Downtown San Jose: A Family Funtown
By Kathy Chin Leong

While attending San Jose State in the 70s, I routinely passed unsavory, even scary characters on my way to the parking garage to go home. Coupled with building decay and lowriders on weekends, the cruddy streets of downtown San Jose was the last place I wanted to be - day or night.

Today my kids and I happily frequent the my old stomping grounds, and we repeatedly return and find new things to see and do. Sometime during the mid-80s, city officials launched a major cleanup and renovation project. Sizzling restaurants, museums, and theaters paved the way to a new and improved downtown, a place you can walk through safely without that feeling of impending doom. And on weekends, city-owned parking is free. Try to get that in San Francisco!

This metropolitan epicenter is a thriving hub of activity for farmer's markets, festivals, and shows. The Girl Scouts, for heaven's sake, hosts its annual Holiday Fest here in the SJ Convention Center.

WHERE TO START

 The downtown family action starts on North Market and Park Avenue . Within a 5-block radius, several museums, eateries, hotels and parks provide more than enough sightseeing for a weekend. Put on your good pair of walking shoes, because San Jose streets are long ones.

MUSEUMS

 Downtown San Jose offers entertaining museums for the entire family. If you have preschoolers, the Children's Discovery Museum is a sure bet. CDM features thousands of square footage of interactive displays: bubble blowing machines, tennis ball ramps, a full-sized fire truck, ambulance, art and crafts center. After an hour or two, I yearn for the quiet room where parents can cradle their kids, 3 and under to rest and have a slice of peace and quiet before returning to the maelstrom. Go after breakfast because it can get very chaotic and crowded.

Now that my kids are older, we hit up The Tech for our science and technology fix. An ideal place to get ideas for upcoming science fairs, the three-level museum changes exhibits seasonally, so getting an annual pass is well worth it. Favorite exhibits are the virtual wheelchair racing and the bobsled. Anything remotely like a video game is a hit with my son. My personal favorite is a computer program that appears to freeze your shadow on a giant screen as images of butterflies land all over you. It's beautiful and educational at the same time.

The newest exhibit is "Science of Roller Coasters." Visitors can learn about the principles and physics of coasters and use recycled materials to build their own rides.

The in-house IMAX Dome Theater always runs several movies, and so we usually will decide on one that we like as an entire family. We have loved all the films we've seen, especially Fantasia 2000.

The San Jose Art Museum may be a stretch for some families, but here's how we do it: I encourage my kids to look around and enjoy the artwork. When they start to get tired, we stop at the cafe for a snack. Then in Round Two, we pick up where we left off, and when they say they have had enough, we leave. I also do not like getting "museum feet" after several hours, so I try to make the art museum experience as positive as possible.

Curators have worked hard to make this free museum mentally accessible to everyone. There are quirky sculptures, mobiles, glass sculptures, and giant pieces of jaw-dropping artwork. Definitely interesting stuff. The second Sunday of every month is Kids ArtSunday, and children can become little Picassos and create their own masterpieces for free.

PARKS 

Sandwiched between The Fairmont Hotel and The Tech, Ceasar Chavez Park is but a sliver of grassland, yet a perfect loungers' park. Although it has no play structures, the park features plenty of benches for weary legs. In the summer, kids can splash in the fountain to cool off. The park is also the site for Thursday night free concerts at 5 p.m. in July and August.

Discovery Park , behind the Children's Discovery Museum, is famous for its outdoor life-sized Monopoly in the Park game board measuring 930 square feet-the largest in the world. Don't believe me? It's in the Guinness Book World Records.

For $300 for four hours, up to 12 people can play rolling mammoth dice, giant game token hats, and mega-sized game pieces based on the miniature version. And if you go to jail, you must don the striped prison wear! A banker, announcer, and game coordinator also come with your reservation to ensure everyone sticks to the rules and has a great time.

The Arena Green , a stonesthrow from the HP Pavilion stadium, offers kids a colorful play structure for climbing and a working carousel with 33 fiberglass animals. Rides cost $1 and benefit the San Jose Sharks ice hockey team foundation.

EVENTS

If your little ones like live performances, the Children's Musical Theater at the Montgomery Theater is always a treat with kids. Tickets are usually $11 to $18 and popular plays such as "The Wiz" and "The Velveteen Rabbit," are slated for next season.

At Christmas, there's the unforgettable "Nutcracker" which plays at the Center for Performing Arts. Before the performance, you can take pictures with the Nutcracker characters and make a visit to the Nutcracker boutique for a special souvenir. Families make going to afternoon tea at The Fairmont and the play a tradition.

December is an ideal time to head over to downtown San Jose. The weather is pleasant, and right after Thanksgiving the city opens Christmas In The Park . This delightful pageant of holiday scenes, a photo op with The Man in the red suit, and decorated trees is based out of Ceasar Chavez Park . For San Jose, this 20-year-old, month-long holiday tradition is a big deal. The colorful lights and cheerful animated scenes stay open until midnight and runs through January 1st.

Nearby, a temporary outdoor ice skating arena will premiere on November 26. Called Downtown Ice, the area will be located at the Circle of Palms next to the San Jose Art Museum. The ice rink will be open daily until the middle of January.

