Sunday, September 21, 2014

Play Space/Cafe Review: Whimsy (Saratoga)

(Updated September 2017)

For months, toddlers throughout the South Bay (or at least those who follow this blog) have been awaiting the grand opening of Whimsy, a new indoor play space/cafe in downtown Saratoga. The big day has finally arrived, with Whimsy opening for business tomorrow (Monday, September 22nd) at 9:00 a.m.

Whimsy is the brainchild of two moms who saw a need and decided to fill it (I love when women do that!). They recognized that many Silicon Valley moms and dads either stay home with their young children, work remotely, work part time, or have flexible work schedules, and that those parents needed a place where their kids could play, explore and burn some energy in a safe, supervised setting while they caught up on work, enjoyed some adult conversation, or (gasp!) just relaxed with a coffee and a book (imagine that!).

So these two ladies identified a spot in downtown Saratoga and set about building what is pretty much a toddler/preschooler wonderland, with an on-site cafe where parents can relax. Toddler X and I had the good fortune to be some of Whimsy's first visitors on Friday when we spent three hours there as part of a final pre-opening "beta test." It is based on that experience that I'm writing this review. As soon as I return to Whimsy during its standard operating hours, I'll update this with any differences I see/experience.


The Basics

Location and Parking: Whimsy is located at 14510 Big Basin Way, Suite 3, in the Saratoga Village. Coming from Highway 85, you take the Saratoga Avenue exit toward Saratoga. As you enter the Village, Saratoga Avenue turns into Big Basin Way, and Whimsy is a few blocks ahead on your left, in the same complex as Masu Sushi, Hong's Gourmet and Florentine's.

Free street parking is usually ample in Saratoga during the day, and there is additional free lot parking behind the buildings on your left. The entrance to Whimsy is on the street side, so if you enter the courtyard from the rear parking lots, you will need to walk around to the front to enter.

The front entrance
Hours: At present, Whimsy is open from 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, and available for reservation on weekends for birthday parties and special events. (September 2017 update: Whimsy is now open from 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. Weekends continue to be reserved for private events.)

Cost: Standard admission to Whimsy is $20 for the first child in a family, and $5 for each additional child. This "Day Pass" gets you unlimited access to Whimsy's supervised playroom and the cafe for as long as you like, but with no in-and-out privileges. (September 2017 update: There is now special pricing of $10 for children under 12 months old, with the requirement that the parent stay in the playroom with the child. Children 0-9 months are free with a paid sibling.)

If you plan to visit more than once, it makes sense to consider their packages: September 2017 update: Whimsy's current package offerings include a 5 visit package for $95, a 10 visit package for $180, and even bigger packages that bring the per-visit price far lower -- the 50 visit package is $500, bringing the price to $10 per visit. The packages never expire. Most significantly for families with multiple kids, all packages now include a sibling for free.

Capacity: For the safety and comfort of its visitors, Whimsy has a maximum capacity of 35 children, and no doubt will reach that on some days. As visitors can stay as long as they like, Whimsy can't guarantee that there will be space available at any given time. While they're looking into a feature that will update their website as they become close to reaching capacity, for the time being I would recommend calling to make sure there's space before you head over. The number is (408) 898-3197. (September 2017 update: You can now make reservations in advance on Whimsy's website! They highly recommend that you do so on stormy or particularly hot days, or school holidays.)

Note: Parents MUST remain on the premises during their child's visit to Whimsy. This is not a drop-off childcare center.

The Whimsy Experience

So, once you arrive at Whimsy, what do you find inside?

First, the entrance area, where you'll be asked to register your family, sign a waiver and remove your shoes. Parents are given the option to wear shoes with shoe covers, but children must remove their shoes and must wear socks. Plan ahead to have socks on hand! I believe they'll have extra socks for sale, but it's obviously easier to just bring your own. There are benches for shoe removal, and baskets for shoe storage. Each child will get a nametag so that the play supervisors can identify them, and you'll be asked to apply hand sanitizer or wash hands at the front sink.

