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Chicago at Christmastime is Kid Heaven

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CHICAGO -- Why would I want to take my three darling granddaughters, aged 1 1/2, 3 1/2 and 6, to crime-ridden, crowded, ice-cold Chicago?

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Because it's Christmastime, and Chicago is not only a festive city that celebrates Christmas to the fullest for adults, but it's also a magical place for children at this time of year.

Was it cold and nasty when I arrived in Chicago to meet my grandchildren with their parents on a dark December night? It was 12 degrees, to be exact, so I was happy to come through the welcoming doors of the Swissotel (323 East Wacker Drive, telephone 312-565-0565 or 888-737-9477, www.Swissotel.com) and find my family having dinner before the fire in the hotel's Palm Restaurant.

On Friday morning we bundled up to walk the five or so blocks to the Art Institute of Chicago 111 S. Michigan Avenue, 312-443-3600), stopping at the skating rink of Millenium Park (201 East Randolph) in the Loop, where you can rent skates for all sizes and skate free. The Cloud Gate, which the children called a giant silver bean, provided entertainment as it reflects whomever stands near or under it and changes your shape as in a fun house. You can hear caroling in front of Cloud Gate every Friday evening at Christmastime.

The Vitale Family Room in the Art Institute's Ryan Education Center is nothing like one's perception of a hush-hush-don't-touch gallery of precious artwork. Instead, on weekends it provides all sorts of art activities for children such as drawing and painting and clay scupture and the like. Since we were there on a weekday, all we could do in this room was play with wonderfully shaped building blocks, or giant kid-sized art puzzles, or interactive art-themed computer games or books for everyone from the baby on up, to watching the digitalized screen of famous art change each minute or....suffice to say all three girls were entranced and fully occupied for the next two hours and would have stayed in that room had it not been lunchtime. We made one more stop first in the institute's Thorne Miniature Rooms, the 68 dollhouse-sized historically themed rooms with tiny historically accurate furniture and decor. The six-year-old stopped at every one of the rooms, including the tiny Massachusetts drawing room circa 1768 and used her first-grade reading skills to proudly read aloud the panel describing each room.

We then hurried over to Macy's for one of Chicago's best known and most beloved Christmas traditions: lunch in the Walnut Room, next to the giant decorated Christmas tree. When Marshall Fields became Macy's the State Street store was encouraged to retain this tradition that has brought generations of Chicagoans to a special festive holiday lunch since 1907. Unfortunately, Macy's had also retained the tradition of not taking reservations. They advise people to leave their name at the desk and come back in an hour hoping that a table will open up, but since we arrived at around 2:30 p.m. to see a line of 50 or so people waiting to get in, we gave up on having lunch there for this year and went to the restaurant in the next room instead, which did not exactly feel special.

Why can't the Walnut Room take reservations? No one needs to stand for an hour or so waiting to have lunch at this incredibly busy time of year, with hungry children in tow. I do not understand the reasoning, but my anger at the Walnut Room was calmed when they allowed us to at least have everyone's photo taken in front of the tree.

While we did this, we received the added benefit of meeting one of the Walnut Room's "princess fairies," ours a beautiful young woman in a long salmon gown who flutters about the tables spreading fairy dust on children and granting them wishes if they promise to listen to their parents and be good. Our three were totally mesmerized by the princess fairy, so I forgive the Walnut Room although I hope they have an explanation for their non-reservation policy, which must disappoint many.

A much better system for allowing a crowd to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime lunch in the Water Tower Place's American Girl luncheon which we had, thanks to a reservation made weeks in advance, on our last full day in town

Granted, American Girl is a marketing phenomenon, designed to sell every accoutrement for a doll, in addition to the doll herself, known to the toy world and more -- a convertible for your doll? A motorboat? A Christmas stocking? Yes, yes and yes.

But to see our blissed-out six-year-old granddaughter seated at the head of the pretty pink decorated lunch table set for 10 members of her family, her doll Kit sitting beside her in a tiny seat that attaches to the tabletop, with her own tiny cup and plate, in a room filled with like-minded happy little girls and their dolls, was worth this expense ($22 per person, not including tax and gratuity. Dolls eat free.)

One of the cleverest touches at the American Girl luncheon was the little notes on each table offering suggestions for conversations, such as "What is your favorite subject in school?" "Would you rather vacation at the beach or the mountains?" etc. It's a nice incentive for little girls to become civilized members of the dining society, and our six-year-old used this tool to engage her cousins in an active discussion throughout the lunch.

In between all this eating on our pre-Christmas weekend, we used the Swissotel's warm and welcoming 42nd-floor swimming pool to exercise and keep the children moving, whie Dad had a massage in the spa and later Mom enjoyed a manicure and pedicure. Grandma babysat the baby, whose favorite activity was to get out in the hallway and toddle to the windows where she could look out on the snow falling onto the river and the streets below.

The hotel was beautifully decorated for Christmastime with, among other things, colored balls made of plastic, not glass, that the children could play with while they waited for their hot chocolate with caramel, fudge sauce, marshmallows and whipped cream.

We had time, and room in our bellies, for one more incredible brunch on Sunday, at Shaw's Crab House (21 E. Hubbard ST., 312-527-2722, www.shawscrabhousecom), a memorable dining experience for all of us. In the buffet display of cold foods the six-year-old discovered crab legs and gigantic shrimp, and in the room filled with warm foods, the tender sliced beef. Their favorite dessert was a chocolate-dipped giant strawberry, but there was much more from which to choose if one desired a sugar high. Shaw's is a gem, and it is so large and busy that noisy little ones are not a problem.

Shaw's, as Chicago, with its glittering Michigan Avenue light display and friendly holiday shoppers filling the sidewalks, dancing silvered mimes and stunning store windows, is more kid-friendly, in fact, than other towns where we've spent such a weekend.

The children, especially, will never forget their exciting weekend downtown.

We vowed to return to this safe, friendly, warm hearted city next year during the holidays, because we have much more to see. The Children's Museum, the original Pizzera Uno, Lincoln Park Zoo, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum with its butterflies, the Museum Campus, the planetarium, the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium.....we'll be back, Chicago.

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