NEW YORK CITY -- The view was spectacular, the one the astronauts get from the space shuttle. The kids were craning their necks upward watching the faraway Earth slowly turn, oceans giving way to mountains.
But we were in the middle of Manhattan. Specifically, we were in the American Museum of Natural History's new interactive Hall of Planet Earth looking up at the eight-foot-wide globe that beams down satellite data.
``The goal here is to convey the excitement scientists feel studying the Earth,'' explained the Hall's co-curator, Rosamond Kinzler, whose young son accompanied her on expeditions to gather some of the specimens. She looked around approvingly at parents and kids reaching out to touch giant rocks and using the banks of computers to learn about volcanoes and earthquakes.
This museum and others in New York -- the city has 150 -- are crammed with traveling families this summer. The Big Apple is a must-see city -- not only hip but safe. And with all those museums, the kids are bound to learn something without even realizing it.
``Family travel is a big and growing market for us,'' said Nell Barrett, a spokesman for the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau. She noted that New York has become one of the country's top tourist draws, right behind Orlando and Las Vegas, attracting 34 million visitors last year. It's the top destination for foreign travelers, many of whom travel with kids, too.
The increasing numbers of family travelers is why the city launched special KidSider Tours this summer (and through September) to top cultural attractions, like the American Museum of Natural History, so families could get a kid-friendly view without missing the high points.
For example, families could make a paper quilt at the Museum of American Folk Art, see a kid-sized re-creation of an Upper West Side neighborhood from 100 years ago at the New York Historical Society, watch a dance class at the Dance Theatre of Xarlem or get whisked from the dinosaurs to the rain forest to the rocks at the Museum of Natural History.
(These programs aren't offered every day, however. Visit the New York City Convention and Visitor Bureau Web site at www.nycvisit.com or CitySearch at www.newyork.citysearch.com for more KidSider tour information. Call the museum you want to visit to see if it is participating.)
Whenever you come, families won't want to miss:
THE INTREPID SEA-AIR-SPACE MUSEUM berthed on the Hudson River, where families can tour the 900-foot-long aircraft carrier as well as a Vietnam-era destroyer, the only missile submarine open to the public and the world's ultimate spy plane. (Call 212-245-0072 or www.intrepid-museum.com.)
THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART houses spectacular art from around the world, and little boys will love the armor and swords and all kids will go ga-ga in the Egyptian rooms, complete with the ancient Temple of Dendur reassembled as it appeared on the banks of the Nile. (Call 212-535-7710. Ask about special family programs at 212-570-3930 or visit the Web site at www.metmuseum.org.)
THE BROOKLYN CHILDREN'S MUSEUM, the world's first kids' museum, is celebrating its centennial this year with an exhibit called Together in the City! It shows visiting kids how people play, work and celebrate throughout New York, complete with an interactive subway ride, a pizza parlor where they can make their own pies and the chance to be a movie director. Call 718-735-4400 or www.bchildmus.org.
ELLIS ISLAND AND THE STATUE OF LIBERTY, where families can replicate the immigrant family's journey through the immigration center at Ellis Island Immigration Museum. Be prepared for long lines at the Statue of Liberty. (Call 212-363-3200 or www.nps.gov/stli. Go first thing in the morning if you want to climb the 22 stories to the crown.)
THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY is at the top of the must-see list for every family visiting New York, who usually come first to see the dinosaurs. But there's much more -- 40 exhibition halls crammed with 32 million fossils, stuffed animals and cultural artifacts from around the world. It's never been so much fun, as museum curators add more for kids to touch and explore, as in the Hall of Planet Earth. (Take a virtual tour before you come by going to the HoPE Web site, linked to the museum's site at www.amnh.org or call 212-769-5100.)
At the same time, The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition is the ideal antidote for a bored teenager. It tells the epic story of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914 doomed expedition through 150 pictures taken by the ship photographer and salvaged from the sinking ship along with diaries and even the lifeboat that Shackleton took 800 miles in freezing hurricanes to find help. The entire crew ultimately survived. (Call 212-769-5200 for special ticket reservations.)
Even 15-year-old Matt -- who would have preferred to be anywhere but a museum on a summer afternoon -- was impressed.
IF YOU GO:
Access the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-nyc-visit and see about hotels with special kids' amenities.
If you're planning to hit several of the city's top attractions, consider a CityPass which will save you half on visits to the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum, the Intrepid, the Museum of Modern Art as well as the Empire State Building and the Top of the World Trade Center. You can bypass lines, too. The pass is good for nine days and costs $28 for adults and $21 for teens. Younger children are free at many of these places. Visit the Web site at www.citypass.net for links to hotels offering special family packages.
``Kids Eat New York,'' by Sam Freund and Elizabeth Carpenter, a mom-and-son duo, offers reviews of 150-plus kid-friendly restaurants, including an index that will enable you to find a good place to eat close to the museum you're touring. ($11.95, The Little Bookworm)
Frommer's ``New York City With Kids'' is a good all-round family guide to the Big Apple. (Macmillan Travel, $15.95)
(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate