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Maggie Daley Park review

"Review" sounds so harsh, maybe. But I didn't want to use "report" because that sounds more like a simple account of our visit. Which this post is not. I don't want to be overly critical of this amazing place. But I also want to paint a realistic portrait of what your family is in for if you go. It's a mixed bag, but in the balance I'd say it's a fantastic addition to Chicago. Definitely give it a try...just read this first.

The Basics:
Maggie Daley Park is the new recreation area to the east of Millennium Park with Randolph to the north, Columbus to the west, Monroe to the south, and Lake Shore Drive to the east. This past fall, parts of the park opened for ice skating with a meandering ribbon. There's a rock-climbing wall, playground, tennis courts, picnic tables, etc.. For the purpose of our time there on Friday, this review is going to mostly be about the large playground in the southeast corner. It's a major draw and very crowded as a destination for families.

So what are the positives? It's a beautiful location. The aesthetics are cool--though maybe not for everybody. The entire park is very much in keeping with the design of Millennium Park with a series of interconnected regions, modern/utilitarian feel. It's not woodsy or formal. It's friendly and welcoming. It draws you in with places to explore. Like Millennium Park next door, it's super popular and on a sunny spring day it was filled with people of all ages and backgrounds. Like its predecessor, Maggie Daley Park is still connected to its neighbor across Columbus by the snaking BP Bridge. The views of the city are some of the best along the lakefront. The materials inside all have interesting designs and are of sufficient quality that I'm guessing they'll last for decades with the right upkeep. And, most of all, kids have fun.

So what are the negatives? Well, the kids will have fun but your experience as a parent may not be the best. To begin, the park feels like it should be easier to get to than it is. Being so near the lakefront, it is in a bit of a no-man's land for access. There's some on-street parking. The expensive underground garages. Maybe one bus route. Or you can do what we did and take the L to the Randolph station in the Loop, walk through Millennium Park and over the bridge, then find the playground in the far corner after a few curving walkways.

One of the biggest things you'll notice immediately is that the areas in the playground region are divided by age. Each age gets a separate, unique theme...wobbly wooden boats in the swing area for younger kids, a giant metal tugboat, dolphins in the splash/spray area. All the swings and rocking boats were taken when we first arrived so we ended up spending quite awhile in the tugboat area. It's an awesome two-level structure. Top level is a steering wheel and deck area with a ladder down to an open cargo hold. Tunnels come out the front on the lower level. But be warned, parents, this is not an easy structure to play with your kids nor are there many benches to sit and watch. I ended up leaning on the metal pipe fence which is uncomfortable and a major design flaw. In fact, so many of the play structures in this park are not made with parent-child play in mind. Which is a blessing to encourage free play from the kids. But, on the flip side, there aren't enough places to sit and relax while you wait for the little ones. What benches they do give you are giant, molded...chairs? They're big enough to fit the entire family on and not your typical wooden park bench. These are really more like large, deep table tops with backs.

I made the mistake of suggesting to my kids that we explore. They really would have played for 2 hours at the boat, we'd go home, and all would be fine. But, in exploring, it's the taller, scarier items that really pulled even my 3-4 year olds in. This equipment is designed for ages 5-12 which is a pretty big age range of ability. By the time you get a 3 year old playing on the low end and large groups of teens on the upper end, it creates some odd situations. And, be warned, this park was extremely crowded on a weekday. The "treehouse" structures and connecting rope suspension bridge are probably the tallest and most popular. This area is designed to collect in a giant, lower-level bowl with slides ringing the entire perimeter and crate-looking, stacked/multi-level tables for parents to wait. But with so many people and so many slides and hidden "fort" spaces, it's easy to lose track if you're trying to watch multiple young children. My strategy was to stay in one central space for them to return, but even my oldest was overwhelmed trying to find me sitting in the mayhem. If you had this park to yourself it would be different. Another word of caution...some of the slides are quite tall and require enclosed climbing to get to them. (30 feet?) It won't be easy for you to get a scared child back down if they chicken out at the top. Also, the run-out at the end isn't the safest...sometimes kids don't exit quickly and it's tough to tell when it's your child's turn to be ready to catch them.

The last thing you'll figure out pretty quickly is that there is a lack of restrooms and concessions in the area. And very few trashcans considering you're going to have dirty diapers, snack wrappers, etc.. The lack of bathrooms is already a hot topic for the new Bloomingdale Trail "606." I would put forth that asking families with potty-training children to walk any distance to a restroom is ridiculous. On the way home, we managed to make it to the restrooms in the underground area near the stage in Millennium Park. But that's a long walk and there I had to drag both my kids into the men's room. A family restroom to change diapers and have more space would be appreciated. May even be a necessity. Unless you want kids peeing in the bushes. There's also the issue of food and drink. We stopped to eat our lunch at the vendors in Millennium Park and, to be fair, there are some water fountains in Maggie Daley Park with great height variation for smaller kids. But the Park District really needs to get at least a drink cart or a few healthy snacks out there during the summer on a regular basis. Despite how much the kids love the equipment, you're really...stuck. It's isolated and tough to drag along everything you need. Museum Campus has some great little snack shack and washroom combo buildings that I think will be needed at the playground area of Maggie Daley Park.

Overall, I want to see some of the vegetation grow in for a few seasons and get a feel for what kind of response this park gets from both sides. As I was in it, I was struck by how much of an intersection the play area is between free range parenting ideals and our safety-obsessed helicopter mentality. This isn't one of those parks with paint cans, old tires, and hammer and nails for your kids to try out...nothing here is really "dangerous." But many of the structures are a bit scary...they're tall, they're unique, they draw the kids in but force them out of a comfort zone to have fun. That's great for them, but bad for you as a parent. This isn't typical playground stuff and both you and your kids aren't going to be quite sure what to make of it.

For more information: http://maggiedaleypark.com/

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