My mom and I recently ran away to New York City for a quick two-day trip. We packed a lot of entertainment, sightseeing, and eating into a short amount of time. And I used a lot of my Disney-touring tips to help things go more smoothly. I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of the fun that we had, and some of the ways I apply my Disney touring knowledge to my non-Disney vacations. As a reminder, you can click on any of the photos in this post to expand to full size!
Express Pass: Empire State Building
Our first real stop in NYC was at the Empire State Building. This is a must-do! If you’ve seen Sleepless in Seattle and An Affair to Remember as many times as I have … you visit the Empire State Building. Unfortunately, every other human visiting New York has the same idea. That means crowds, and crowds mean I need to apply my crowd avoidance strategies to have a good time!
There are generally three ticket types that you can purchase for the Empire State Building. They all get you access to at least the 80th and 86th floors, plus some film snippets and museum type of exhibits, all of which are incredibly well curated. The 86th floor is the experience that gets highlighted in all of the Hollywood movies. It has rather high walls and then some fence like structure, but no glass. This is totally the classic experience.
The base ticket starts at $44 per adult. The second type of ticket is $77 per adult instead, and for that price you get to go up even further to the 102nd floor. At this level, you have views from floor-to-ceiling windows, and 360 degrees around. Because of the price difference, the 102nd floor is a much less crowded viewing location, and the two staff members up there have the ability to chat, point things out, and give interesting history and information. I wholeheartedly recommend springing for the extra 102nd floor add-on if you can. Keep in mind, you’re basically inside the little skinny based of the spire that you can see at the top of the building. I’m not a big fan of heights, and I often had to back away from the windows to regain a bit of my composure. Still, totally worth it.
The third type of ticket is the Express Pass, which starts at $113 per adult, and lets you skip most of the lines up to the 80th and 86th floors. Depending on when you go, this could be a big time saver … or totally useless. Think of it like Disney crowds. They ebb and flow throughout the day and throughout the year. From 10 to 2 on most weekdays, you won’t need that Express Pass. There were absolutely no lines when we went at 12:15 pm on a Wednesday. But early in the morning, near sunset, on weekends or holidays … lines just to get up to the 80th floor can surge up to 2 hours long. Is saving 2 hours worth the upcharge to you? If so, then go ahead. But only if it’s during one of those crowded periods. I’d personally skip it and plan my arrival at a low crowd time instead.
And, like most Disney experiences … the whole thing wraps up in a gift shop. But don’t repeat my mistakes. If you are thirsty and/or lacking caffeine, don’t pay the gift shop prices, no matter how tempting! There is a Walgreens and a Starbucks on the ground floor.
Do you continue to mourn your hometown Disney Store like I do? It was the cornerstone of every mall visit in middle school and high school! (And yes, I was a very cool kid, thank you for asking.)
Thankfully, Times Square has you covered with a full, themed, two-story Disney Store! It has some excellent features, including, but not limited to:
- The best Tangled-themed escalator in all of NYC
- A castle in the toy section that may or may not be (but probably is) bigger than the Disneyland castle
- A very small section of NYC-specific merchandise
- Minnie Mouse as Statue of Liberty
- Hoards of fellow Disney fans
I know in my head it’s all a cleverly-designed way to convince you to part with even more of your money while in New York. But my heart says you still have to go and experience it for yourself.
When I asked fellow Disney fans for things I should add to my itinerary for the quick visit, the absolute number one response was RiseNY. I was very very confused, until they explained that RiseNY is essentially Soarin’ over NYC. Soarin’ is one of my absolute favorite attractions, so I had to give it a try.
Here’s the thing: I thought it was just Soarin’. And for the cost, it’s not worth it for just going on an NYC version of Soarin’. But, fear not, there’s so much more to the RiseNY experience. The Soarin’-like attraction is just the last act in a well-planned and effective walk-through and show.
First, Jeff Goldblum narrates the literal rise of New York as he adeptly talks you through some history. Then you get to tour through several exhibits all celebrating what makes New York unique. You’ll see TV sets and Broadways costumes. You’ll watch movie clips that you recognize and learn about the history of the NY music scene. And then it will all culminate in a show and transportation to the Soarin’ load zone. If you miss the hydrolators at the Seas, you’ll love the transportation bit.
Then you’ll get to see the pre-ride video and experience the attraction. Just like Soarin’, being near the middle of the screen is best. If you sit near the side, you’ll experience that well-known “bendy-ness”. If you are in the second loading row (out of 4), ask to be as far left as possible. If you’re in the third loading row, ask to be a far right as possible. This will put you in the middle during the attraction.
