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A Gotham that an 11-year-old can love

Special to The Times

EVER since Rudy Giuliani turned New York City into an urban Disneyland, knocking down the triple-X movie theaters to make way for the Toys R Us Ferris wheel on Times Square, parents have flocked to the Big Apple.

I’m no exception.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 31, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 31, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
New York: A Travel section article Sunday on New York for kids reported that Midwest Express was among the airlines offering nonstop service to Newark, N.J. Midwest Express offers only connecting service to Newark, which involves a change of planes.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 03, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
New York -- An Aug. 27 article on New York for kids reported that Midwest Express was among airlines offering nonstop service to Newark, N.J. Midwest Express has connecting service to Newark, which involves a change of planes. America West, Delta, Northwest and AirTran also have connecting service to Newark.

We have returned yearly to my hometown from the time my 11-year-old son, Alex, was 2. So last summer, when a family reunion meant another trip east, I made it my mission to come up with a new list of Cool (and Unexpected) Things to Do With Kids in New York.

Hard to believe, but even as the mother of preteen boy, I had never watched anyone hammer a nail up his or her nose until I visited the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. I had also never observed a young woman make sparks shoot from her mouth or seen a mummified mobster.

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The sideshow is the hippest thing on the Coney Island Pier, sort of a Barnum & Bailey meets the Lower East Side. Forget rubber man and the bearded lady -- these freaks and geeks are as elaborately tattooed as an East Village barrista, and all are skilled in some unique sideshow ability.

The show is housed in a musty-smelling building decorated with posters of fire eaters and knife throwers, but it’s what’s onstage that matters. For more than an hour, Alex and I sat mesmerized as Insectavora, Wild Woman of the Fiji Islands, danced with a boa constrictor; Heather Holiday, America’s Youngest Female Sword Swallower, sucked down sabers; and an entirely normal-looking guy put his hand in an animal trap.

“Don’t try this at home,” I said to my son -- an instruction I repeated when the guy walked barefoot across the edge of a sword.

Fortunately, nobody bit the head off a chicken.

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It would be a shame to make the trip out to Coney Island and not take in a Brooklyn Cyclones game. The Cyclones, a Class-A affiliate of the Mets, are the first baseball team to play in Brooklyn since 1957, when the Dodgers decamped to L.A. The team plays in a new stadium (Keyspan Park) with a view of the Atlantic, and from every seat you can hear the shrieks of people scaring themselves silly on the original Cyclone -- the Coney Island pier’s famous roller coaster.

Attending a Cyclones game is like dipping into America’s melting pot -- although perhaps the result is more coagulated than melted. In our seats near the third base line, Alex and I shared the row with a family speaking Spanish, a father and son wearing yarmulkes under their baseball caps and a man in a T-shirt that read, “Not only am I Italian, I’m right.”

When the Cyclones hit a grand slam, the loudspeakers played “Funiculi, Funicula.” The food at Keyspan Park is equally diverse: Nathan’s hot dogs and potato knishes, shaped like home plate and nearly as heavy, Italian ices and grilled sausages and peppers.

The next afternoon, we headed west to Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex, a 30-acre facility on the Hudson River. Chelsea Piers has two ice rinks, a skate park, batting cages, even its own bowling alley. It also has drop-in programs for kids, featuring activities such as the popular “Rock and Roll” climbing area.

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The “rock” in Rock and Roll is a 22-foot wall with outcroppings that look like miniature versions of Yosemite’s El Capitan. The instructors are young-and-energetic types who begin by buckling the kids into climbing harnesses, then belay them up the wall, shouting encouragement while keeping a good grip (I hoped) on the ropes. Alex, who has mixed feelings about leaving the ground, climbed to the top twice and liked everything about the experience, except the harness.

“That thing gave me a wedgie,” he grumbled.