GRAND OPENINGS

Downtown now has two new attractions sure to lure more visitors and make the locals proud. The Martin Luther King Jr. Library , a joint venture between the city and San Jose State University, is a glistening architectural marvel and one of the first to allow users to bring food inside. Horrors! After much debate, library chiefs agreed that it was better to make it an official policy since patrons were sneaking in food anyway. There's a step-down kids area resembling a comfortable sunken living room decorated with splashes of color everywhere. It seems like an oxymoron, but there is a library bookstore on the first level along with a cafe right outside.

This summer the city welcomed the opening of Camera12, a multiplex theater with loveseats, which replaced the dying United Artist theaters. It premieres first run Hollywood flicks and independent films.

And speaking of theater, the San Jose Redevelopment Agency, together with the Packard Foundation spent $70 million to restore the now named Fox California Theater on 970 S. 2nd St. Now the home base for Opera San Jose, the theater has been stories to its original 1927 glory with an outdoor courtyard cafe and will show old movies in addition to opera and other city performances.

FOOD

Great eats can be easily found within walking distance, and there is fast fare, pizzerias, and comfortable sit-down restaurants to suit your every mood.

  • Il Fornaio: With prices between $15 to $30, this white table cloth restaurant is great on service and good food. Make reservations if you come for dinner. Come between 4 to 6 p.m. any day of the week, and there is a happy hour with free appetizers. Buy a soda, and your kids can sit and have a snack. Call 408/271-3366.
  • Old Spaghetti Factory: Kitschy atmosphere (big trolley in the middle) and loads of noodles. Reasonable at $10 to $20. Terrific kids menu. For hours dial 408/288-7488.
  • Pizz'a Chicago: Low key atmosphere, thick crust pizza, and good salads. Under $20, and you will be taking home the leftovers. Call for hours at 408/298-9400.
  • Fountain Restaurant: Great for a lunch or after-museum snack. On Sundays the Fountain offers a fancy-schmancy brunch buffet from 10 to 2 p.m. Cost? $29 for adults and $17.50 for kids, ages 5-12. Make reservations at 408/998-3982.
  • American diners: Here's two of 'em- Johnny Rocket's (408/977-1600) and Peggy Sue's (298-6750). These throw-back to the 50s diners are happenin' with hot dogs, burgers, and a lively ambiance filled with music.
  • Burrito joints: Here's four: Muchos (408/277-0333), La Taqueria (408/298-1542), Chachos (408/293-1387) and La Victoria (408/298-5335) are San Jose institutions with el grande burritos for eat in or takeout.
  • Sonoma Chicken Coop: There's chicken, pizzas, and designer salads all between $5 and $10. A great patio and fountain make this place particularly inviting in the summer. Call 408/298-4098.
  • HipPop Popcorn: This new business boasts every flavor of popcorn you could imagine and pops it right in front of you. Go inside and get free samples! Call for hours at 408/287-8767.

LODGING

Eight large hotels dominate downtown and cater mainly to business clientele. However, we've discovered a few that play up to families in special ways.

  • The Fairmont: This swanky hotel does care about kids as well as pets. If you bring your baby, the hotel will provide you a crib, diapers, bibs, and pacifier. Courtesy of the Fairmont and Hewlett-Packard, families can borrow an HP digital camera and obtain prints on the premises. The top floor has a pool for unwinding after a hectic day. And under the new pet program, small dogs are allowed in the hotel rooms. Animals sleep on their own pet beds, get a rubber toy and treat, and have access to their own water and food bowls. Room prices start at $105. For more info, call 998-1900.
  • Ramada Limited: This is your bargain for the week. Priced at $52 to $80, the hotel has a pool, workout room, complimentary bottled water, in-room refrigerator, and complimentary continental breakfast. You won't break the bank here, and you are walking distance to all of the above attractions. Book it at 408/298-3500.
  • Hotel De Anza: Do you get the munchies in the middle of the night? Unique to this luxury hotel is the "Raid the Pantry" program where guests can go to the hotel kitchen and get cookies or a sandwich for no charge between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Each room comes with a VCR, and guests get complimentary fruit and cookies during their stay. Packages bundled with tickets to the IMAX and Tech start at $119 per night. Call 408/286-1000.

Rolling dice the size of moving boxes on the world's largest Monopoly board, racing on a virtual bobsled, twirling on an outdoor ice rink ... Take your pick. There's so many cool things to do.

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CONTACT INFORMATION:

Theaters:
Montgomery Theater, 408/277-3900.
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 408/277-5277.
Camera12, 408/998-3300.
Fox California Theater, 408/292-2000.

Museums:
Children's Discovery Museum, 408/298-5437.
San Jose Museum of Art, 408/271-6840.
The Tech Museum, 408/294-TECH.

Resting Spots:
Arena Green and carousel, 408/999-6817.
Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 408/808-2000.

WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO...

  • Check out the parking website (see below) to figure out your best solutions for parking and transportation ahead of time.
  • Wear good walking shoes because the blocks are awfully long.
  • Check the SanJose.org website to see what activites are happening the day you want to go.

NOTEWORTHY WEBSITES:

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