at Balthazar, the popular brasserie on Spring Street. (The phone is 212-965-1414.) The girls didn't spy any celebrities -- at least any they recognized -- but gobbled terrific burgers and fries.

After lunch, I figured I'd sneak a history lesson into our shopping excursion. We made our way through Chinatown to the Lower East Side's Orchard Street, where generations of immigrants started their quest for the American Dream. I remember coming here as a kid to get bargains. Today there are still bargains -- some 400 stores within a 10-block radius where you can buy everything from lamps to socks.

While we were in the neighborhood, I should have insisted we stop at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum on Orchard which re-creates the way immigrant families lived here. (Call the museum at 212-431-0233 or www.tenement.org. Visit the Lower East Side's Business Improvement District Web site at www.lowereastsideny.com or call 888-VALUES4.)

The kids were too busy bargaining and shopping to stop anywhere but a store. They were thrilled with their ``fake'' Kate Spade purses (less than $20) and their bargaining prowess at the perfume store where they got the hapless clerk to knock $5 off their favorite scent.

Next trip, they vowed, as we headed back to the hotel laden with shopping bags, they'll spend more time uptown.

``At the Metropolitan Museum?'' I asked innocently.

No way. They'll go straight to Bloomingdale's.


Call NYC&Company, the city convention and visitors bureau, at 800-NYC-VISIT or www.nycvsit.com. Ask about special KIDSIDER tours of area museums and special YOUR TICKET TO SUMMER discounted hotel packages.

(c) 2000, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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