So how does it compare to Soarin’? The pre-show (even excluding the whole museum part) is undeniably better. The story carries through the pre-show, the ride, and your “re-entry”, and the sights, smells, and other surprise elements are all in excellent condition. I loved the full RiseNY experience as a whole. It elevates it above the “just a really excellent attraction” level of Soarin’. Would I recommend it on a trip to NYC? Yes. And in fact, I’d recommend doing it very early in your trip. It provides good history to the city and serves as a visual overview to inspire your touring of the city. My mom and I added a couple of stops to our itinerary solely based on things we saw on the attraction that piqued our interest.
This is the part of the article where you figure out that I’ve just duped you into reading this whole thing just so that I can brag about seeing Hugh Jackman in Music Man.
But seriously … I couldn’t help myself. A big shout-out goes to Erin Foster, who is not only the queen of all things Disney Cruise Line, but is also a verified Broadway expert. Keep an eye on her IG to see all of the shows she attends!
Rope Drop: Statue of Liberty
On the morning of our second day, we had tickets to see the Statue of Liberty. My mom, being the smart lady that she is, knew we should make it an early morning. Even though we were staying up late on Broadway the night before, and we had a haul from our hotel down to the ferry, we got tickets for the second departure of the day. We actually walked up just as the first ferry was departing, and there were barely any humans on board.
Our departure was more crowded, but nothing compared to the boats leaving later in the day. We arrived to an almost-empty Statue of Liberty, and felt unrushed as we got pictures from outside, walked up to the pedestal (which costs extra), and toured the museum.
Next, we made our way to Ellis Island, where things picked up a little thanks to folks that had rushed through the statue, or field trips that skipped right to the Ellis Island portion. On Ellis Island, you can walk through the grand arrival halls and imagine the thousands and thousands of people that arrived here. And you can tour through multiple exhibits of artifacts and history to get a better idea of the good and the bad of the immigration experience in the Ellis Island era.
Both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island offer free audio tours if that’s something that interests you. The gift shop on Ellis Island is larger than the one at the Statue of Liberty, and has a really good selection of merchandise covering both locations
We made our way back to Manhattan just a little after noon. At that point, every ferry was hitting capacity, and both islands were much more crowded. Rope drop here will save you from the worst of the crowds.
Harry Potter: Store and VR
Our last bit of fun in NYC was a somewhat impromptu visit to the Harry Potter store and tickets to participate in one of the two virtual reality experiences offered at the same location. I haven’t been to Universal Studios since 2013, which means I did get to see Hogwarts and eat at the Three Broomsticks and drink some Butterbeer. But I haven’t ever seen Diagon Alley or ridden Hagrid’s Motorbike or had an adventure on the Hogwarts Express. So this was my first immersive Harry Potter time in almost a decade!
I grew up with Harry Potter. The first book released in September when I was in third grade. My birthday is in October, and I received the book as a gift. And then Deathly Hallows (the final book) came out the summer after I graduated high school. I devoured each of the last two books on the day they were released.
So when I walked into this store and saw the rotating Griffin at the top of the staircase, I was totally won over. Even more than the Disney store, this store draws you in and makes you part of the Harry Potter world. You recognize the wands and the robes and the creatures, and you’re there with a bunch of people appreciating it all just as much as you are.
The Virtual Reality was its whole own bit of fun. My only other VR experience was the Star Wars preview I did with Hank Lonely in Disney Springs. This lasted quite a bit longer and used slightly different technology. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I was fascinated with how the movement and interaction and space all worked together to create a cohesive story. And I would absolutely try it out again on another visit.
All of the other things
If you know me, you know that food is probably the most important part of any of my vacations. This trip was no different, with meals at Non Solo Piada, Burger & lobster and SERRA by Birreria at Eataly NYC. I whole-heartedly recommend all of them. I didn’t have a single dish that was a miss.
I typically fly Southwest when travelling domestically. It works well since I have young kids. And because we live in St. Louis, it generally gives us the best access to other cities compared to any other airline. We opted for very early-morning flights both to and from NYC. This minimizes the chances of delays or cancellations, and helps decrease security wait times. So we had a flights that departed at or before 6 am each day. Yayyyyy.
When you land at LaGuardia, it’s possible (and easy!) to take a free shuttle from the airport to the metro station and get to pretty much anywhere you need to go. So we spent a whopping $2.75 per person to get from LaGuardia to our hotel in the garment district. We also exclusively used the subway or walked during our time in the city. I did over 22,000 steps each day!
On the way back to the airport, since we needed to depart our hotel before 4 am, we expected to pre-book an Uber or Lyft to make sure we could get to the airport on time. Unfortunately, the cost was incredibly high. We checked in with the front desk at our hotel, and they had a car service that was actually quite a bit cheaper. So make sure that you ask and find the best deal for you!
Do you have any questions about my trip? Or do you need suggestions for your own upcoming NYC vacation? Let me know in the comments!