If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I’m passionate about finding the kid-friendliest hotels to recommend. There are a lot of things I look for when I stay in hotels, but really it comes down to how proactive has the hotel been in looking at stays from a kid’s perspective, and what have they put into place to engage kids during the stay? If the kids are happy, the family will have a better vacation, and they’re likely to return – a pretty good return on investment for the hotel.
The problem is that a lot of hotels just don’t get it, and the ones that do tend to be high-end properties that aren’t accessible for families with budgets. So I was very excited to find out about Westin’s new Family Program being rolled out in all of their hotels and resorts around the world. Westin has looked at every element of a family vacation, worked on improving each element, and has tied everything in to its six pillars of wellbeing: Sleep Well; Eat Well; Move Well; Feel Well; Work Well and Play Well. Not only was I excited to find out about the program, I decided to travel to New York on short notice for the launch party.
Given that my oldest daughter would be turning ten in the next few days, I included her in the trip – an impromptu birthday getaway! I booked two LA-Newark tickets on United, booked three nights at the Westin Times Square, took my daughter out of school for two days and off we went.
One of the things I love about the Westin initiative is its tagline: Wonder Awaits. That definitely turned into the theme of the getaway weekend. We arrived on a Friday night and left Monday afternoon, and in that two and a half days we did a lot. Here are our highlights, lowlights and New York City family getaway recommendations.
Ice Skating in Bryant Park
My daughter wanted to go ice skating, and given how close Bryant Park is to the Westin, it made the most sense to head there. We walked over right when they opened at 8am on Monday morning and skated for over an hour and a half. With the weather in the 50s and no line to get in, it couldn’t have been a more perfect morning. The total cost was $46 for two skate rentals (peak season) and bag check. If I had brought my skates and a padlock from home, the cost only would have been $19 for my daughter’s skates. Avoid the weekends if possible – wait until the locals are back at work and school.
A Private Tour of the Met
I realize that this isn’t something that everyone can arrange, but it’s one of the beauties of Facebook – keep in touch with people from your past because you never know what will happen. In this case, a friend from college saw that I was coming to New York and offered us a private tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art before it opened to the public on Saturday morning. Wow! If ice skating was a slightly superfluous use of school time, a private tour of a museum was a perfect educational element to inject into this trip. We stayed in the Ancient Egypt section of the museum the entire time, and my daughter is now highly knowledgeable in Egyptian temples, gods, offerings, hieroglyphics, mummification and the afterlife. It’s a truly extraordinary experience to have one of the world’s great museums to yourself for an hour.
Based on the best seats available at the last minute, we purchased tickets to the Sunday matinee of Wicked and the Sunday evening performance of Aladdin. Seeing two plays back to back isn’t ideal without a dinner reservation in the middle, so we snacked before Aladdin and then walked over to Shake Shack for dinner after the play was over. My daughter loved both musicals and would highly recommend them to all families!
We went to brunch at Sarabeth’s Upper West Side location on Sunday morning and then slowly wandered through the park to Wicked on 51st street. If we hadn’t had a definitive time requirement for having to get to the play, we could have stayed in the park all day – playing on the rocks, watching boats and enjoying the lingering fall colors and record high temperatures.
The Westin Launch Event
The Westin Family event was fun – so much fun, in fact, that we stayed far longer than the 1pm closing time. There was excellent (healthy) food, crafts, a photo booth, teepees and even a treehouse – all on the 14th floor of the Chelsea Arts Tower. My daughter even has a new best friend! And the event gave me a good feel for Westin’s new Family Program initiative. In short, they get it. They’re committed to engaging kids from check-in to check-out, incorporating in-room surprises, tying in healthy food options and activities like yoga, and making the kids clubs at their resorts truly interactive, educational and fun. From both a family writer perspective and a parent perspective, I love everything I heard and saw.
Not much went wrong on this amazing weekend, but we did make one major mistake: we went out to walk around Saturday night. Christmas is busy anyway, and combined with the warm weather, everyone in New York seemed to descend on Midtown Manhattan at the same time. We could barely move in Times Square, so we went into the flagship Toys R Us location to try to escape the crowds. It was just as bad in there. So we left Times Square and walked over towards Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree. That was an even bigger mistake. It took us over 40 minutes to walk one block from the Avenue of the Americas to Fifth Avenue through Rockefeller Center. In retrospect, even settling for worse show tickets, we would have been better off going to shows Saturday and Sunday nights and leaving Sunday afternoon open to enjoy the city.
Where We Ate
Osteria al Doge is one of our favorite restaurants anywhere, and it’s always the first place we make a reservation when we’re coming to New York. We had an excellent dinner there on Friday night – squid ink risotto for me and spinach ravioli for my daughter. We also thoroughly enjoyed burgers and shakes from Shake Shack on 8th Avenue near the hotel on Sunday night. Brunch at Sarabeth’s was excellent, and we ate breakfast the other two mornings at the Wafels and Dinges stand at Bryant Park (we both highly recommend getting waffles with bananas, walnuts and Belgian chocolate fudge). And several friends had recommended going by Schmackary’s for fresh cookies, so how could we not? The cookies didn’t disappoint!
Where We Stayed
We loved the Westin New York at Times Square. It’s a perfect location for exploring virtually all of Manhattan, and the hotel instantly engaged my daughter with check-in amenities including a backpack, a list of local activities for families and a well thought-out travel journal. When we arrived at the room there was a yogurt station set up for her birthday, including five mason jars full of toppings and fresh fruit, as well as a yogurt smoothie. The next night there were red velvet cupcakes waiting for us with another Happy Birthday note. And I hadn’t even told my daughter that Westin’s known for its beds, and she made the comment that she’s never slept better in a hotel. We would stay there again in a heartbeat.
How We Traveled
My intent was to take the train from the Newark Airport to Penn Station and then walk to our hotel, but when I saw the cabs right outside of the United baggage claim, I made the quick decision to take a taxi instead. At 3pm on a Friday it took us 50 minutes to travel from the airport to the hotel and cost $80. Going back to the airport we took the train. We left the hotel at 11:55am, walked 13 minutes to Penn Station and quickly found the New Jersey Transit ticket machines. Our tickets cost us $16.50 ($13 for adults and $3.50 for children), and we waited about 25 minutes for the 12:37pm train. We arrived at the airport at 1:02pm, got on the monorail to Terminal C, and were at the United counter at 1:15pm – an hour and twenty minutes after leaving the hotel. Without the long wait for the train at Penn Station, this could have been shortened to under an hour, so still a little longer than a taxi would take but far less expensive.
(Note: if you’re arriving into or departing from JFK Airport, this post tells you how to navigate the train system and transfer at Jamaica station.)
A Weekend Full of Wonder
In New York at Christmas time, wonder really does await around every corner. From exploring Central Park to walking past window displays on Fifth Avenue to ice skating on a Monday morning to eating waffles on the street to two excellent musicals and an amazing visit to the Met, it was a wonderful weekend. I’m excited to follow Westin’s Family Program roll-out, as wonder can be found everywhere, and I love that Westin wants to point kids to it.
Note: Westin graciously provided us with this trip to New York to check out its new Family Program, but all opinions are mine. I’m truly excited that Westin is taking this initiative.