Also in the entrance area, you'll find a retail store with a great array of Hape products. Hape, with its amazing wooden toys, is one of my top brand choices for Toddler X's own playroom (their Switchback Racetrack and Playfully Delicious play food items are some of our favorite toys at home), and I was happy (Hape!) to find them here as well. (The presence of toys at the exit might be difficult for some parents, as toddlers are known for reeeeallly wanting every toy they see. Be prepared to exit quickly if you don't want to take anything home with you.)

From the entrance area, you'll pass through a gate to Whimsy's adorable play space. I'll describe that in more detail in its own section below. You're invited to get your child settled in the play space with the play supervisors and proceed on through to the cafe to relax, or you can take whatever time you need to ensure that your little one is comfortable and happy. Obviously different children will react differently to this new experience. Toddler X ran to the gate while I was still checking in, and as soon as I opened it, he was off to play without a backward glance. Other kids will need mom or dad to stay by their side for a while. Either one is okay.

Beyond the play space is the entrance to the cafe. The cafe is a pleasant, bright space, with a windowed wall looking out to the complex's courtyard. There is a jug of citrusy water for patrons to enjoy, and drinks, pastries (including some amazing-looking scones and breads), snacks and more substantial items (pre-made salads and sandwiches) available for purchase. Cash and all major credit cards are accepted. (September 2017 update: They no longer take American Express.) During our visit, I enjoyed an almond milk coffee drink and one of the most delicious croissants I've ever had (ask for it warmed up!); Toddler X had some juice and Annie's bunny snacks. Our friends reported back positively on the coffee and the grilled cheese made on a croissant. As is the case in almost all restaurants, Whimsy asks that you not bring outside food or drink, with the exception being necessary items for infants.

Children are welcome to come into the cafe area with their parents -- indeed, they need to come in to eat, as all that play requires energy! -- but toys must remain in the playroom, and food must remain in the cafe. In the event a child in the playroom needs his or her parent in the cafe, a play supervisor will stick her head into the cafe to alert the parent.

The restrooms are in the back near the cafe, and they include a changing table and diapers (I only saw size 4, and I didn't see wipes).

And now the fun part...the Whimsy play space!

Wow...where to start. I guess the best way to describe the Whimsy play space and all that it contains is to ask what your child likes to do for play. Does he or she like pretend play? Play kitchens with all the accoutrements? Play tool benches with tools? Play grocery stores with cash registers, food and shopping carts? Play tea sets? Play bbqs, with whimsical "outdoor" dining areas? Check, check, check, check, check. Whimsy has all of those.

Does your toddler like dramatic play? Dressing up, performing, singing and dancing? Whimsy has a costume closet and an adorable stage area, complete with disco ball, karaoke machine and two microphones -- your little rock star, actress or thespian will be right at home.


Does he or she like physical play? Climbing on structures, sliding down slides, swinging from monkey bars? How about clambering about on the floor underneath an amazing interactive projector, playing soccer or dancing on a 15 foot xylophone while the projector controls the action from above? Does your younger toddler like climbing about on colorful foam play equipment? Yep, your child can do all that at Whimsy as well.

The coolest thing ever! Toddler X is
actually playing soocer, with the projected
ball responding to his kicks!

Does your toddler like quieter activities -- reading a book in a cozy nook, playing with a lego table or train table, caring for dolls, engaging with a beautiful wooden doll house or a really cool wooden fire house? Whimsy has you covered.

Art projects? Got them. Musical instruments? Got them. Blocks, board games, puzzles. Got them all.

I'm not joking. It's incredible.

The setting for all this is delightful as well. The ceilings are very high (how else could you fit the custom wooden play structure?), the walls are brightly colored, the decor is creative and cheerful. Particularly adorable is the little "outdoor" bbq area in the pretend play section at the front -- a rotating cast of kids was having tea parties and dinner with play supervisors at the little bistro table the whole time we were there.

All of the toys are very high quality, very new and very clean. The entire time we were there, the play supervisors were straightening up and organizing any time they had a moment of quiet with the kids; despite the 20 children running around, it never felt cluttered or chaotic. They were quick to disinfect surfaces that touched little mouths (like the microphones). The whole thing felt very well-managed.

