Family travel: On a trail of New York film locations

Travel wishes can come true if you dream, plan and graft hard enough. And they don't need to break the bank or take too much of your overstretched time. One of our family writers recounts his favourite trip to New YorkMonday, 8 April 2019

By Pól Ó Conghaile
Rockefeller Center and Ice Rink during the winter holiday season

The skyscraper elevator where Buddy the Elf pressed all the buttons. The museum where Dum-Dum was dispatched for Gum-Gum and a capuchin monkey peed on the night guard's face. The Christmas plaza where Kevin finally found his mum after being forgotten in New York City.

Think Manhattan, think movies. It's one reason the city is so electric — every corner seems to evoke a sizzling scene, punchy book or zinger of a lyric. You feel like you've been there before. So what if you could stoke that same feeling in your kids? Take them not just to see this awesome city, but to the real-life locations of favourite movies such as Elf, Night at the Museum and Home Alone 2? "I'd just say… woah," says Rosa (11).

And 'woah' it is as we step out of Port Authority station, and look on while Rosa and her brother Sam (7) crane their necks to absorb this canyon of Midtown skyscrapers for the first time. Macy's is around the corner, store windows are festooned with Christmas decorations, every size and shape of human being is moving around us and yellow cabs are swarming like bumblebees. It's so perfect it could be an augmented reality version of a city break.

One of our first stops is Brooklyn Bridge. We walk out over the water as sunset drops, stopping for breaks inside those iconic support towers and watching the skyline sparkle into life. This is a moment for music — we share my headphones, taking turns listening to one of Rosa's favourite songs: Alicia Keys' Empire State of Mind, Pt. II.

"These streets will make you feel brand new, bright lights will inspire you…"

After we get home, Sam starts playing it on Spotify, too. That's the joy of it. Along with seeing all this mega-stuff in the flesh — from the razzle-dazzle of Times Square to ice-skating at the Rockefeller Center, and pizza in the East Village, we get to bring New York to life through stuff they have seen, read and listened to. At the American Museum of Natural History, we scuttle around to find (and take selfies with) Dexter, Teddy and the T-Rex (Night at the Museum). We call each other cotton-headed ninny muggins (Elf) on the way up the Empire State Building, and step outside to find it snowing on the observation deck.

It's early December, and the city is dripping with Christmas. We press our noses up against the windows of Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's, suffer our way through M&M's World, and throw snowballs in Central Park — against a backdrop of big fluffy flakes and brooding skyscrapers. The wintry weather is pure luck (and vanishes a day or two later), but makes it even more of a fairytale.

We eat pancakes at Friedman's and $5 ($4) tubs of ice cream at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. And, of course, we deal with reality checks in between — protests and security outside Trump Tower; a cat-sized rat scuttling along a Midtown subway line; reams of homeless people huddling under cardboard. For three days, we pound the pavement, collapsing back into our hotel room at around 10pm, falling asleep with throbbing feet.

We've had other great holidays, at home and abroad. But New York is the ace in the deck, a sensational canvas — no matter how crowded — where we take our ordinary lives up a glorious gear, handing a travel baton across the generations, and feel, for a few days at least, like anything is possible.
Back home, tired and jet-lagged, we regroup on the couch. There's a bag of sweets from Economy Candy, a family-run shop in the East Village. We make a lucky dip of our favourite movies. Night at the Museum wins. The opening credits kick off.

"We were there," Sam says, tucking in.

Essentials

Age most suited: 8+ (there's lots of walking).
How to do it: BA and Virgin Atlantic fly to JFK in New York and Newark Airport in New Jersey.
See also nycgo.com

Follow @poloconghaile

Published in the Family 2019 issue, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)