A new Eagan business makes a winter day at the park a possibility.
At the picnic table, a man feeds his grandson a bottle. Over on the playground, a little girl is spinning in a toy bucket like a force of nature. There are no children using iPads.
This is a park. But it's not a public park, nor is it outside. It's two days after Christmas in Minnesota, and 150 children are running around what from the parking lot looks like any other office building in this Eagan industrial development.
Bonnie O'Meara owns Good Times Park, a 25,000-square-foot indoor playground and picnic complex that she opened last April with her husband, Tim.
After two decades working in human resources, O'Meara quit her day job to build the kind of indoor place for unstructured play that she said was lacking when her boys — now 10 and 13 — were younger.
Children in Minnesota have plenty to do outdoors in the summer. But when cold weather arrives, O'Meara said, where can you take them to play?
Good Times was built as an alternative to the fast-food-restaurant ball pits, the arcades and similar businesses.
"It's just like your outdoor playground," she said, "but indoors."
The outdoor-inspired design is on purpose. O'Meara said that when kids are allowed to play freely, they learn physical and emotional skills that structured activities can't give them.
Walking through the park, she narrates the reverse engineering: The unwalled inflatable jumper for parents and children helps motor development. The open turf-and-court space helps them build confidence and get familiar with sports. Even the giant foam blocks in the "Imagination Playground" help tots learn how to build their forts with each other, and not to knock the other ones down.
Part of the broader agenda is the park's lack of one. It was built to be as generic as possible, O'Meara said, both to encourage kids to develop their own games and to allow parents to improvise how they use the park.
Parents don't have to bring extra equipment to use the park, and they can order in or bring their own food. Birthday parties, play dates and YMCA groups are welcome, but so are home-school parents looking for a change of scenery for their next lesson, or for play therapy sessions for autistic children.
"This space can become whatever people want it to become," O'Meara said.
When the park opened, families were just starting to head outdoors for the spring. But when the weather cooled, business picked up, and now, in the heart of the winter, O'Meara said, sometimes more than 300 children visit the park daily.
Part of the park's success comes from its unique model. Apart from janitorial and security workers, Good Times has no employees. Good Times admits patrons with an access code, purchased online or at an on-site kiosk. The park relies on parents to watch their kids, which contributes to a "family gym" feel, where parents are also encouraged to play with their kids, O'Meara said.
O'Meara said she got the idea in part from 24/7 fitness centers like Anytime Fitness.
O'Meara said so far parents have been good at mediating playground squabbles and with cleaning up. And injuries have been limited to minor bumps and scrapes, O'Meara said.
The park's location — at 3265 Northwood Circle, near the commercial heart of Eagan at Yankee Doodle and Pilot Knob roads — has also helped it gain business. A parent can take a 4-year-old for afternoon errands, O'Meara explains, with the promise of a trip to the park as a reward for good behavior.
That appeal would probably work for parents elsewhere in the metro area. After a year in business this April, O'Meara and her husband may start looking at whether to build or franchise new locations.
'Kids can just run'
Part of the park's success has come from unexpected popularity of monthly member passes, O'Meara said. The park has roughly 1,000 members.
Anne Wiltscheck became a member after learning about the park this fall. She visits with her 3- and 5-year-old daughters about twice a week, she said, often after she gets off work. "It's a great place for them to burn off this energy," she said, as Claire, her 3-year-old, came bouncing up to ask permission to play on the inflatable jumper.
In the picnic area, Beth Mena-Carrion hung out with her curly-haired twin boys, age 3, and their cousin. A member since August, she lives 10 minutes away in Bloomington and loves visiting on weekday mornings, she said. She brings her boys there about twice each week to play for two or three hours.
Here, she said, "kids can just run and parents don't have to worry about them knocking anything over."
Standing next to her boys, Mena-Carrion smiled. "Our house is only so big," she said.
Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.