15 Awesome Kid-Friendly Openings in NYC in 2021

Seeing Lincoln Center's transformation to The GREEN and its calendar of free alfresco programming was a kid-friendly highlight of 2021.
Seeing Lincoln Center's transformation to The GREEN and its calendar of free alfresco programming was a kid-friendly highlight of 2021.

As 2021 draws to a close, we're looking back on the year that was in NYC. There were highs that let us touch the sky, and lows that left us reeling, regrouping, and reevaluating. But in between it all, we managed to get out and enjoy a revitalized, rebounding city that packed plenty of kid-friendly fun. With that in mind, here are 15 highlights that make up our annual best kid-friendly openings in NYC.

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1. Harry Potter New York – Flatiron

Fans of the wizarding world have been flocking to this themed store since its June debut. The two-floor attraction is packed with all kinds of memorabilia—both for sale, and fore ogling, like real movie props ensconced in display cases and tucked into seemingly every corner. Walls of wands await, along with interactive experiences, including two VR options, and there are tons of cool photo-ops, to boot. Superfans will love personalized touches like Hogwarts acceptance letters. When you've had enough shopping, refuel with a trip to the butterbeer bar or grab some Chocolate Frogs from the sweets section.

2. Charybdis Playground – Astoria

This long-awaited remodel finally opened to the public following a two-year, $30 million overhaul. A kid hotspot in Astoria Park, the renovations preserved the park's history—it was constructed in 1936!—while bringing it into a new century. A spectacular water play area has been added, plus an amphitheater, tons of swings, new jungle gyms, and climbers for both big kids and toddlers in separate play areas. There's seating aplenty for parents, too, and stunning waterfront views.

RELATED: The Met Brings a Touch of Disney Magic to its Galleries in New Exhibition

Aerial view of Little Island one of our top kid-friendly openings in NYC in 2021
There's lots to love about Little Island, the floating park that debuted on the Hudson River this spring. Photo by Michael Grimm

3. Little Island – Chelsea

This floating park added 2.4 acres of remarkable green space to Manhattan's west side, but it's more than just a place to lounge or play. We love the family-friendly programming that featured more than 500 live events all summer long and reintroduced New Yorkers to the arts in a pandemic-friendly way. Its varied vistas are fun to explore and its city views are spectacular.

4. Greenpoint Public Library and Environmental Center – Greenpoint, Brooklyn

This is a 2020 opening we're only now fully allowed to enjoy, the Greenpoint branch of the Brooklyn Public Library went through a full reconstruction and re-imagining as a community hub with an environmental edge. You'll find an alfresco reading area on the second floor with an on-site garden, plus a third-floor pollinator's paradise. Cisterns collect rainwater to keep it all green, and programming goes far beyond the traditional, teaching visitors about everything from medicinal plants to Dungeons and Dragons.

RELATED: Adams Street Library Debuts in Dumbo

SUMMIT One Vanderbilt is one of our favorite kid-friendly openings in NYC in 2021
Stepping into SUMMIT One Vanderbilt brings a completely new perspective to the observation deck experience. 

5. SUMMIT One Vanderbilt – Midtown East

Observation decks are nothing new in NYC, but with each new opening, architects are seemingly trying to one-up one another. We loved this newest entree, perched adjacent to Grand Central Terminal, with its multi-floor approach. It's less about looking out at the city and more about bringing the city views inside. Employing mirrors, artwork, and digital elements—plus some pretty daring clear glass portholes and elevators—SUMMIT One Vanderbilt brought a whole new feel to sky-high views. 

6. Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library – Midtown Manhattan

While the main branch of the NYPL may draw the tourists, New Yorkers in the know quickly discovered this gem hidden in plain sight across the street. Head straight to the lower level with kids, where you'll find the Children's Center (relocated from the main branch) and a Teen Center, complete with cool tech like 3D printers, recording studios, and programming to match. Once you've found some reading materials, head all the way upstairs to the seventh-floor terrace, where you can camp out in the open air and get some reading or work done while noshing on snacks from the Amy's Bread outpost and enjoying a bird's eye view of Fifth Avenue below. Libraries have never been so cool.

RELATED: Governors Island to Stay Open Year-Round

See the Parade of Sharks at AMNH. The exhibit is one of our favorite kid-friendly openings in 2021
From the prehistoric Megalodon sharks smaller than your hand, the Parade of Sharks demonstrates the species' diversity. Photo by Charlotte Wensley

7. Sharks – Upper West Side

The American Museum of Natural History has introduced this deep dive into the massive creatures of the deep just under the wire. Sharks aims to dispel the many myths surrounding this species of fish, using everything from life-sized models in its Parade of Sharks, to interactive elements that let you get inside a hammerhead's head as they hunt. Learn fascinating facts about sharks as predators versus sharks as prey. Inventive lighting and projections make the whole exhibition feel like an underwater adventure, which is sure to thrill little museumgoers.

