Bringing New Life to the Playground
Toucan's Hideaway in West Chicago, Ill.
By Dave Ramont
When kids in the town of West Chicago, Ill., need to cool off, they head to Turtle Splash waterpark, which features a zero-depth entry pool, 12-foot waterfall, a giant dumping bucket and various waterslides. There is also a dry playground within the five-acre enclosed facility.
In 2009 the 25-year-old pool area was renovated, but the playground remained untouched, according to Gary Major, executive director at the West Chicago Park District. The playground had become highly under-used, so it was time to rethink and repurpose the area. "With the renovation of the waterpark, we added some really nice features," said Major. "So we looked at it as a competition thing in the sense that, why would somebody come over and play in what was then an old playground and a climber, when they could go down a 300-foot waterslide? What can we put in there that will actually compete and draw the crowd?"
Another part of the district's vision was to expand the usage of the area for outdoor birthday parties, since their indoor party facility was so successful. So they decided to create an outdoor area that could also be used in May, September and October. "So even when the pool is closed, we can make this a six-month venue," said Major. "We wanted to produce revenue in it of course, but we also wanted to offer another experience that was broad-based, that a lot of kids would enjoy, so we arrived at that."
The new adventure playground Toucan's Hideaway and the adjoining birthday canopy area opened in June 2018. And while it proved to be an instant hit, it was about two-and-a-half years in the making.
Major said he visited various park and waterpark conferences and explained their vision to vendors, but nothing clicked. So they ventured down to Fort Payne, Ala., home of GameTime, and worked with their playground equipment designers. It took some time to get their vision across, but eventually they got there. "When you're going someplace and you don't know where you're going, that's what makes for a lot of fun," Major said.
Major described how he was inspired by different elements at venues in different cities. "Working with GameTime, we combined elements of play that reflect on the City Museum in St. Louis, the Nashville Zoo and creative elements in Memphis, with the goal to create a unique venue that could be used five to six months out of the year, and provide a stepped area of learning and skill development for all ages."
Toucan's Hideaway uses a swamp theme to create different passages and opportunities for kids, who may be on one feature and realize there are several different ways to get to another feature. "It allows kids to be creative, to be problem-solvers," Major said. "It appeals to all ages because there are different skill levels involved. Not everybody can do everything in that particular venue, so it's a new experience as you get older."
Another goal was to feature some height in the park, so towers were included in the design. "These towers all have components inside of them that challenge kids in climbing and accessing different points of the unit," Major said. There are also several slides, with custom pieces that have climbing steps on them that resemble lily pads and other things, though Major points out that there are many ways to access the unit other than the stairs, keeping things creative.
There are several unique features as well, including the popular in-ground bouncer, a product from Germany making its U.S. debut. And the double-decker net trails don't normally exist in regular playgrounds, according to Major, due to vandalism. "Since we have a controlled environment with a fence it wasn't a problem." There's also a tower of vertical nets for climbing.
Accessibility was also a concern, so the park district worked with the Western Dupage Special Recreation Association to create a ramp, providing exceptional access for the disabled.
Two large rocks inside the unit are actually misters, adding a cooling mist to the playground and more than 3,000 plants and flowers were planted, all lending to the swamp aesthetic. Additionally, a small toddler-sized splash pad was installed adjacent to Toucan's Hideaway.
The design and fabrication of materials began in June 2017, with construction starting in March 2018. Green Up was the local installer, with landscape architects Hitchcock Design Group coordinating the project. GameTime provided a crew for three weeks during the most intricate phase to lend assistance.
The day after the grand opening, five birthday parties were held at Toucan's Hideaway, and even on the hottest days there are kids playing there instead of in the water. "I've always tried to do things a little different," Major said, "a little exploratory and very creative. Whether it's a rec center or a playground, we try to stretch the envelope a bit. It's all about having fun."
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