Which pricey Times Square tourist trap is worth the money?

The Crossroads of the World survived its crime-and-sleaze era to rise anew as a family-friendly crossroads of finance, tourism and entertainment. It has the world’s brightest lights, hit Broadway shows, glamorous TV studios and benches for munching on Big Macs. Joining the party now: an invasion of Lilliputians, fake fish and NFL blocking dummies. Three new giant attractions promise all those wonders, each for a “mere” $37 to $39.50 per adult and $25 to $27 for kids. But although Times Square teems with 480,000 daily visitors in the weeks before New Year’s Eve, according to the Times Square Alliance, they’ve yet to swarm into the new Gulliver’s Gate, National Geographic Ocean Odyssey and NFL Experience — all of which were near-empty when I dropped in. Cattle-pen-like barriers installed to steer stampeding crowds seemed like a joke. Times Square Alliance President Tim Tompkins is confident the attractions will find their niche. “People will pay for an experience if it’s good,” he says. “Times Square has always been about giving people different, unusual experiences — whether it was the Automats and game arcades in the past or the Ferris wheel in the Toys ‘R Us store that closed. “I see these new attractions as an evolution of experiential retail or retail-tainment,” Tompkins adds. Times Square once had seedy but comparatively respectable pinball and video-game arcades like Playland and Fascination. They later gave way to pricier, family-oriented venues, such as Madame Tussauds, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and jumbo theme restaurants. But the trend stalled due to lack of space. Venues of up to 50,000 square feet were all taken as operators salivated over Times Square’s annual flood of 131 million visitors. And that number doesn’t include New Yorkers who claim they “never go to Times Square,” but work there for nearby firms like ABC, Viacom and Morgan Continue Reading

Heartland strong: Road trip through Middle America reveals resilience, pragmatism, and diversity

November 26, 2017STORM LAKE, IOWA—La Juanita is packed. Under a mural of a farmer in a sombrero, three Asian teenage girls sit in a booth giggling with their white friend. At the next table, an ethnic pea pod of workers ogle overflowing quesadillas, arguing about sports. Spanish, English, and Hmong words slide within sentences and leap between tables.And this is Iowa. The presidential election a year ago produced a somber map of the United States, colored red and blue. The blue states were mostly clustered on the East and West Coasts, with a broad brush of red between. President Trump’s volcanic presidency has cemented the image of an urban elite and rural heartland frothing at each other over politics, culture, and heritage.Mr. Trump’s election was delivered by these “flyover states,” cast as places of angry whites, frustrated at being left out of the economic recovery, besieged demographically, ignored politically, and stuck in shrinking small towns with vanishing jobs.These problems exist. But they are not etched in inevitability. There are exceptions – exceptional people trying to buck the trends, and exceptional places that are succeeding. More than a few small towns are figuring out ways to stop their economic slide and to grow. More and more, white Middle America is being repeopled with newcomers of color, bringing a workforce to agricultural jobs, a vibrancy to decaying towns, and a mix of welcome – and suspicion – from older residents. To meander on a 6,712-mile drive across the US on routes mostly painted red is to rediscover a heartland that is often not what the rest of America thinks it is. It is not monolithic. There are places refusing to be an emptying and failing “other” America. They are places of inspiration, optimism, and hope.Exhibit A might be Storm Lake, Iowa, where half the population is Hispanic, black, or Asian and where schools are stuffed with children speaking 30 Continue Reading

Visiting Venice should mean planning as little as possible in order to enjoy more of the Italian jewel

There are two different versions of Venice you’ve probably heard about. There’s romantic Venice, described in novels and captured in films as an otherworldly place of beauty, charm, and mystery. And there’s tourist Venice, described by seasoned travelers as a city packed with souvenir shops and selfie-taking tourists, not worth more than a day’s visit. It turns out, neither interpretation fully captures the northeastern Italian city. While it’s crowded and tough to land a reservation at a top restaurant, the thousands of tourists haven’t trampled the magic of a city composed of more than 100 small islands. And while Venice boasts no shortage of postcard-ready scenes and stunning landmarks, it also offers plenty of quirks and surprises. Take the Libreria Acqua Alta — the Library of High Water, located in Castello (once of Venice’s six sestieri, or areas) — which after suffering frequent flooding that destroyed much of its stock, began storing its books in bathtubs and a full-sized gondola. Or the Orto di Venezia, a winery on the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo, to the northeast of the main city, where Malvasia Istriana grapes are grown in a vineyard that feels a world away from the bustle of the city. The best strategy for exploring Venice is to plan as little as possible. Trying to navigate the centuries-old, unsymmetrical streets with a map is tricky. Visitors will enjoy their visit much more by taking a leisurely, serendipitous approach, following what looks interesting and seeing where it takes them. This approach led us to stumble on the sunny terrace bar at the Centurion Palace hotel, overlooking the Grand Canal. Just a few steps away, on Dorsoduro (the southernmost of Venice’s sestieri), rises the remarkable Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. The octagonal, domed church sits at one of the best locations for views of the canal and Continue Reading

LORDS OF THE RING. The Big Apple Circus is the city’s mane family event

True to its name, the Big Apple Circus likes to think big. Not big in terms of size; the cozy, one-ring tent show, ensconced anew in Lincoln Center, is like a music box, the lid lifted on a series of personal performance delights. No, Big Apple impresses with the scope of its ambition, striving to move beyond sheer spectacle to an actual theme. That stirring goal was fabulously realized by last season's four-star laughfest, "Grandma Goes to Hollywood." By that standard, Big Apple's latest ­offering, "Step Right Up!", actually represents an overall step down. Here, artistic director Paul Binder and company try to evoke the sense of wonder of the seminal ­Columbian Exposition of 1893, a world's fair that arguably gave rise to the American leisure industry. My boater's off to Binder and writers Michael Christensen and Steve Smith to even attempt such a thing, but you have to remind yourself often of the show's intent. JOY IN MUTTVILLE This edition of the circus does hark back to life's simple pleasures, ­surely an echo of the 1890s. ­Francesco the clown makes his entrance with nothing more complicated than a circular toss of a boom­erang; ­Johnny Peers and his Muttville ­Comix ­revel in the exuberance of 15 cavorting canines, and Yasmine Smart ­parades around a small herd of dignified horses. Dinner plates are flung through the air like Frisbees just for the fun of it. Exotic appeal is supplied by ­China's Zhengzhou Troupe, innovative acrobats who roll about in circular frames, to stunning effect when illuminated in black light. Irina and Andrey Perfilyev add romantic grace on trapeze, and the Liazeed Trio contributes a striking tableau of a three-person handstand, all supported by one member's arms. Justin Case pads a skilled bicycle act with a stream of forgettable patter. Filling the role of the ringmaster - sort of - and straight man is versatile barker Joel Jeske. Austin K. Sanderson's Continue Reading