Secrets of Rockefeller Center at Christmas

By ALLISON TIBALDI, CNN
Headline Goes Here iStock/oversnap

The Rink hosts over a quarter of a million skaters each year. During the holidays, its tree-side position makes it one of the city's busiest spots.

NEW YORK (CNN) - Lights twinkle, skaters glide across the ice and the scent of pine fills the air.

It's a "White Christmas" moment until reality interrupts with the screech of taxi horns and a rambunctious crowd muscling in for photo-op in front of the most famous Christmas tree in the USA.

This is Rockefeller Center, Midtown Manhattan's symbol of chaotic holiday cheer.

It's impossible to miss that flashy seasonal centerpiece, the towering Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Decorated with 50,000 multicolored lights and topped with a massive Swarovski star, only a bona fide Scrooge wouldn't find the shimmering Norway spruce a stunner.

Rockefeller Center was the brainchild of John D. Rockefeller Jr., born in 1874 as the heir to the Standard Oil fortune. One of America's wealthiest citizens, his defining business venture was the creation of his namesake.

Built at the height of the Great Depression, it employed thousands of people during the three-year construction project. At a time when jobs were scarce and a dime was hard to come by, Rockefeller Center's building phase put food on many tables around New York.

Not one to think small, Rockefeller conceived of his development as a "city within a city." He wanted to build a complex for business and pleasure. Visual razzle-dazzle was to be a component, in tune with his belief that promoting art was an act of good citizenship. Innovations included heated buildings and an indoor parking complex.

Rockefeller Center officially opened in May 1933. The Christmas tree, first purchased and decorated by the Depression-era workers at the construction site, quickly became a New York holiday tradition.

By 1939, more than 125,000 people were visiting daily. If it had been its own independent city, Rockefeller Center would have been the 51st largest in the country, making John D. Rockefeller's dream of a "city within a city" a reality.

Here's what to see and do:

Rockefeller Center Tour

Rockefeller Center is composed of buildings, public spaces, shops, eateries and attractions. To get a comprehensive overview, take the 75-minute guided Rockefeller Center Tour. Sprinkled with historical tidbits, it explores some of the most significant buildings and eye-catching artwork.

Tours are given daily from 10 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., scheduled every half hour excluding 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets cost $25.

Rockefeller Center Tour, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112; +1 (212) 698-2000

Top of the Rock Observation Deck

New York City's skyline looks mighty fine from the Top of the Rock's three observation decks on the 67th, 69th and 70th floors.

The theatrics start during the elevator ride up, as the lights dim and images of Rockefeller Center from the 1930s through the present day are projected on the glass ceiling.

All three levels offer sweeping views: Central Park to the north and the Empire State Building to the south.

Open 8 a.m. to midnight with the last elevator going up at 11:15 p.m. Tickets cost $34 for adults, $28 for kids 6-12, free for kids 5 and younger. Visitors must go through a security screening nearly as comprehensive as at an airport.

Serious sightseers should consider purchasing a CityPASS. It includes admission to the Top of the Rock as well as numerous additional Big Apple attractions for a discounted price.

Top of the Rock Observation Deck, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112; +1 (212) 698-2000

The Rink at Rockefeller Center

This compact ice rink hosts over a quarter of a million skaters each year. During the holidays, its tree-side position makes it one of the city's busiest spots.

The Rink first opened on Christmas Day, 1936. For some, a Yuletide spin around the oval is the quintessential New York experience. For others, it's reminiscent of a rush-hour subway ride.

With room for only 150 skaters, general admission is on a first-come, first-served basis. Adult general admission is $25, rising to $27-$32 during the holidays. Kids younger than 11 pay $15.

To avoid a potentially lengthy wait, consider a pricier VIP option, which includes a reserved skating time, admission to the heated igloo, refreshments and more. The VIP ticket ranges from $60 to $150 during peak holiday sessions.

Open daily from early October to April, 8:30 a.m. to midnight. When the skating season ends, the space is transformed into an al fresco lounge offering drinks and dining.

The Rink at Rockefeller Center, 600 5th Ave. between 49th and 50th Streets, New York, NY 10020; +1 (212) 332-7654

The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall

With their legendary precision, sky-high kicks and yesteryear glamour, the iconic Rockettes are a tradition as glittering as the Christmas tree. Their performance at the annual "Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes" may be kitschy, but their technique is razor-sharp. Performances start in early November and continue through the New Year.

