Taking a school trip to New York might sound like a nightmare - but with careful advance planning, it can be enjoyable, fun and educational for all. Here are my tips on how to make it work
As a Drama teacher, I often find myself in bizarre situations (putting on performances in hallways, sourcing luminous green body paint, etc), but when asked to lead a trip of 40 rampant, hormonal teenagers to New York, I was apprehensive to say the least. The first bit of advice I would give to anyone else who finds themselves in this situation is to get together a group of teachers you trust to assist you on your trip - the last thing you need is one maverick teacher leading a group off into the wilderness without your permission.
The second piece of advice I would give is to have an itinerary worthy of a military campaign: there’s nothing more dangerous than bored teenagers with time on their hands in a foreign city. Make sure, though, that you leave enough travel time in between each activity, as it takes at least an hour to travel by tube from one end of Manhattan to the other. I planned extra free activities that could have been added in if we had too much time, such as shopping stops or visits to sites of interest along the way. Worth checking out is the Juilliard Dance School (www.juilliard.edu), which has free showcases of students' work on various days, often at lunchtime. Before leaving the UK, I also found information online about which tubes to get, and photocopied the details for all adults in charge, just in case of separation.
I wanted the students to have certain educational experiences as well as visiting the tourist attractions, so I planned for them to see a Broadway musical. Having seen Wicked in New York and London previously, I opted for something new to both me and the students. Luckily, my gamble paid off and I would recommend seeing In the Heights to anyone. It was a brilliant modern story fused together with Latin music and dancing and, I’m pleased to say, converted a musical-hater among the teachers! If you're considering a musical you're not familiar with, check out the Tony award-winners and nominees at www.tonyawards.com before booking anything, and get an agent to do the booking for you, as they can often get a better group rate.
Because I was very aware of parents offering the ‘but they could do that anywhere’ argument against the trip, I booked for students to attend a workshop at the prestigious New York Film Academy (www.nyfa.com), where they spent the afternoon learning how to use cameras, and making, acting in, directing and editing films, which were then screened in front of all their friends. The students thoroughly enjoyed their experience and the teachers were in heaven because we were not required to stay with them! Cue a quick trip to Chinatown and fake Gucci handbags being shoved in our faces. Incidentally, this was the cheapest place we managed to find the ever-popular ‘I love NY’ T-shirts. Before attending the workshop, we had a three-hour movie and TV locations tour, which was fantastic and a great way to see the city without tiring the legs.
Eating out en masse
The best restaurants I’ve found to take large parties to are Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway (a great pre-theatre location, as the waiting staff sing musical numbers and dance on the tables in 50s clothing during your meal; www.ellensstardustdiner.com) and the Jekyll & Hyde Club (1409 Avenue of the Americas; www.jekyllandhydeclub.com) for a spooky meal experience. Both serve excellent food, with set menus for around £20 per person, and have entertainment during your meal to keep the troops occupied.
If you want a slightly more grown-up atmosphere, try the Hard Rock Café in Times Square, which has very good set menus for around £15 per person (www.hardrock.com). If you need a place to take the group during the daytime for food, Grand Central Station’s food court has something for everyone at a very reasonable price. Or head for the South Street Seaport Mall, where you could combine lunch with an afternoon of shopping for the kids and a sneaky glass of wine on the decking overlooking the Hudson for the teachers. It's a great place to go if you have any bad weather - and check out the website (www.southstreetseaport.com) before visiting, as they have offers for foreign travellers that you can print out.
Where to stay
If you want something really cheap to keep costs down, try the Central Park Hostel on the Upper West Side. It’s a bit of a tube ride away from the main attractions, but the beautiful Central Park is at the end of the road and there is a tube station less than five minutes from your door. I wouldn’t recommend this hostel for those thinking of taking younger groups, however, as it can be quite noisy, with a ridiculous ‘no noise after 2am’ policy in place. If you don’t mind paying a bit more, try the Pod Hotel in Midtown East, which has bunk beds for the students and lovely double-bedded rooms for the teachers. It’s a bit trendier than the hostel, with iPod docks in the rooms and IKEA-type furniture.
Covering the classics
Finally, when considering what tourist attractions to visit, make sure that you cover the basics. For example, the boat trip around the Statue of Liberty is a must, but don’t pay to go on to the island unless you’re taking a history trip or your students have a particular interest in the history of the settlers. The dock is only just around the corner from Ground Zero, so it’s straightforward enough to navigate your own way there, and my students were both moved and uplifted by being able to see how far on they are with the rebuilding. Also, the Empire State Building is best viewed at sunset, so book an early evening slot so that you can see the city as it gets dark.
New York is a fabulous city to visit, and planning a group trip is not nearly as difficult as it seems. Just ensure that you have reliable group leaders with you to lessen your load. I would do it again in a heartbeat!