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Not All Parks Are Created Equal: North Sarasota and Bradenton

With 2 energetic little boys, our family frequently makes trips to our local Sarasota parks.  But not all parks are created equal.  Here is my review and ratings of some of our favorite and not-so-favorite parks in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. 

Rating Categories (Low: 0, High: 10)

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: Is there a diverse option of playground equipment?  Are there multiple pieces of equipment for my kids to go between?  Are there multiple playground sets for older and younger kids?  If the park is crowded, will there be enough equipment for my child to play on?
  2. Approach Score: I love living in Florida, I really do.  But, come end of March to mid-October, I limit my outside time to certain times of day, and I plan my outside entertainment based on the amount of shade there is.  The approach score is basically how sweaty, hot, and exhausted will you be before you even get to the actual playground.  Is the parking lot a quarter of a mile away from the fun?  Is there shade or trees to get you pleasantly to and from on a hot, Florida summer day?  (Most Floridian moms know in the summer, you get to the playground by 10:00 am at the latest, and you leave that park before 11:15 at the latest, or else you face the risk of dying from heat disease.)  
  3. SPF Score: Speaking of the hot, Florida sun, the SPF score is the amount of shade the actual playground has.  Will your little munchkins be a sweaty mess within 10 minutes of arrival?  Can your little ones only last 20 minutes before you fear for their dehydration safety?
  4. Prison Break Score:  Is the playground confined with a fence or gate so that little ones don’t accidently wander off?  How likely is it that my little one will escape the safe confines of the playground (0: very likey, 10: he’s caged in like a lion at the zoo).  In other words, can I or can I not go on my iPhone for 2 minutes while at this park without fearing my children may run off?
  5. Crowd Score:  Are there a million kids swarming around, all vying for the one slidey skateboard thing?  Do I have to helicopter my kids to make sure they are taking turns and not pushing other kids around?  An overcrowded park in not an enjoyable experience. 
  6. Playdate Score:  How likely am I to get a decent, adult conversation in if two moms meet up for a playdate?  Is the equipment safe enough that my 3-year-old will not hang from the too tall monkey bars?  Is the equipment relatively close together so that said other mom and I can stand in one place, talk, and still keep an eye on our children?  Or will I be chasing my child all around and not be able to talk to my mom friend?
  7. Bathroom Score:  Is the bathroom close enough that your newly potty-trained toddler can make it to the facility in time or do you have to scoop him up, haul butt, and hope you don’t have an accident on the way? 


The Ringling Park

The Ringling Park is one of our family’s all-time favorite parks.  It is located within the Ringling Museum grounds, which means you must check in at the front desk before you can get to the park, but it is one of the most beautiful playgrounds I have ever been to.  It has a whimsical gigantic slide, cool hammock -like swings, and a creative water area that is just the right amount of mess. And you don’t need to pay museum admission to get to it. The grounds are free every day.

Pros:  You cannot beat the shade at this park.  Even on a hot, summer day, this park remains well shaded by the banyan trees.  The slide, miniature house, swings, spring boards, and water area are unlike any other in the area. 

Cons: The walk in from the parking lot to the playground is a bit of a walk.  It is a beautiful, shaded walk, but it is a hike.  You have to park in the same parking lot as the museum guests, so the spaces are not just for playground use.  I do have to keep on eye on my 3-year-old because he tries to climb the too-tall-for-him slide, which he usually does successfully, but it does make a mama nervous if he happens to gets stuck 3 stories up without an easily accessible adult within arms reach.  The bathrooms are also a small walk to the nearby café.  Not too far, but not attached directly to playground.

