inPRACTICE / INDOOR PLAY: Treetop Escape at The ARC Center in West Chicago, Ill.


West Chicago Park District’s ARC Center in West Chicago, Ill., was built in 2014. This 70,000 square foot complex has been going strong ever since, featuring a fitness center, three-court gymnasium, walking/running track, multipurpose gym, party room, dance studio, spin room, fitness studio and meeting rooms. It also featured TreeTop Escape, which reimagined and renovated an existing play area into a jungle treetop adventure, complete with a real-looking projected waterfall and river.

Opened in 2022, the new Treetop Escape replaces a prior feature called The Treehouse, which Gina Radun, CPO, CPRP, executive director for the West Chicago Park District, described as “McDonald’s on steroids,” with a colorful climbing area. Over time, the upkeep and maintenance required to keep the area safe and usable became unsustainable for existing staff.

That said, the original space was popular, so Radun said one big project goal was to create something exciting that people would love. In addition, they wanted someone to work with the unique space. “The space is really tall, so we wanted to make it not only exciting,  but tall and unique, and something not all spaces could compete with.”

The project also reoriented the entrance into the space to give it more of a wow factor.

Steven Walker, art director for Wacky World Studios, the partner West Chicago’s team turned to for theming, said that there were two big design requirements: “a lot of height and a little bit of risk factor.” He added, “It needed to be fun and a little risky to get that adrenaline rush.”

The resulting 26-foot-high tree, he said, is the largest they’ve ever built.

Photo Courtesy of GameTime

“We did a lot of back-and-forth of design concepts,” Radun added, “but it wasn’t a challenge. It’s the same with every project, but one big challenge: Because we wanted such height and big ‘wow’ pieces, we couldn’t fit the tree in through the door frame.”

The Wacky World team solved the problem by breaking everything down into smaller pieces and reassembling them in the space. “We created a small model of the treehouse, which was used in the construction to figure out how these pieces would break down into different, smaller pieces so we could get them in the door,” Walker said. “Now, when you look at the tree, you don’t even notice anywhere there was a seam.”

The new TreeTop Escape features various slides and sensory devices, and invites exploration with its jungle fantasy-themed environment.

Walker added that the play area features a lot of hidden surprises. “Every time you go inside the treehouse, you see something new. There’s three huts, and each is a different room—a play room, family room and kitchen with a little stove. So there’s little hidden gems. Even in the floor there’s some detail—one room has a little hopscotch. So you see something new every time you go in there.”

Radun said the space is all-encompassing, used for everything from childcare to rentals for birthdays, baby showers or family reunions. “Our internal programs also use it: before and after school, summer camp, our themed school year programs,” she said. “We also have open play times.”

The new play area is also more inclusive. Radun said a challenge in the old treehouse was small spaces where a regular-sized adult could not fit. “We wanted even an adult to be able to go through, whether for inspections or getting a crying kid.”

Walker added that a transfer deck was also incorporated to make the space usable for kids with wheelchairs.

“We’re happy with it and excited the public is receiving it well,” Radun said. “We’re picking back up after COVID. I think it’ll be a positive feature for us.”

In a Youtube video highlighting the project, Tom Norquist, senior vice president for Playcore, celebrated the creative aesthetic of the new play area. “Creating these places where people could come and just be in a world that’s so much different than everyday worlds” is important not just for physical health, but for emotional and mental health as well.      RM


West Chicago Park District:

Wacky World Studios: