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NEW YORK IS A TEMPTING FAMILY HOLIDAY DESTINATION

I thought I was so smart.

Instead of fighting the crowds on Thanksgiving, we'd take the out-of-town relatives to New York City the night before the parade and join other in-the-know New Yorkers in seeing Macy's famous helium balloons inflated for the next morning.

What a mistake. It was freezing. And the crowds were so dense that we promptly lost each other -- luckily, none of the kids got lost -- and didn't reunite until we got to Grand Central Station hours later. The kids couldn't really see anything because, as I discovered belatedly, the night-before-the-parade festivities had become so huge in their own right. A million people come to Central Park West for the spectacle.

Lifelong New Yorker Martin Mosbacher remembers when the spectacle was what I had envisioned: "One giant block party," he called it. "We'd bring something warm to drink and try and guess which balloon was which as it was being inflated."

But that had all changed by the time Mosbacher had kids. "We decided it wasn't much fun," he said.

Same with my gang. Too often, it seems, those Great Holiday Experiences don't turn out the way we planned.

(In case you haven't been dissuaded and plan to be around New York for Thanksgiving, the event starts at 3 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving and lasts late into the evening. It takes place between 77th and 81st streets, between Central Park West and Columbus avenues.)

Maybe you'll see McCarthy there. Despite the crowds, her family counts Thanksgiving eve in New York as one of their favorite holidays, ending it with hot chocolate at a favorite cafe. "It's just our family ritual," she said. And around the holidays, those rituals count for a lot.

But McCarthy offers this bit of advice: "If you've got little ones, leave the strollers at home and be prepared to backpack them or hoist them on your shoulders, or they won't see anything."

The same could be said of the parade, which now draws 3 million spectators along its 2 1/2 -mile route. (Starting on Dec. 10, you can also catch a daily version of the Macy's parade at Universal Orlando -- visit www.universalorlando.com.)

I should have talked to McCarthy before our foray. Whenever you're going someplace new with the kids, especially when you anticipate crowds, seek advice from local parents, whether it's your college roommate's brother or the person checking you in at the hotel.

Despite the crowds, New York remains one of my favorite places to be for the holidays, so I figured I'd get some tips for holiday fun in the Big Apple from some people who know New York best -- the kids who live there. I interviewed lots of them for my new "Kid's Guide to New York City," which I wrote for kids with my daughter Reggie.

"The best part about growing up in New York City is that it's so busy with people running around. It's never quiet!" said 9-year-old Molly, who lives in Manhattan.

That's especially true during the holidays -- New York's busiest tourist season. On any given day, 144,000 visitors will stream into the city, many of them with kids. (Visit www.nycvisit.com for special holiday packages.)

"You should definitely skate on Wollman Rink in Central Park at night and go to the zoo. The polar bears are really cool," said 10-year-old Chris, who attends PS 6 in Manhattan.

In fact, 4,000 people skate at Wollman every day during holiday season. If you're lucky, you won't have to wait as long to get some ice time at Wollman as you might at Rockefeller Center. And you might get to see the Central Park Zoo's polar bears -- Gus, Ida and Lily -- tear open their Christmas presents (peanut butter-covered balls, among other treats), or see the snow monkeys receive their holiday treats, on trees laden with Cheerios, oranges, apples and bananas. (Visit www.centralparkzoo.com.)

Wherever you go in New York City, remember this advice from Chris's classmate, Jesse: "Taxis are pretty expensive, so you're better off taking a bus or a subway."

While you're using the New York subway system, which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, check out the tile walls along the platforms -- many of them have been decorated by local artists -- and listen to the holiday music being played by musicians right in the subway stations -- a New York tradition.

Another New York tradition is the origami tree at the American Museum of Natural History (www.amnh.org), featuring more than 1,000 paper decorations representing items in the museum's collections.

Of course, you'll also want to see the giant tree at Rockefeller Center and the store windows. ("That's my favorite thing to do in New York at the holidays," said 9-year-old Manhattan resident Erin.) But try to go during the week rather than over the weekend in order to avoid huge crowds.

And don't forget to scope out the Empire State Building (www.esbnyc.com). It's lit red and green for Christmas and blue and white for Hanukkah.

There are plenty of holiday performances to choose from while you're in the city.

"I've been to 'The Nutcracker' every year, but get good seats because there are a lot of people," said fourth-grader Amanda.

But don't spring for expensive tickets until you're sure the kids in your bunch want to go. If the New York City Ballet's "Nutcracker," with local young performers (www.nycballet.com) isn't their cup of tea, there's always the Radio City Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, featuring the Rockettes, who have been kicking up their heels since 1925. (Visit www.radiocity.com.)

For something entirely different, head to the Big Apple Circus (www.bigapplecircus.com), the one-ring extravaganza set up throughout the holidays at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center. The clown-lovers in your gang would also love the new Aga-Boom production at the historic New Victory Theater for children (www.newvictory.org). A troupe of clowns, (including one 9-year-old clown) transform the theater into a gigantic interactive funhouse.

e-mail: eileen@takingthekids.com

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