New York's Times Square Not A Theme Park, But Close

NEW YORK -- When she's not belting out ``Tomorrow'' on stage, Annie, accompanied by an orphan or two, likes to head out to Times Square for a quick game of Lazer Tag at one of the slick new arcades followed by a bowl of spaghetti or a burger at a hip but positively kid-friendly eatery.

They window-shop at the huge Disney Store that anchors the corner of 42nd Street. Across the street are two other recent arrivals kids love: DAPY for weird and wacky trinkets and Magic Max for take-home magic tricks.

``Times Square is really fascinating, especially at night with all of the lights, and a lot safer than I thought it would be,'' offers 8-year-old Brittny (cq) Kissinger, the endearing Annie of the new 20th-anniversary Broadway production. Her favorite spots: For special occasions, the revolving View restaurant atop the Marquis Marriott and, for dinner, The Olive Garden, with its big windows overlooking Times Square.

``There are still weird people, but it's a lot of fun here,'' agrees Brittny's 11-year-old friend Casey Tuma, who plays the orphan named July. Of course, there are weirdos, as any New Yorker will attest: This is a real city and not a theme park, despite the ever-growing presence of Mickey Mouse, an array of high-tech game palaces (including Lazer Park on 47th Street and Xs Virtual Game Arena at Broadway and 42nd Street), the All Star Cafe and themed restaurants offering every variety of food from family-style Italian (Carmine's) to '40s' diner fare (Stardust Dine-O-Mat) to Tex-Mex (The Manhattan Chili Co.) to pizza under a stained-glass dome (John's Pizzeria) to meals-cum-comedy in an interactive environment (Comedy Nation) to Chinese (Ollie's Noodle Shop). And there are the ubiquitous hot dog, pretzel and souvlaki vendors, too.

For a complete list of Times Square restaurants, hotels, theaters, music stores and other attractions, call the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID) at (212) 768-1560, visit BID's Website at www.times-square.org. When you're in the city, the visitor center is at 226 W. 42nd St. Call (800) NYC-VISIT (cq) to find out about summer hotel bargains and other city-wide information.

Times Square -- that formerly tawdry stretch of 30 square blocks just west of Sixth Avenue, from West 40th Street to West 53rd Street -- is back in business. Big time. And it's rolling out the red carpet for the growing number of tourists now coming to New York -- more than 30 million in the last year, including some 4 million American families, reports the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau.

But 250,000 others now come to Times Square to work every day. Major corporations from MTV to Morgan Stanley to The New York Times are headquartered here, with more poised to join them: David Copperfield's magic restaurant, Madame Tussaud's wax museum, theaters, restaurants and apartments. ``It will never end,'' joked Peter Kohlmann, the marketing director for the nonprofit Times Square Business Improvement District, the coalition of 5,000 businesses and organizations spearheading the rebuilding effort.

The change has been dramatic. Known a decade ago for its hookers and peep shows -- a neighborhood visitors avoided -- Times Square now is the spot kids beg to see first when they come to New York.

And parents are glad to oblige. They're just as anxious to see where the famous ball drops on New Year's and the giant Panasonic/NBC screen at One Times Square.

Annie's real-life mom, Danielle Kissinger, favors browsing at the Virgin Megastore, the largest music store in world, at 45th Street and Broadway. The guitar players in my family wouldn't miss Music Store Row on 48th Street where they can shop in Manny's Music and Sam Ash, just like the rock 'n' roll stars whose photos line the walls. Anybody for a guitar-shaped watch?

Theater buffs may want to introduce their kids to the excitement of the Broadway stage. Times Square, after all, has the biggest concentration of legitimate theaters -- 37 -- in the world.

These days, there are plenty of shows for families to choose from. Besides ``Annie,'' there's ``Grease'' (call Telecharge at (212) 947-8844 for the $125-for-four-family ticket package), ``The King and I,'' ``Beauty and the Beast,'' ``Cats'' (look for discount coupons at the visitor's center) and ``1776'' (which is offering half-price tickets for kids 17 and under; check the Roundabout Theater box office at (212) 869-8400). In October, the stage adaptation of ``The Lion King'' begins performances at Disney's New Amsterdam Theater.

Don't miss the FREE summer theater offered in July by TheatreWorks/USA at the New Victory Theater, the only one in the city devoted to productions for children and the first historic theater to be renovated on West 42nd Street. Call (212) 382-4000.

The fun isn't over when the theaters go dark. Even after a day museum-hopping or sightseeing, kids will want to take in a late movie, play some video games, grab a bite or buy that last souvenir, since many stores are open until midnight.

Tourists can feel New York's pulse on Times Square as well as appreciate the city's diversity. Stand still for a minute as the crowd goes by. How many different languages can you hear? Consider the history in these few blocks. A hundred years ago, families came here for burlesque and vaudeville. Disney's landmark New Amsterdam Theater, built in 1903, was home to the Ziegfeld Follies.

Those backing the rebuilding efforts say those glory days are coming back '90s style -- with multiscreen movie complexes, three-story restaurants and even more legitimate theaters.

It's safer and cleaner here than it was when I was growing up in the New York suburbs. Crime has dropped 47 percent since 1992, and the sidewalks are now among the cleanest in New York. And my kids certainly have more fun than I did.

Times Square businesses are determined to make it better. A private corps of public-safety officers and street cleaners patrol all day and evening, funded by the Times Square Business Improvement District. Look for their distinctive brightly colored jumpsuits: They can help guide tourists, too.

Along the way, stop for a hot pretzel. Take a bite for me.

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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