Just as a Broadway show has nothing whatsoever to do with the street outside named Broadway (with a few such vivid exceptions as the current hit musical "Fosse"), New Yorkers like to say that their cleaned-up, theme-parked theater district has no relevance whatsoever to the actual city.

And . . . you got a problem with that?

I'm not sure I care one way or the other. I mean, here we are spending the weekend in midtown, west-side Manhattan. Animated people and animated, Lincoln Memorial-size electronic billboards overwhelm the senses in Times Square on a Saturday afternoon in late December. A guy wearing three sweaters gestures questioningly at the illuminated roof sign and empty back seat of a cab stopped at 43rd Street; he wants a taxi, and the driver is ignoring him. "Are you working or what?" he bellows. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

My friends from New York tell me most of these animated people actually live in New Jersey or upstate, or even Arlington, Va. They say that you can tell by watching them walk: with their heads and eyes up, not down, not glazed over.

Well--guilty, then.

If my wife, our otherwise seen-it-all son and I hadn't been looking up, in fact, we would have missed the commotion on the other side of Broadway, where a crowd seems to be cheering as if there's a celebrity in their midst. Stopping to look, we see no famous faces--just a couple of portable stage lights and a young man who seems to be cueing the crowd to wave and squeal. Then we see, almost right over our heads, that MTV veejay-hunk Carson Daly is doing a live standup right there in the second-floor window of the music-video network's Times Square studio; the camera's downward angle is using the crowd across the street as some kind of living backdrop.

Yes, Times Square: the living, squealing backdrop.

"Oooh, oooh--there he is!" gushes a teenager beside us, grabbing her girlfriend's shoulder to point her Carson-ward. "No way that's him," her friend says.

Yes way--but it is also getting way too hard to tell what's real and what's virtual, digitized or tape-delayed in Times Square and the theater district. It's clearly less varied and more Disneyfied--one of Mayor Guiliani's campaign promises, I believe--and evidently bereft of most self-respecting New Yorkers or small (or even medium-size) businesses.

But it's still unique. And New York's theater district makes a fine weekend away from another low-rise, neon-free winter in the Nation's Capital. There's much to do before or after the show (see Ways & Means)--or instead of it, if, like us, you reach the TKTS window in time for nothing worth even the discounted price.

Unless you're in the market for $42 sweatshirts and $5 beers, don't bother with the likes of Times Square's growing Disney complex, Warner Bros. (AOL Bros.?) boutique or the ESPN Zone sports mega-bar/theme park. First, there's whatever's playing, free, on the side of a tall building near you. Then there are also first-run films on one of the largest (indoor) screens in America at the Ziegfeld (141 W. 54th, 212-765-7600). We browsed (or seemed to) all nine floors of Macy's (212-695-4400), and every other retail chain store ever opened, along 34th Street.

We didn't have tickets to a concert there, but it turns out venerable Carnegie Hall (57th and Seventh, 212-247-7800) has a small free museum worth a stop. And while you're on the edge of the East Side, you might as well brave the sea of suits and sun-starved streets and see the classics: the Empire State Building(Fifth Ave. at 34th, 212-685-0610, the dizzying view still worth the long wait in endless subterranean queues); Rockefeller Center (212-282-2502, between 48th and 51st, Fifth and Sixth, for either the drop-in daily tours or planned-ahead show-going at NBC Television studios or the just-renovated Radio City Music Hall); and the oasis-like triad along 42nd Street between Sixth and Park: the New York Public Library (212-661-7220), manageably sylvan Bryant Park and the gloriously restored Beaux Arts Grand Central Terminal, famous clock, ceiling constellations and all.

But now you're getting a glimpse at how real New Yorkers live. Quick: Back to Times Square, where the dream lives on.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Unless you have relatives to visit upstate or in New Jersey (and that's probably them at the window table at Carnegie Deli anyway), you have no reason not to take the train to Penn Station and walk up Eighth Avenue until the electronics-for-a-dollar shops and surviving peep-show emporiums start to dwindle at about 42nd Street. For the half-hour it shaves off an otherwise 3 1/2-hour trip, the nearly double-the-price Metroliner isn't worth it; Amtrak's round-trip coach fares start around $130 (1-800-872-7245, www.amtrak.com).