The play supervisors are very sweet young ladies who clearly love little kids. Each one we met was patient, kind, and happy to get down on her knees to engage with her little charges.

As I mentioned above, Toddler X played for three straight hours -- with perhaps a 15 minute break for food -- and started crying when I said it was time to leave (see video below). He tried and enjoyed so many different aspects of the play space, but didn't even get close to touching on everything. It looks like we're going to have to go back a time or two (or twenty). And that's alright with me.

Is Whimsy right for everyone?

This is the million dollar question. As we all know, toddlers have a wide range of personalities and preferences -- heck, a single toddler can have a wide range of personalities and preferences in a given day! Will all toddlers enjoy Whimsy?

When we visited on Friday, our group of 20 or so toddlers represented that wide range of personalities, and I can honestly say that every child had a great time. They may have had very different great times, but they all had a great time. Some preferred to have their moms by their side at every moment; others (like Toddler X) couldn't have cared less if mom was in the same building. Most were at some stage in between.

Unless your toddler is extremely reserved or uncomfortable around crowds, I think it's worth a try. As I indicated above, there really is something for everyone. While your toddler might not want to get close to the boisterous action around the play structure or try his hand at the microphones on the stage, there are plenty of quieter areas that he or she might enjoy -- maybe pretend play at one of the kitchens, a tea party with mom, reading in the nook under the Ikea bed or playing with the beautiful dollhouse. If he or she needs to take a break from the crowds, you can always retreat to the cafe for a bit of quiet time.

But if your child truly seems uncomfortable around lots of other kids or too much activity, I would say don't push it -- Whimsy might not be the best fit at this time. We all have our different comfort zones and they need to be respected.

For most children, though, I do think Whimsy makes for a magical play space, and I recommend giving it a try. Once they have been open for a few weeks and patterns have been established, you may want to call and see what are the quietest times of the day/days of the week so that you can plan an initial visit with your child at a time when it's less likely to be overwhelming. (September 2017 update: From my recent visits and chats with employees, it seems that the quietest time of the day is from opening -- 9:00 a.m. -- until around 10:15 or 10:30. On both of my recent visits, I noticed that it was most crowded just before 11:00, and then the cafe started to get crowded with kids enjoying snacks and lunch shortly thereafter.)

Potential Cons or Concerns

Whimsy is a wonderful addition to the South Bay toddler scene, but nobody is perfect. Here are some aspects of Whimsy that might be negatives to, or might concern, some parents:

  • The cost. The primary concern I've heard from my readers, as they've reviewed Whimsy's website pre-opening, is the cost of admission. People especially seem to balk at the membership prices. But I think it's worth noting that the memberships are specifically intended for people who will use the facility frequently (for example, work-from-home parents who might choose, instead, to work from the cafe a few days a week while their children play under the supervision of Whimsy's staff). Comparing the cost to daycare or nanny prices, or even to membership and classes at some of the chain play gyms like Gymboree, people might determine that a Whimsy membership is a good fit for their family. It's not for everyone.

    Most visitors will find it more reasonable to simply purchase a Day Pass at $20 for occasional visits, or (my personal plan) purchase a Day Pass package for multiple visits, bringing the per-visit cost down to as low as $15. Given that Toddler X happily played at Whimsy for three hours on Friday, and cried "I don't want to leave, mama!" as we departed, my $15 per visit investment would basically be getting me childcare (and a delighted child!) for $5/hour -- an incredible deal. Even the single day pass, at $20, winds up being $7/hour if you stay for three hours.