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 10 – The uniqueness and nod to the artistic nature of the Ringling make the equipment here like none other in Sarasota.
  2. Approach Score:  7 – The parking lot is not close.  On a warm, July day, the thought of the walk in may make me change my plans to the indoor inflatable jump house.
  3. SPF Score:  8 – Very well shaded.
  4. Prison Break Score:  8 – There is no fence located round this park, but the playground area is well defined, and if your little one escapes, the worst that will happen is they will wander off into the Ringling rose garden.
  5. Crowd Score:  7 – Over the past few years, this little known park has gained popularity.  Do not go on free museum Mondays.  I repeat.  Do not go on free museum Monday, when every tourist and local congregates at this spot.
  6. Play date Score: 7 – This is a decent park to get some quality mom conversation in.  Everything is close together, and you can stand in the center of the park and be within 10 seconds of each end.  The hardest part for me with a 3-year-old is monitoring his climbing up the tall treehouse slide. 
  7. Bathroom Score: 7 – The bathrooms are a short little walk from the playground.  Not too far, but definitely a place you’d have to run to in case of a bathroom emergency.


Conservatory Park

This park is located off of University Parkway and Lockwood Ridge, in a neighborhood called Country Meadows.  It is a bit secluded and a little bit hard to find.  We love this park because it is close to our neighborhood.  My husband and I are runners, so we run to this park with the double stroller.  There is a fitness trail, lined with random gym equipment for you to do in a 0.5 mile loop.

Pros:  This park is never crowded.  The nature/fitness walk is nice to take your kids on as a pseudo hike through the woods.  The parking lot is directly next to the playground and pavilion.

Cons: There are literally 2 pieces of equipment: a firefly seesaw and 2 swings.  The crowd size is small, but the seclusion almost makes it a little creepy.  So creepy that I will only go to this park if my husband is with me, and I would never walk the trail on my own.  There is also mace provided outside the bathrooms. 

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 1  – This park probably offers the least variety of equipment in Sarasota/Bradenton.
  2. Approach Score:  8 – The parking lot is a few feet from the playground. 
  3. SPF Score:  5 – The park is not shaded, but there is a very close pavilion with restrooms and water fountains.
  4. Prison Break Score:  6 – There are no fences here.  After your child gets bored of the 2 pieces of equipment, they will most likely want to explore the nearby trails and bridges. 
  5. Crowd Score:  10 – There are rarely any other kids on this playground.  Your kids can have all 2 pieces of equipment to themselves.
  6. Play date Score: 9 – This would score high on the ability to hold an adult conversation with other mamas because your kids would most likely be the only kids there, and everything is confined to a small area.
  7. Bathroom Score: 8 – The bathrooms are seconds from the playground.


University Place Community Park

This little hidden park is located behind the UTC Shops on the north side of University, between the Kohl’s shopping center and the BJ’s shopping center.  We love this park because it is never crowded, and the parking lot is steps from the equipment.  There is a pavilion with close bathrooms and a field for other recreational activities. 

Pros:  Low crowds, easy parking, close bathrooms.  This is my favorite play date playground because you and your mom friend can sit in the shaded pavilion and still be practically an arms reach away from any life-saving moves, if needed. 

Cons: The diversity of the equipment is mediocre.  There is the traditional multiple slide tower set-up, swings, a cool partner bouncy thing, and 2 old school character spring “rides.”  No shade to cover equipment but the pavilion is steps from the equipment.

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 6 – Not the greatest but will keep most kids entertained for 20+ minutes.
  2. Approach Score:  10 – My favorite park to go to simply because the parking lot is literally 10 steps from the playground.
  3. SPF Score:  8 – This park has no shade, but it does have a pavilion with bathrooms and water fountains.
  4. Prison Break Score:  7 – It is not fenced in, and the parking lot is right next to the equipment, but it is rarely crowded or filled with traffic so parents can have a good sense of control over their children’s whereabouts.
  5. Crowd Score:  10 – This park rarely has more than 3-4 families here at a one time.
  6. Play date Score: 10 – Best in Sarasota/Bradenton area, in my opinion.  It is close, confined, and the equipment is safe enough for ages 3+ kids to navigate without parents having to helicopter.
  7. Bathroom Score: 10 – Within steps to bathrooms.


Longwood Park

Longwood Park is located off University Parkway.  It offers a toddler playground and a elementary-aged playground.  There is a basketball court, picnic area, tennis court, and a community center. 

