Monday, July 14, 2014

Playground Review: Seven Seas Park (Sunnyvale)

Updated April 2015

The City of Sunnyvale unveiled Seven Seas Park on Saturday, and in doing so, made my life far more difficult. Really, where will I find the motivation to check out and report on playgrounds around the South Bay when I could just return again and again to this little slice of toddler heaven?

In all seriousness, this is the single best playground I've been to in my life, at least for toddler purposes (this won't be the most exciting park for 10 year olds). Contenders, up to this point, have been the Elinor Friend playground at the San Francisco Zoo and a pretty amazing accessible playground called Tatum's Garden in Salinas. But neither of them can top Seven Seas.

I'm going to write up a review below, but really, you can stop reading now (I'm joking -- keep going) because I can tell you up front that every single thing I usually consider a "pro" in a park -- well, Seven Seas has it in spades. And the "cons" of the playground itself are tough to find. Indeed, there is very very little to complain about at this masterpiece of playground engineering and design.

So honestly, all I can say is go. Go visit Seven Seas. Pack a bathing suit and towel for your toddler, and plenty of snacks -- you're going to be there for a while.

  • The park (which, in addition to the playground, includes a tennis court, a basketball court, a dog park, a huge, perfectly-manicured lawn, beautiful landscaping, trails and picnic areas with bbqs) is brand new (opened June 12, 2014), and is beautifully designed and implemented in every aspect.
  • The biggest draw is the large, sea-themed playground, which truly offers something for everyone. I couldn't even begin to describe all of its features -- it's so chock full of fun surprises that there are probably some that we haven't even discovered yet -- but here are a few of the highlights:
    • A fully-fenced (with working latches) toddler/preschooler section featuring the rubberized ground surface that I love (the ground surface itself is absolutely adorable, with a sea creature theme, number bubbles and more) and a massive sail for shade. (Note that some moms have commented that the latches can snag little fingers -- be careful!)
    • An ultra-modern, fun and innovative toddler/preschooler play structure inside the fenced area, with lots of unique features, two slides, and plenty of ground-level offerings for younger toddlers (or toddlers who just like to serve mommy pretend food out of a cute little cafe-like window). 
    • Also in the fenced section, a very nice sand play area (complete with sifting/dumping/funneling features), two baby swings (over tanbark -- if I'm trying to come up with a "con", I guess that's one), lots of fun ground level attractions along the perimeter fencing (things to spin, twist and hit), various little platforms for climbing and balancing, and seating for parents.
    • Just outside the fenced section, a great water play/splash pad area, which includes spouts that shoot upwards from the ground, as well as various cool poles that stream water downward -- or, in the case of one very unique feature, collect it in a bucket, then dump it en masse on whomever is standing underneath (don't say I didn't warn you). The water feature is large and well spread out, so kids can get as wet (or stay as dry) as they choose, and there's no central feature to create huge crowds or bottlenecks. Very young toddlers were walking around unassisted and doing just fine. Water is controlled by a silver button on the ground (put your foot over it for a few moments to activate), and the ground surface is rubberized. Seating for parents is available along one side, with a sail positioned to offer afternoon shade.
    • A "big kid" section comprised of multiple structures/attractions that are actually very toddler-friendly, the most impressive of which is a pirate ship play structure, with portholes, sails, cannons (that double as drums), two slides, and a bunch of fun features, both on and under the structure. The structure is accessible for kids with disabilities, with a ramp leading directly up to two smaller slides, and continuing onto the structure itself. 
    • Also in the "big kid" section, a rope and metal climbing structure (shaded by another large "sail"), a rock structure, a merry-go-round of sorts (Toddler X loved this, but know that it gets moving fast when big kids are present), and huge boulders for climbing. Ground surface throughout is the rubberized stuff, except for under the swings (again, tanbark). There is an accessible swing for kids with disabilities.
    • The sea theme permeates the whole playground area, with starfish-studded rock formations, decorated ground surfaces, a "boardwalk" around the perimeter, and pirate-themed play features along the edges. It is beautifully, expertly done.
  • Beyond the actual playground area, there is more fun to be had on the .2 mile path that encircles the beautiful lawn. At five "stations" along the path, you can find additional play features -- three are great music-making apparatuses, one is a four person teeter-totter, and the last is a fun "log" climbing structure. If the playground gets too crowded, you can venture to these outlying spots for some fresh air.
  • In addition to the main path, there are little paths here and there that are great for toddlers to explore. The landscaping appears to be native, drought-resistant plants, and is really lovely.
  • Other "pros": clean bathrooms (with changing tables in both the men's and women's), pleasant location amidst nice townhome developments, friendly family clientele.


Nobody is perfect, and this amazing park does have some flaws:
  • PARKING! (Updated April 2015): Those who have followed my blog since last summer know that the parking situation at Seven Seas was initially a debacle. Fortunately, after some serious public outcry (thanks to all of you who reached out to the city!) and probably hundreds of parking tickets, Sunnyvale revamped the bike lanes and street parking options in the area to make many more spaces available. The official parking lot for the playground remains as tiny as ever -- five spaces, I believe -- but now there is a reasonable amount of street parking along Morse. The solution they offered last fall while the situation was being worked out -- parking on Borregas Avenue, one street over, then making the very short walk down the John Christian Greenbelt to Seven Seas -- is still valid as well; for that, you may want to bring a stroller so that you don't have to lug all your gear 1/4 mile, but parking there is not a deal-breaker for a fun day at the playground.

    But -- must there always be a but? -- reader Lisa, who visited the park last weekend, reports signs posted saying that, due to street improvements, on-street parking may not be available from late April through late May -- meaning that Borregas might be your only option again. I'll update here as I hear from readers or visit myself.

