A Charming Bond

Pumpkin Playground at San Martín Park in Lakewood, Calif., is a fairytale destination charmed with a custom pumpkin carriage drawn by two horses and a large Cinderella castle play structure. The reopening of this play space in fall 2014 was the happy ending to a story where nostalgia was temporarily thwarted by immediate safety issues.

In 1963, city council adopted individual themes for playgrounds throughout its park system. A nautical, space age, and storybook theme are still prevalent at three city parks today. The storybook theme married to San Martín Park was affectionately transformed in name to “Pumpkin Park,” a direct correlation to the pair of pumpkin carriages installed in the playground in 1967.

Forty-six years later, the carriages were showing obvious signs of aging. The deterioration of one of the carriages presented an immediate safety concern, forcing its removal from the play area. With the aid of social media, news of the pumpkin carriage’s demise spread swiftly. From Baby Boomers on, generations of residents flooded city hall with concern for the loss of their favorite play structure, the defining element of their community and childhood memories. What is Pumpkin Park without its pumpkin carriage?

Borrowing wisdom from their predecessors, the current city council unanimously decided to maintain a pumpkin-themed playground at the park. A new playground would mirror the play elements of the past and satisfy current safety standards and accessibility requirements. To replace the resident-favorite old carriages, a custom-designed Cinderella-pumpkin carriage was commissioned!

Creative Play Spaces Create A Community Connection
Children deserve well-maintained, accessible, and fun play spaces. While neighborhood playgrounds satisfy this essential need, themed playgrounds are a step above the standard, creating a special destination for community residents, especially youngsters. Themed playgrounds generally have two or more unique play elements. For San Martín Park, it was the Cinderella pumpkin carriages. At Del Valle Park in Lakewood and Boysen Park in Anaheim, Calif., Navy jet planes acquired in the 1960s as play structures flew into children’s hearts. To date, these two parks are affectionately referred to as “Airplane Park.”

Theme Selection
Selecting a playground theme can be risky business. It’s an “all-sales-final” purchase—no exchange and no refund.  Municipalities starting from scratch should incorporate a theme that connects residents with their existing surroundings or community history. Citrus Ranch Park in the city of Tustin, Calif., is a good example. The 17-acre park has a citrus theme, quickly evident by 869 rows of lemon trees. This grove is among the last citrus groves in Orange County. The park’s two playgrounds complement the theme with a lemon-lined bridge, lemon-shaped spring riders, and a lemon pattern poured-in-place surfacing.

When selecting a playground theme, avoid themes that are “trending now” and familiar only to a select generation. Aim for a timeless theme that will endure over several decades and optimistically over several generations. 

The Playground Project Plan
If a themed playground has been determined as a good fit for your community, select a playground manufacturer who connects with the community’s vision for the play space.

The wide offering of commercial playground manufacturers can seem overwhelming. In an effort to narrow the playing field to just one manufacturer, develop a request for proposal that clearly identifies the project scope, including design requirements, budget, construction calendar, manufacturer certifications, and other project considerations, such as project meeting schedules, warranty, references, and the availability of a government pricing plan. If a custom play element is desired, confirm the manufacturer's availability to build custom structures. Some manufacturers may charge a design fee above the manufacturing cost. 

After selection of a commercial playground manufacturer, a contractor certified to install the equipment should be solicited. Develop a construction calendar with the manufacturer’s representative and the selected contractor. The calendar should include weekly progress meetings with the city’s project manager, the manufacturer's representative, the contractor, and any sub-contractors who maintain a significant role in the project, such as the playground surfacing installer.

If the project’s focus is replacing an existing playground, consider other facility improvements needed to complement the new play space. This is similar to people recognizing the need for new windows after repainting their entire house. Lakewood’s project included new outdoor seating areas and a new concrete entryway etched with pumpkins. To further enhance the user experience, city staff also completed an in-house remodel of the facility’s restrooms and redesigned the corner landscape on both ends of the playground, giving the facility fresh curb appeal.

After construction of the new playground and before the playground opens to the public, be sure to have the manufacturer's representative certify the installation of the playground equipment per the manufacturer's specifications. It is imperative to also employ a certified playground safety inspector to conduct an initial audit. This inspector is independent of the city, the manufacturer, and the installing contractor. Furthermore, a routine inspection and maintenance plan should be developed by the agency to sustain a safe, well-maintained and clean play area for all users.

Show It Off
No playground project is complete without a true celebration! Commemorate your new playground with a grand opening. A community gathering will lay the foundation for a long-lasting connection between the community and the play destination! In Lakewood, residents gathered by the hundreds to celebrate the opening of “Pumpkin Playground.” Cinderella and Prince Charming even made a guest appearance, happily taking pictures with kids and adults. The grand opening included face painting, fun in the sun with sand toys, and pumpkin-shaped cookies as a takeaway treat. It was truly a charming day in Lakewood!

Valarie Frost is the Community Services Manager for the city of Lakewood in California. Reach her at VFrost@lakewoodcity.org.