8. The GREEN – Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center's summertime transformation was a thing of magic, and this piece of public art was the eye-catching centerpiece. When New Yorkers craved more green space, Lincoln Center delivered with help from set designer Mimi Lien, who transformed Josie Robertson Plaza into a 14,000-square-foot oasis with a faux lawn that encouraged visitors to linger and explore, while enjoying all the programming of Restart Stages.

RELATED: Revitalized Wollman Rink Reopens in Central Park

ArtRink is now open at the Brooklyn Children's Museum and is one of our favorite kid-friendly openings of 2021.
Take a twirl on the rooftop rink at the Brooklyn Children's Museum through January. Photo by Winston Williams

9. ArtRink at BCM – Crown Heights, Brooklyn

We love hitting the ice for fun, safe wintertime entertainment, and the end of the year brought a trio of new ice skating rinks to try, including openings at Manhattan West and on Governors Island, but ArtRink gets the nod here. We love the option to add a spin on the Glice rink to our visit to one of our favorite museums, and the rooftop appeal is not lost on us. Add to that the fact that the rink is surrounded by cool pieces of art, and it's a win-win.

10. Fountain of the Fairs – Flushing, Queens

We're fudging with this one a bit, as Fountain of the Fairs was really finished in 2020, but the water didn't flow until this spring, so we feel confident including it here. Situated at the foot of the Unisphere, you'll find this huge plaza that's been transformed into a cloud of cooling mist. We had a blast running, dancing, and even scooting through the jets. It's a great way to cool down after a summer afternoon spent exploring the rest of Flushing Meadows Corona Park.

RELATED: Do You Have What it Takes to Tackle City Climb NYC's Newest Sky-High Attraction?

Winter Cathedral is a stunning installation at Lightscape, one of our favorite kid-friendly openings of 2021
Take a stroll through the Winter Cathedral at Lightscape, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden's winter light show. Photo by Richard Haughton/Sony Music

11. Lightscape at BBG – Prospect Park, Brooklyn

We can't get over this bright show at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Modeled after a popular U.K. show, we hope it's not a one-season wonder. There are dazzling surprises at every turn and local artists contributed to this stunning holiday light display that stretches along a 1-mile path. The Winter Cathedral took our breath away, while the daring Fire Garden is a mesmerizing sight, and its Sea of Light finale is a magical end to the installation.

12. KAWS: What Party – Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

KAWS was seemingly everywhere this year. The Brooklyn-born artist took a star turn at the Brooklyn Museum from spring through summer before popping up at Rockefeller Center with a larger-than-life Companion installation. We loved his playful characters in a rainbow of colors and emotions.

RELATED: Laser Tag, Paintball, and Adventure Await at Area 53 NYC

KUSAMA's takeover of the New York Botanical Garden was one of our favorite kid-friendly openings in 2021.
The playful Yayoi Kusama installation at the New York Botanical Garden was just what NYC needed following a long COVID winter. 

13. Kusama at NYBG – Bronx Park, the Bronx

Delayed by a year, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's garden-wide takeover was worth the wait. Her playful, pumpkin-and-polka-dot-inspired creations were just the thing we needed after a dark pandemic winter. Dancing Pumpkin was a marvel on the Enid A. Haupt lawn and the infinity rooms—including one exclusive to the exhibit—drew crowds all season long. Her Flower Obsession was a marvel of flower-covered transformation throughout the exhibit.

14. Art CAMP – Columbus Circle

We're always excited to see what's cooking up at CAMP, from its Cosmic CAMP installation that traveled from Fifth Avenue to City Point and its immersive Paw Patrol experience currently playing at Hudson Yards, and Art CAMP is no exception. This two-floor experience in Columbus Circle is part curated toy store, part creative wonderland. While I love arts and crafts, I don't often love the mess they leave behind! Here, my kids can craft to their heart's content, with the help of friendly, energetic CAMP counselors, and I don't have to worry about glitter on my floors or paint on my sofa. My little one is particularly fond of the paint-splash room where she can paint like Pollock.

RELATED: 14 Awesome Things That Opened in New Jersey for Kids in 2021

Kids outside Legoland New York, one of our favorite kid-friendly openings in New York.
Legoland New York brought Orlando-sized theme park fun right to our backyard this summer. Photo by Rose Gordon Sala

15. Legoland New York – Goshen, N.Y.

The Northeast's first major theme park in decades, Legoland is spread out over 150 acres of real estate in Orange County. It debuted last summer bringing eight themed lands packed with bricktastic fun and has had us make a return trip to check out its on-site hotel, plus its Halloween-themed Brick-or-Treat event. Open seasonally, we're already plotting summer 2022 adventures.

Unless noted, all photos by author

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