03/12/2012 08:54 am ET Updated May 12, 2012

New York City Birthday Adventure: Toy Soldier And All

It's early on a Saturday morning, and three tween girls are practicing the piano. No, I haven't had to drag them out of bed and bug them to work on their scales; they've eagerly volunteered, and they're fighting each other for turns. OK, maybe that has something to do with the fact that this is no ordinary piano, but possibly the most recognized one in the world -- to movie-goers, at least.

Yes, we're at FAO Schwarz, and my two daughters (with a best friend in tow) are playing the big piano, made famous by Tom Hanks in the movie of the same name.

But let's back up. My 11-year-old has decided to forego the usual sleepover or ice skating party this year; perhaps because she's as addicted to traveling as I am, she's asked for a kid-centered New York City weekend adventure instead. I'm happy to oblige: After 12 years and two daughters, bouncy houses and paint-your-own-pottery events have gotten a bit stale. A weekend in New York is the perfect amount of time to see some sights, eat a lot of great food, take in a show -- and then leave New York behind for our hometown of Philadelphia, about 100 miles away.

Because ours is a midwinter celebration, a hotel with an indoor pool tops our list of must-have's. (Who knows if it will snow or sleet, putting the kibosh on other potential activities.) Luckily, the Peninsula, a luxury hotel in midtown, is located with an easy walk of every place we want to explore, plus its top floor is the prettiest spot to splash I've seen in a long time. In fact, even though we're in New York -- where there's more fun stuff to do within a five-block radius than almost anywhere on the planet -- it's hard for me to coax the kids out to hit Shun Lee Palace and wolf down some Chinese dumplings and moo shu pork.

Still, after a long drive to the city (don't even get me started about getting stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel with three tweens in a Prius), an hour of splashing and gourmet Chinese the likes of which doesn't exist in Philly, all three settle down into the Peninsula's over-the-top comfortable beds (complete with high-end linens and the best pillows ever) and snooze the night away -- or at least they pretend to; if they're chatting and playing with their American Girl dolls into the wee hours, my husband and I don't want to know. Our connecting rooms mean that we can catch some z's, no matter what's going on next door, all while knowing the girls are safe and sound.

The next morning? I've got to get them up, up, up. Why? I've got a surprise in store, and I'm so excited I could spit. But telling them that we're off to do something really fun doesn't get the job done, so I have to call in the big guns: room service breakfast.

Now, room service breakfast at the Peninsula is something to behold, especially if you're a tween. Even though the Peninsula isn't designed for kids the way, say, a Disney hotel is, the staff here sure knows how to make kids happy, with smoothies and chocolate chip pancakes on the menu and tiny bottles of syrup and jam that they stash for doll tea parties later. A waiter rolls in a covered table and pulls out plate after plate like rabbits from a hat. For kids who think he's a magician, the hot chocolate seals the deal; it's hot and frothy, served from its own pot and steaming in the cups. The girls tuck in to a table covered with all the goodies they don't get on just any Saturday morning at home. My husband and I? We're back in our cozy king room, drinking some excellent coffee and noshing on eggs Benedict.

And then -- finally! -- I get three girls out and about for a three-block walk, during which they grumble. They just want to play at the Peninsula and swim in the pool. As we turn a corner, the birthday girl even gripes, pointing, "That looks like a really cool toy store, but we can't go in, because Mom has some surprise."

"Oh," I answer. "You'd rather go in there? I guess that would be OK."

Just then, a toy soldier calls out, "McElroy family? Come on in and let me show you around!"

And, on a dime, I turn from being meanest mom in the world to coolest mom ever.

Most people don't know it, but FAO Schwarz has a special tour every morning, an hour before the store opens. It's available to only one family per day, and it's by reservation only, first-come, first-served. I've lucked out by calling about six weeks ahead of time and scored a coveted Saturday morning reservation. And now, for $30/person, we'll have the vaunted toy store to ourselves for an hour, with the toy solider as our guide and playmate.

It's about as much fun as can be had anywhere in the universe.

Sure, the tour's somewhat pre-set, but "our" soldier customizes our tour to my girls' interests. My birthday girl loves baby dolls, for example, so we spend quite a bit of time in the doll "nursery," checking out the "newborns" and cuddling one or two for good measure. The girls and the soldier team up to play foosball on a $25,000 model where Barbie dolls score the goals, then catch sticky balls on Velcro disks while running up and down the aisles. And, at the end, our toy solider and the store's event manager entertain us with "Heart and Soul" on the big piano, then take our picture and serve us another (!) breakfast in the party room, which has been reserved for us and filled with balloons.

Not a bad way to start the day.

Next up? Another dip in the Peninsula pool, then sad faces upon checkout. But now we're walking over to Times Square for a Broadway show: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Sure, the kids are a bit young for the content -- in fact, they're the only kids in the entire theater -- but even they can recognize the extraordinary talent on that stage, with Audra McDonald as Bess and an ensemble that works seamlessly together. Same for the production of Anything Goes we see later, with Sutton Foster and Joel Grey. We all leave the theater singing and tapping. My birthday girl? She's beyond happy.

American Girl Place -- right down the street from the Peninsula; we've come full circle and never even hailed a cab or pushed through a subway turnstile -- is almost an afterthought, a fun ending to our weekend but certainly not the headliner.

In the end, we've spent more money than we should have, but we've had a weekend to remember. As a mom, that's important to me; as my girls enter adolescence, they're not going to want to hold my hand and hug dolls as they walk through the city streets much longer. It might be the end of an era, but we've left childhood behind with a bang -- and a few chords on the big piano.