    I guess when it comes down to it, all of us will make a judgment call as to whether a visit to a certain play space is worth a certain amount -- just as we decide, based on our family's budget and needs, whether to eat dinner at a nice restaurant or stay at a more luxurious hotel. If you visit Whimsy, I think you'll understand that it's intended to be a top-of-the-line play space, and it fulfills that intent in a way that makes the cost reasonable. The toys are of the highest quality, the play structure was custom built, and several of the features are simply awesome. I do think it's worth checking out, even if you do it as a one-time indulgence, and then you can decide if it's something you want to budget for in the future.
  • The hours. Several of my readers have asked about adding weekend hours, as parents who work full time won't be able to visit during the current operating schedule. According to Whimsy's owners, weekends are currently set aside for birthday parties and special events, but if they identify hours that are available, they plan to open Whimsy to the public so that full-time working parents can have the opportunity to visit as well. I'll keep you posted about any weekend openings I learn of.
  • The play structure. During our beta testing play date, we had a range of toddler ages, from about 16 months to almost three years. One thing that several of the parents noticed was that parts of the play structure could be problematic for the youngest children, and some even for the older children. The two play structure slides are very, very fast -- like, faster than any slide I've seen. It's probably because they're brand new, and wear and tear will slow them down a bit. Fortunately the ground is carpeted, but if you let your toddler go down the slides -- particularly the tall, twisty slide -- be prepared for him or her to come shooting out the bottom. (September 2017 update: Three years later, and the slides are still fast! Maybe not as fast as at the beginning, but my, do those kids fly down! Whimsy now keeps padded mats at the foot of both slides, and fortunately the taller slide is an enclosed slide, so there's not much potential for injury, but I would watch young toddlers on the smaller slide, where they will slide so quickly that they might tip backward, hitting their heads (this happened to Baby X last week -- she recovered in moments.))

    Also, the structure has cute little rooms down below, but those rooms have doors, and in several instances the door hinge nearly closed on some little fingers. If your child is the type who loves to slam doors, perhaps walk over to that area with him or her at the outset to explain the need for care. UPDATE: According to a reader who visited on Opening Day, Whimsy has installed door stoppers to prevent finger slams. So cool that they responded so quickly to this issue. Can't wait to return for a second visit. (September 2017 update: Whimsy made the very wise decision to just remove the doors from the lower level of the play structure -- problem solved!)

    The concerning door hinge
  • Shoe removal and the bathroom. A couple of the moms who played with us on Friday removed their shoes at the front entrance, along with their toddlers', then sat in the cafe to relax. When they had to use the restroom, they realized that their shoes were way in the front of the building (through the play space), and they weren't quite comfortable going to the restroom in their socks. The best solution for right now may be to keep your shoes in your bag, and keep your bag with you. 
  • After-school hours. As I mentioned above, during our Friday beta testing, all the children were under three years old, and all were within a range of about a year of each other. During weekday morning hours, you'll probably encounter a similar setting, maybe with a maximum age of 4 (pre-k). But if you visit from 3 p.m. - 5 p.m., you will likely find kindergarteners in there, and as sweet as those little ones can be, they aren't always aware of the one year-olds wandering around them. The same situation will apply during typical school vacation weeks. Just something to think about if you have a young toddler. (September 2017 update: As I mentioned at the start, Whimsy has changed its hours to 9:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. -- perfectly suited to the pre-elementary age kids for whom it is designed. Know that on school holidays, you might see a wider range of ages.)

Overall, I can't help but rave about Whimsy. Yes, it may be pricier than some other play options, but I really do see it as a case of "you get what you pay for." It is just an incredible place. Watching twenty toddlers each have their own, individual wonderful time on Friday while exploring totally different interests and engaging with totally different toys tells me that the owners truly thought of something for everyone. Their tagline is "Where imaginations run free", and that seems totally appropriate to describe the play I saw happening.

Watching other toddlers play is always a joy, of course, but the ultimate touchstone for me is obviously my own toddler's enjoyment of an activity or adventure. I don't think I have ever seen Toddler X so excited and engaged, for such a long period of time, as I did on Friday. And I don't think I've ever seen him so sad to leave a place as he was when the play time was over -- THREE full hours after we arrived. If this isn't the face of a toddler who had a wonderful time, I don't know what is.

And so Whimsy gets two emphatic toddler thumbs up from Toddler X, and two from his mama as well. We absolutely love it, and we will absolutely be back.

Happy toddling!

Disclosure: Whimsy's owners invited me to visit on a complimentary basis, but this review purely represents my own true opinions of our experience there and was not influenced in any way by their kind invitation.

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