Every holiday season, I imagine my family attending Pacific Northwest Ballet's rendition of "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker" together. In my fantasy, my kids wear their finest attire, sit quietly through the show and sip cider during the intermission as we discuss the finer points of ballet and remark about the beauty of Tchaikovsky's score.
Not surprisingly, reality has never quite measured up. I've spent many a ballet in the lobby with a tantruming preschooler, and after a few years of dogged determination to one day achieve my ideal, my now-teenagers have gone on strike: Only one was even willing to attend with me this year.
But I was undeterred. I gathered up my teenage daughter and my fourth-grade twins, and set out for the opening weekend matinee of the Nutcracker at McCaw Hall. And, you know what? It didn't suck. No one cried, no one complained (too much) and while we never did discuss ballet technique, everyone left happy.
So I present to you my best tips for enjoying (surviving) the Nutcracker with kids.
Not going to the PNB's famous Nutcracker? Don't worry, it isn't the only one around. We've got a gaggle of local Nutcrackers to choose from, in towns and theaters up and down the Sound. Find one that suits your crew and most of these tips will still apply.
Skip the drive. As we sat in traffic on Mercer for 30 minutes, I realized something important: Sitting in traffic doesn't set kids up for success. Take a bus, light rail (the Monorail stop inside the Seattle Center Armory makes for an easy walk to McCaw Hall) or a Lyft. Anything to cut down on your kids' tolerance for sitting in one place before you even walk in the door!
If you must drive, there's a parking lot on Mercer that's directly across from McCaw Hall and features a skybridge directly into the auditorium. Parking is steep ($25 when we visited) and cash only, but it beats the search for parking with cranky kids.
Bribe them with treats. My teens' favorite memories of the Nutcracker are, I kid you not, the snacks I bought them at intermission. These days, you can save yourself a whole lot of time and effort by pre-ordering snacks from any of the concession stands before the show. They'll have your order waiting for you at intermission. Magic.
If your kids, like mine, get thirsty roughly every 12 seconds, you might be dismayed to learn that no food or drinks are allowed inside the auditorium. But what PNB doesn't tell you is that rule doesn't apply to water. Purchasing a water bottle before the show can save you from a chorus of "I'm thirsty."
Consider attending during opening weekend. It's too late for this year, but next year consider making your plans a little earlier. Opening weekend features a variety of special events, including magicians who perform during intermission. Plus, some of the best prices are available for the earlier performances.
Pull out all the stops. Do kids really need booster seats and binoculars to enjoy the show? Of course not. But will sitting on a comfy cushion, playing with binoculars intrigue young kids? You betcha. Both are available from the main lobby; boosters are free, binoculars can be rented for $5.
Set yourself up for success. Remember my fantasy of beautiful dresses? As cute as they may be, over the years I've learned that my kids do best when they're comfortable. I've traded in the taffeta and tulle for cozy Christmas sweaters that are festive without the fuss.
Know your kids' limits. I have a dirty secret: For years, my family has left the Nutcracker at intermission. Why? Because my kids' tolerance for the ballet only lasts for about an hour. After a few performances spent in the lobby dealing with tantruming kids, I've learned to quit while I'm ahead. But now that we've seen the first half of the ballet at least a dozen times, I'm going to switch it up and take in the second half next year instead.
Get creative. One of my daughters is autistic, and it's challenging for her to make it through a meal much less a ballet. This year, I let her bring her tablet inside the auditorium and simply turned the brightness all the way down so it wouldn't bother the people around us. While it would be nice if she could engage more fully with the ballet, working within her needs set her up for success — and prevented what could've been a very disruptive meltdown. A win for all.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2017 and updated for 2019.