Radio City Music Hall, 1260 Ave. of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; +1 (866) 858-0007

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree

Currently lit for Christmas, the tree is usually lit for the first time on the Wednesday following Thanksgiving. The festive occasion includes live musical performances at Rockefeller Plaza. The tree remains lit through early January.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, 600 5th Ave. between 49th and 50th Streets, New York, NY 10020; +1 (212) 332-7654

Art

Rockefeller Center is home to a lauded collection of Art Deco sculptures and motifs. The largest and perhaps the most recognized sculpture is the heroic-sized bronze statue of Atlas supporting the earth on his shoulders.

Atlas is found at the main entrance forecourt of 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10111.

The elegant bronze sculpture of Prometheus is surrounded by a cascade of water in Rockefeller Plaza. In the winter, Prometheus serves as the golden support of the towering Christmas tree.

Shopping

With over 100 stores, Rockefeller Center is a shopper's wonderland. For kids (and kids at heart), the LEGO store is a must. It features innovative displays made with the Danish company's signature colorful interlocking plastic bricks. The interactive building area offers hands-on entertainment.

LEGO store, 620 5th Ave., New York, NY 10020; +1 (212) 245-5973

Transportation

To get to Rockefeller Center, take the B, D, F and M to the 47th-50th Streets Rockefeller Center stop. The 1 train to 50th Street, the N, Q and R trains to 49th Street and the 6 train to 51st Street are nearby alternatives.

Did you know?

Many Olympic figure skaters, including Peggy Fleming, Johnny Weir and Michelle Kwan, have graced the ice at Rockefeller Center.

In season, join two-time Olympian JoJo Starbuck for her hour-long skate exercise class on the ice at Rockefeller Center's rink. All levels are welcome to work on core strength, posture and balance. Class is held each Tuesday and Thursday at 7:30 a.m. The cost is $60 per class with pre-registration, $65 for walk-ons.

Anyone with a hulking Norway spruce in their backyard may submit their tree for consideration to be the annual Christmas tree. Priority is given to trees from neighboring states.

In the 1930s, Mexican artist Diego Rivera was hired to paint a mural in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. He was fired in a wave of controversy after he altered his initial approved concept sketch to include a prominently featured depiction of Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. Despite protests from the art community, the painting was destroyed.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is adorned with energy-efficient LED lights. When the tree comes down in January, it is milled and made into lumber that is donated to Habitat for Humanity and used for home building.

More than 1,100 glitzy costumes are worn in the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. Each Rockette has eight costume changes per show, with as little as 78 seconds to change outfits.

Where to eat nearby

While those with a sincere interest in gastronomy don't usually make designated pilgrimages to Rockefeller Center, the Sea Grill and Rock Center Café are rink-side dining options. Both are popular and palatable.

The Sea Grill presents fresh seafood, such as Blue Point oysters and sushi rolls, in an upscale atmosphere.

The Sea Grill, 19 W. 49th St, New York, NY 10020; +1 (212) 332-7610

Rock Center Café serves a casual menu with broad appeal. Burgers, house-made pasta and New York-style cheesecake are winners.

Rock Center Café, 20 W. 50th St., New York, NY 10020; +1 (212) 332-7620

For liquid fortification, Bar SixtyFive at Rainbow Room enjoys panoramic metropolitan vistas from its perch on the 65th floor. A menu of sleek cocktails suits the polished atmosphere. For men, jackets and collared shirts are appreciated. Open on Monday-Friday, 5p.m. to midnight, Sunday from 4 p.m. - 9 p.m. Closed on Saturday.

Bar SixtyFive at Rainbow Room, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112; +1 (212) 632-5000

When it's time to visit the sugar fairy, Jacques Torres Chocolate won't disappoint. The confections are handmade in Brooklyn, without preservatives or artificial flavors. The rich hot chocolate is the perfect way to warm up after a few brisk turns -- or spills -- on the ice.

Jacques Torres Chocolate, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Concourse Level, New York, NY 10112; +1 (212) 664-1804

For general Rockefeller Center information, phone +1 (212) 588-8601.

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