    (Is your curiosity about the original parking situation piqued? Here was my assessment the week after the park opened and my update two months later:

    The parking situation at Seven Seas has been a disaster since the day it opened. To summarize the debacle, it turns out that Seven Seas was intended as a "neighborhood park", primarily serving the people who live within walking distance. As a result, the designated parking lot for the park is tiny -- 5 parking spaces and 2 handicapped spaces. That's okay -- there's plenty of street parking, right? Wrong. There is no parking along the street on Morse, or along the curbs inside the parking lot (which have now been painted red -- they initially were not, and cars that innocently parked there ended up with tickets). The large parking lot alongside the park/greenbelt, which is always almost empty and seems like a perfect solution, is privately owned, and the owners have forbidden Seven Seas parking. So basically, there is not a single place to legally park that is within sight distance of Seven Seas.

    This wouldn't be a huge deal if the park were a typical "neighborhood park" -- small and unassuming -- but as you may have noticed from the rest of this review, Seven Seas is anything but. When you build what amounts to a beautiful, new, clean, amazingly entertaining, free amusement/water park, easily accessible from all points in the South Bay, crowds will pour in, and they'll all decide to stay a while. For some reason, this seemed to come as a surprise to the City and the park developers.

    Shortly after the park opened, the City of Sunnyvale acknowledged the problem on its Parks Department website, and suggested an alternative: parking on Borregas Avenue, then making the short walk down the John Christian Greenbelt to Morse Avenue, where Seven Seas is located. The City also responded to the outcry from people who had been ticketed for parking in not-entirely-obvious "no parking" areas near the park by improving markers for those areas.

    Today (9/25/14), I returned to the park for the first time in almost two months to test out the alternative parking suggestion. Borregas Avenue is easy to find -- coming in on Weddell Drive, pass Morse Avenue (where you'd turn in for the park), and take a right a short distance up onto Borregas. Street parking is plentiful in the area around the Greenbelt entry -- pay attention to the few "no parking" signs, but otherwise you should be fine. The walk from Borregas to Seven Seas is an easy 1/4 mile -- I'd recommend strollers because lugging a whole bunch of playground gear makes 1/4 mile seem a lot longer than it is (particularly on the way back to the car), but really, the inconvenience is minimal.

    BUT -- and here's the big update -- it looks like the public outcry has done more than prompt improved signage and a suggestion for parking two streets away. Today, as I walked along the path, I discovered this flier:

    You read that right! There's a public meeting on Thursday, October 9 in Sunnyvale to address "possible solutions to the current parking issues at Seven Seas Park." Relief may be in sight!

    I'm booked on Thursday nights so I can't attend the meeting, but I filled out the online survey mentioned in the flier, and it would be great if you all do too. (It's just a few questions -- are you a Sunnyvale resident, do you live in the Morse neighborhood, do you use the park, do you think there's a lack of parking, and would you support the addition of 20 new on-street parking spaces -- um, yep, I sure would!) And by all means, if you're available to go to the meeting, please do so and let them know how many toddlers would appreciate a resolution that will make Seven Seas more accessible to all of us. )
  • One other major failing of this park is the paucity of restrooms. The planners intelligently located the restrooms right next to the playground and water feature, and were kind enough to include a changing table in both the men's and the women's. However, they weren't kind enough to give us more than one restroom for each sex -- and at a park that draws hundreds of people, many of whom are potty-training youngsters, that just isn't enough. Indeed, the changing tables almost become a drawback because people will -- surprise! -- change diapers on them, occupying the bathroom for several minutes while a line of squirming toddlers (and moms!) forms outside. On my first visit, this didn't jump out to me because there was no line the one time I visited the restroom, and I was so distracted by the new paint smell. But the immediate feedback I received from other moms after this review was published told me that this was a massive con, and my second visit confirmed it. 
  • There are only two baby swings. For a park that will no doubt see massive crowds, this is at least two too few. Fortunately there are plenty of other features to attract toddlers, but with such a wonderful design in all other aspects, I wonder why they didn't include four baby swings (like River Glen Park), or even six like Houge.
  • The shade sails are wonderful compared to the complete failures of most other parks to provide shade at all (seriously, I looked at them and wondered why every new park doesn't have them -- they really aren't all that complex, and I don't imagine they're tremendously expensive), but much of the park is still really sunny.
  • According to some readers, the latch on the toddler/preschooler fenced-in area is very easy for a child to open, and can apparently squash little fingers as well.
  • The park is located right off 101 at the Fair Oaks exit, so unless you live nearby, don't even try to get here for a 9 a.m. or 5 p.m. play date (depending on your direction). 101 is a nightmare through this area, even with the carpool lane, and nothing is less fun than sitting in traffic with a toddler who is ready to be at the playground. If you can, take city streets. If not, plan to arrive after 10 and before 4 to avoid the traffic.
  • Finally, the crowds. With a playground this incredible, it won't surprise me at all if Seven Seas is packed most of the time. However -- and this is a big however -- the park is so nicely spread out, with multiple play areas and the large lawn, that even with large crowds, it will likely feel bustling, but not overwhelming (depending on your crowd tolerance, of course). (Update on 9/25/14: We visited this morning -- a Friday -- from about 10:30-12:30, and the park was bustling but far from packed. The early flood of visitors seems to have waned, and with older kids back in school, Seven Seas now seems to have a very pleasant number of visitors for its size.)
Overall, as you've perhaps guessed from the rest of this post, I think Seven Seas is an incredible park, a gem for kids in our area. Definitely give it a try.

Happy toddling!

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