Nicollet Commons Park in Burnsville's Heart of the City has become a summer hot spot.
On a warm day in June, Kait-lyn Stoffel, 8, of Burnsville ate a picnic lunch with her sister and her mom on the steps of Nicollet Commons Park's amphitheater, waiting patiently for the "dancing waters" to come back on.
Why of all of the park's water features -- the steppingstone waterfall, the burbling fish and frog fountains -- does she love the jets of water that spray up from underfoot?
"'Cause I get to squirt my sister with it," she said, grinning. "I can control the water and make it squirt people."
The park's lineup of free events, movies, concerts and readings is in full swing for the summer, and on this day the elegant park was transformed into a place of happy confusion, swimming with hundreds of kids. Bob the Beachcomber, with his trademark Hawaiian shirt and captain's hat, had just finished his act, and after clapping and dancing with him, kids shouted and splashed in the water while parents hovered close by and chatted.
Daycare providers circled with clipboards, and young dancers drifted out of the adjacent performing arts center to wade through fountains, careful not to splash perfectly made-up faces and hair.
"It's very popular," said Burnsville Parks and Recreation Director Terry Schultz. The park, dedicated in June 2004, was part of the larger Heart of the City project. "Prior to that people would say, where is downtown Burnsville? This park was going to be the centerpiece of that and provide kind of that community gathering place."
Kaitlyn's mom, Melissa Stoffel, said they come weekly and used to visit even more when her kids were younger. "It's so shallow for kids under age 4," she said of the water play area. "There's so many kids for them to play with. It's perfect. It was a real nice addition to Burnsville. They had nothing like this before."
It's difficult to believe that when Stoffel first started coming, people were nervous about letting their kids play in the fountains.
"Now, they're like, 'This is great,'" she said.
"There was a bit of an adjustment there," Schultz said, adding that the city eventually put up signs to coax people into the water. "The water features were designed for people to get into it and play. We wanted to take a different approach, and make it an interactive experience."
"The kids love the water," said Nicole Perry, visiting with a group of kids from Kindercare in Bloomington. They aren't allowed to go to pools, she said, so this is a nice alternative. "It's a good way for them to get out of the classroom," she said.
Burnsville recreation supervisor Kelly Hansen organizes movie nights and the Thursday Rockin' Lunch Hour concerts, which draw, she said, probably around 400 each. "It's been crazy," she said. "It seems like it's become more and more popular. People just really seem to gravitate towards that park. If you provide any entertainment down there, it goes really well."
"It's a great free program," said Melissa Lochman, of Lakeville, visiting with her 2-year-old, "free being the key word."
Events like the International Festival, held last month, and August's jazz festival have been popular, Hansen said, and last year's first Halloween "treat trail," where costumed volunteers stationed around the park handed out treats, drew about 500. She added that they are also toying with ways to enhance existing programs to make them more event-like, such as serving wine and cheese during this year's showing of "Casablanca."
"I love it," said Caroline Kemunto of Shakopee, as she walked 8-month-old Aidan Gitau through the water. "He loves it, too. It's a good place to relieve the stress."
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.