After the rock came the “roll,” although rolling was only part of it. There was also swinging through the air on a rope swing, jumping on a trampoline and vaulting over a gymnastics horse -- finally landing in an enormous pit filled with foam blocks.

Adrenaline supply exhausted, we chose a more sedentary route for the next day. The Museum of Television & Radio caters to your inner Homer Simpson. There are no exhibits, no audio tours that take you from floor to floor, only screening rooms and a library of practically every television (and radio) program ever produced. This appealed enormously to Alex, and my own twinge of parental guilt over taking my son to a TV museum was assuaged after I learned that the museum’s mission is to promote a greater appreciation of television’s “artistic value, social impact and historic importance.”

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We began our journey toward this greater appreciation in the main theater with a screening of the classic “I Love Lucy” Vitameatavegamin episode. I found the drunken, mush-mouthed Lucy as hilarious as I had when I was 11.

“What did you think?” I asked Alex.

“They advertised cigarettes on TV?” he replied, as if he’d just discovered they had hawked heroin.

Afterward, we dashed to the fifth-floor screening room, where my son was exposed to the historic importance of Ralph Kramden. Then it was off to the library -- a room full of computer terminals where visitors can search the museum’s catalog of more than 110,000 programs.

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Alex chose the “Seinfeld” puffy-shirt episode. I picked a couple of old “Twilight Zones.” Our selections were then transmitted downstairs to a station in the console room, where we settled in to watch. All that was missing were the La-Z-Boy recliners.

Easy-to-swallow history

IT’S my experience that kids are not great fans of walking tours, which usually involve too much history and standing around. They are, however, big fans of eating. To see if eating could trump history, Alex and I set off the next morning for the Essex Market on the Lower East Side in search of a woman who calls herself the Enthusiastic Gourmet.

In real life, the Enthusiastic Gourmet is Susan Rosenbaum, a foodie and tour guide who leads three different food-themed walks of Lower Manhattan. I had chosen the Melting Pot, after Rosenbaum guaranteed there would be plenty of carbs.

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Our first tasting stop was Rainbo Bakery, inside Essex Market, which is one of only three city-run markets left in New York. Amid stalls selling goods as diverse as fish and little statues of saints, we sampled cakes baked and decorated to resemble small ponds, cameras, even dishes of spaghetti and meatballs.

Stop No. 2 was Kossar’s Bialys, where we stood outside munching on garlic and onion bialys, which are like bagels but less chewy.

“Thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” Rosenbaum said, quoting the scripture behind the practice of keeping kosher.

“What?” asked Alex, his mouth full of bialy.

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“They mean a baby goat,” I told him.

At the Pickle Guys, a narrow storefront filled with pickling barrels, we sampled three types of pickles -- new, half-sour and full-sour. The new tasted like fresh cucumbers, full-sours had all the sharp and spicy taste of the brine, half-sours fell someplace in between.

At DiPalo Dairy in Little Italy, where the window displayed a haunch of prosciutto with the hoof still attached, we tried fresh mozzarella and winter Parmesan. And at the Italian Food Center, already crowded with elderly women in black dresses and NoLita (north of Little Italy) hipsters, we were given rice balls as big as our heads.

Our final stop was Ferrara Bakery & Cafe, where among the cases filled with pastries and the gleaming marble floors, we bit into miniature cannoli. Since we had met Rosenbaum a little more than two hours earlier, there’d been a fair amount of history and standing around. But there’d been no whining.

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After a morning spent eating our way through Lower Manhattan, some exercise seemed in order. Enter Bike the Big Apple, which runs half- to full-day tours from Harlem to Coney Island.

Our custom ride began on the Roosevelt Island tram, the same tram Spider-Man kept from tumbling into the East River. Once on the ground, we were off to see the incredible garbage-sucking plant, a building filled with enormous ventilation pipes that suck the trash out of the nearby high-rises.