BROADWAY: The shows to see this winter: "Chicago"; "Fosse"; Christopher Walken and Blair Brown in "James Joyce's The Dead"; Bernadette Peters and Tom Wopat (yes, from "The Dukes of Hazzard") in "Annie Get Your Gun." And if you still haven't seen "Cats," after 17 years, or "Les Miserables," after 13, they're still at the Winter Garden and Imperial, respectively. For 25 to 75 percent off same-day performance tickets, there are two Theatre Development Fund/TKTS booths: the quiet, less crowded one at 2 World Trade Center, and the zoo at 47th Street (which is open Monday-Saturday 3 to 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays 11 to 7; cash or traveler's checks only). One-day advance matinee and Sunday tickets are available only at the World Trade Center location. And for those $50-and-up full-price, reserved seats: Ticketmaster (212-307-4100) or Telecharge (212-239-6200).

WHERE TO EAT: We had a lovely dinner at Orso (212-489-7212, 46th between Seventh and Eighth), which performs casual-seeming magic with everyday stuff--it's not easy to happily wed beets, caramelized onions, aged ricotta and pomegranate seeds--and serves the house cabernet in a mini-Kool Aid pitcher. Other choices? Two words: Ninth Avenue. Here, amid a low-rise, single-owner storefront atmosphere more like the rest of the real West Side, are many surprising, low-key, wonderful restaurants--from the memorable and reasonable meatless dishes at Zen Palate, 212-582-1669, to the mix of neighborhood and theater folks and eclectic Southwest fare at Zuni (212-765-7626, Ninth at 43rd).

WHERE TO STAY: Online reservation service QuikBook (1-800-254-7188, www.quikbook.com) helped us find a $185 (plus taxes) weekend rate we could live with--just to live for a night at the luxury boutique Time Hotel (49th near Eighth, 212-320-2900). The lobby and reception/bar are all minimalist glass, brushed aluminum and black-suited service personnel who ring up your bill on sleek black laptops and are either off-duty models or guys who are probably named Dieter. Redone from the ground up and reopened last year, the hotel's rooms are tasteful, wholly comfortable works of primary-color, postmodern art (pictured at right). The house bistro is named Palladin, just like a certain chef who went by his first name, Jean-Louis, when he was at the Watergate. QuikBook's Web site had said Time rooms came with two-line phones and Web TV. Turns out the latter wasn't installed yet but will be soon, says Dieter.

Other recently renovated options in the neighborhood: the huge Art Deco Belvedere (48th between Eighth and Ninth, 212-245-7000, weekend doubles $115 plus taxes, for a stay in late January); the Roosevelt (45th between Madison and Vanderbilt, 212-661-9600, $125), with its expansive marble lobby and kinda cramped rooms; and the Sheraton Manhattan (Seventh between 51st and 52nd, 212-581-3300, $169), which has its own indoor pool and fitness center.

DETAILS: New York City Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-692-8474, www.nycvisit.com. A portable combination guidebook and sturdy, fold-out map I recommend is the "Let's Go Map Guide: New York City" ($7.95).

The Escapist

Three for

the AGES

From Regina and George Arlotto of Washington, here's a Top Three Escapes list that follows a familiar progression. A copy of "Escape Plans," the Washington Post getaway guide, now progresses their way.

1. Before Kids: Weekend drive to Crisfield. Stopped on the way at beautiful old Wye Oak, biked among eagles and falcons at Blackwater Wildlife Refuge (410-228-2677). After a soft-shell crab and fried fish feast at Cris-field's Waterman's Inn & Restaurant (410-968-2119), B&B owner picked us up because it started to rain and we stayed up all night drinking coffee and looking at her renovation pictures.

2.After Kids: Found ourselves one weekend in July at Pennsylvania's Seven Springs Resort (1-800-452-2223), just in time for a special $79-a-night weekend, huge buffet breakfast included. Beautiful lodge-like room, balcony, excellent staff, nighttime hayride to mountaintop for hot dogs and s'mores.

3.With Kid: Camping weekend at Shenandoah National Park's Big Meadows. Hiked to waterfall, saw a dozen deer and fawns, cooked out under the stars on crisp clear night, awakened by the sount of coyotes. Our 3-year-old still talks about his first camping trip.

AND YOUR TRIPS?

You have till Jan. 28 to send us your Top Three Escapes list; if we decide to use it on this page in the coming weeks, we'll send you a free copy of "Escape Plans," too. Keep it pithy and under 100 words, and send it via email to escapist@ twp.com or U.S. mail to Escapes, The Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington DC 20071.