Splash pad fun (Photo: Christopher A. Salerno/Shutterstock)
Photo: Christopher A. Salerno/Shutterstock

5 Great American Cities for Splash Pads

Grumpy and hot: a combination that can quickly turn a fun vacation day into a full family spiral. Adults can shake off the feeling simply by finding a cafe to sip a cool drink and relax. But as the parents of small children know, a leisurely break with kids at a café is not always leisurely. So what’s the reviving equivalent of a café, but geared to kids? Splash pad water parks.

I first discovered the necessity of splashpads for traveling families while on a summer vacation in Seattle with my two- and five-year-olds. As the temperature spiked mid-afternoon, our nice day turned suddenly grumpy. Luckily, there was a splash pad nearby. It turned out to be a very effective cure for a hot and grumpy family. Here are five U.S. cities with great splash pads for kids.

Seattle

With plenty of shady benches for parents and napping siblings, The International Fountain at the Seattle Center offers a great place for kids of all ages to cool off. The space-age fountain sends water shooting from 274 nozzles, and the fountain basin can be reached from the low concrete sidewall that surrounds the fountain (ramps make it both stroller- and wheelchair-friendly). Combine it with a trip to the Seattle Children’s Museum, Chihuly Garden and Glass or The Space Needle for a full day out with something for everyone.

Chicago

Chicago knows how to deal with its hot and humid summers: with kids’ splash pads. You can find them in just about every neighborhood, and at some of the top tourist destinations, including Millennium Park and the Navy Pier. If you love innovative landscape design, check out Mary Bartelme Park in the West Loop. The park features three distinct areas including a fountain plaza the emits a fine mist to cool off families, and an ADA accessible children’s play area that allows for inventive, non-linear play without traditional play equipment.

New York

No picture of New York summers would be complete without children playing in the spray of water from fire hydrants. But New York has come a long way in creating kid-friendly water play spaces, and The American Museum of Natural History knows what its audience wants. This water play area is on a one-acre terrace adjacent to the Museum’s Rose Center for Earth and Space, and does not require museum admission to access the splash pad. Here, four jets cascade water into the air, which then pools at the foot of the garden. With shady benches and picnic tables for lounging families, this is worth a visit if you are on the Upper West Side.

Washington, D.C.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is from a family vacation to Washington, D.C. It was a hot afternoon, we’d been sightseeing all day, and I was hot, sweaty, and sticky from a red popsicle my parents had bought me to cool off. The popsicle was good, but at that moment, a splashpad would have been better. Happily, that’s now an option for traveling families: the redeveloped Capitol Riverfront is home to two splashpads.

The first is at Canal Park, a three-acre park that opened in 2012 as a model of sustainable design for outdoor space. Each of the park’s three blocks features something different. The Middle Block features A/C power to recharge your devices and water scrims for your feet, while the Southern Block has a popular summertime Dancing Fountain that encourages kids to play, and a restaurant for refueling.

Nearby, The Yards Park is set along the Anacostia riverfront. The park is home to a variety of water features, including The Dancing Fountain and water scrims at the entrance. Inside the park, The Canal Basin and Waterwall offer visitors the opportunity to splash, wade, and cool off in the fresh water while paying homage to historic canal that once ran from the Anacostia River to the U.S. Capitol Building.

Atlanta

The Historic Fourth Ward Park was created to tackle the problem of flooding from storm water. Rather than install costly underground piping, the community came together to turn several parking lots into a 17-acre park providing much-needed greenspace, plus a manmade lake to collect storm water.  The park is part of BeltLine, a developing 22-mile corridor of parks, trails, and transit encircling downtown. The Park has two kids splash pads, known as “spraygrounds,” along with a play area with unusual equipment, including bowl swings and climbing walls.

What to Pack for Splash Pads on Vacation

Make the visit to a splash pad even more seamless with the right clothes.

Quick-dry shorts help you go from sightseeing to splash pad and back again without the need to change.  Columbia offers great options for kids that won’t make you look like you’re out for a day at the beach.

Non-skid, quick-drying shoes also help; Native shoes are a perennial favorite; and this year, comfortable and waterproof tevas are making a comeback.

Traveling with kids means carrying extras like a change of clothes and snacks.  Stylish and comfortable backpacks include the Dange Dover Dakota Backpack, with dedicated spots for all of your items; and the Fjallraven Kanken Backpack, which has an easily accessible main compartment and hardwearing fabric, and comes a removable foam seat for comfort on-the-go.

Kathryn Sarkis
Kathryn Sarkis is a parent and traveler who has lived in France and the U.S. Her work has appeared on SmarterTravel.com and FamilyVacationist.