Then we pedaled over the bridge into Queens. Outside a warehouse-type building, Richard, our guide, had us stop and take a deep breath. I expected exhaust fumes; I got -- doughnuts. We had stopped outside the local Dunkin’ Donuts bakery.

Next up was the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, where the shop signs are in Polish and the car stereos play Polish rap. We had lunch at the cafeteria-style Polonia -- white borscht, stuffed cabbage, pickled salad and little mountains of mashed potatoes, all for less than $12. Back on our bikes, we cycled to the Williamsburg neighborhood, which was once home mostly to Hasidic Jews. Now the residents seem to all be in their early 30s and sporting at least six tattoos.

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At a little Williamsburg mall that featured a yoga studio, Internet cafe and bookstore with no bestsellers, we encountered a Hasidic man coming out of a Tibetan gift shop.

The last leg of our ride was across the Brooklyn Bridge. As we coasted along the wood-slatted bike lane, the New York City skyline spread out ahead of us like a scene from a Woody Allen movie.

Six days, six cool (and unexpected), kid-friendly pursuits. A feat I consider nearly as accomplished as hammering a nail up your nose.

*

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Play date in N.Y.

GETTING THERE:

From LAX to JFK, American, Delta and United have nonstop service. Delta, Northwest, America West, Continental and Northwest have connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $278.

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To LaGuardia airport, American, AirTran, Midwest Express, Continental, United, Delta and Northwest have connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $278.

To Newark, N.J., American, Continental, United, America West, Delta, Northwest, Midwest Express and AirTran have nonstop flights. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $318.

WHERE TO STAY:

Affinia Manhattan, 371 7th Ave.; (212) 320-8026, www.affinia.com. Affinia Hospitality has converted several apartment buildings into hotels, and most rooms have kitchens and multiple bedrooms. Because every room is different, it’s worth asking to see another if you’re not happy with the first choice. Studios from $219.

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WHERE TO EAT:

John’s Pizza, 260 W 44th St.; (212) 391-7560. This is thin-crust, New York-style pizza. Pizzas start at $12.50.

Empire Diner, 210 10th Ave.; (212) 924-0011. This chrome, railroad-car diner stays open 24 hours. The food is only a little better than your average diner fare, but for most kids, it’s worth it just to be eating in this iconic restaurant. Entrees average $12.

ATTRACTIONS:

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Bike the Big Apple, (877) 865-0078, www.bikethebigapple.com. Tours run four to six hours (including a stop for lunch) and cost $55 to $69. Custom tours can also be arranged.

Coney Island Circus Sideshow, West 12th Street at Surf Avenue, Coney Island; (718) 372-5159, www.coneyisland.com. Shows are performed continuously 2-8 p.m. Fridays and 1-11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Admission for adults, $5; children under 12, $3.

Brooklyn Cyclones, Keyspan Park is between Surf Avenue and the Boardwalk, and between West 17th and West 19th streets, Coney Island. For tickets and schedule: (718) 449-8497, www.brooklyncyclones.net. Seats $5 to $10. The Cyclones’ season runs from mid-June to Labor Day.

Chelsea Piers Sports & Entertainment Complex, 23rd Street and Hudson River Park; (212) 336-6500, www.chelseapiers.com. Reservations are required for Rock and Roll; see the website for schedule and reservations. Cost is $25. Kids only.

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The Museum of Television & Radio, 25 W. 52nd St.; (212) 621-6800, www.mtr.org. The museum is open noon-6 p.m. Tuesdays to Sundays (until 8 p.m. Thursdays). Admission is $10, adults; $8, students.

The Enthusiastic Gourmet, (646) 209-4724, www.enthusiasticgourmet.com. The tours run 2 1/2 to three hours and cost $45, which includes all the tastings. Reservations required.

TO LEARN MORE:

The guidebook “Time Out” publishes a bimonthly magazine of things to do with kids. Available at most city newsstands for $3.99, or www.tonykids.com.

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-- Janis Cooke Newman


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