Pros: The elementary ages playground offers a huge set, with lots of different pathways and diverse things to do.  There is a sizable canopy that actually covers the entire playground, which doesn’t completely keep your kids cool, but it will probably add 5-10 extra minutes to your playtime due to the shade. 

Cons: Although usually fairly crowded and in a decent area of town, we have had a few sketchy encounters here.  We have seen adults park their cars in the lot, (perhaps enjoying a quiet place to take their lunch break?), but with no kids with them.  There is a back parking lot around the community center which is somewhat secluded near the Miracle League Field.  We have seen cars parked in the roundabout with random adults just sitting in their cars. 

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 8 – Two age appropriate playgrounds, equipment large and unique.
  2. Approach Score:  8 – Parking lot steps to playground.
  3. SPF Score:  7 – There is a shade covering the equipment which works semi-well, but we all know that nothing stays cool for very long in Florida.
  4. Prison Break Score:  7  – There is no fence around either playground, and the toddler playground is way too close to the parking lot, which can get some medium traffic.
  5. Crowd Score:  8 – This park can get some crowds due to the presence of tennis courts, a basketball court, picnic area, and community center.
  6. Play date Score: 8 – This is a decent place to plan a play date because the equipment is close together and relatively age appropriate if your 3-year-old stays on the toddler set and not the elementary-aged set.
  7. Bathroom Score: 7 – Bathrooms are close but still a little bit of a walk from either playground.


Summerfield Park in Lakewood Ranch

This is a great, diverse, large park located off of Lakewood Ranch Boulevard.  It has 3 separate playgrounds, swings, a tennis court, basketball court, baseball field, soccer field, and pavilion.  We love this park because my kids are always kept busy here.  We usually have to drag them away.  It is shaded and there is definitely a Lakewood Ranch community sense about it, with the other fields around making it feel very homey.

Pros:  Diverse equipment, somewhat shaded under trees, close parking. 

Cons: Playgrounds are somewhat spread apart, so if you have more than one child who want to do different things, you do have to bounce around and keep a good eye out.  Also, there is the carousel of death, which is an old-school merry-go-round type of equipment that my kids love, but always ends in one kid crying because they fell/jumped off too soon.  I’m pretty sure they are outlawed due to the obvious safety concerns, but yet there is this one that still exits in LWR.  Oh, and the bathrooms used to be locked for residents only.  This was terrible for obvious reasons, but I do believe the last few times we have been, they have been unlocked for all. 

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 10 – Excellent diversity of equipment.
  2. Approach Score:  8 – Close to parking lot, shaded.
  3. SPF Score:  8 – Relatively shaded with trees.
  4. Prison Break Score:  5 – If you have more than one child, this park can be a bit of a challenge to keep an eye on both kids because it is so spread out.
  5. Crowd Score:  7 – Usually relatively crowded with local Lakewood Ranch families who walk or ride bikes to this park
  6. Play date Score: 6 – This would get a higher score if you only have one child, but due to the large spacing of the equipment at this park, it is very hard to talk to your mama friends when you are preoccupied with chasing your kid(s) down.
  7. Bathroom Score: 6 – Bathrooms are close but are unpredictably locked some days.

Greenbrook Adventure Park in Lakewood Ranch

This little park is located in Greenbrook neighborhood in LWR.  It has a couple of playgrounds, a skate park, a dog park, an open field, and a running/walking trail.  We love this park because parking is close, it is somewhat shaded, and there are enough pieces of equipment to keep all ages entertained.

Pros:  Close parking, shaded, diverse equipment.

Cons: There are really not too many cons except it does get flooded during the rainy season and sometimes the bathrooms are locked for resident-only use.  

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 8 – Unique, age appropriate set up.
  2. Approach Score:  8 – Close walk from parking lot to playground.
  3. SPF Score:  8 – There is a shade that does a decent job at blocking out direct sunlight.
  4. Prison Break Score:  8 – There is no fence, but little ones tend to stay in the confines of the playground because there is really nothing else for them to explore beyond the equipment.
  5. Crowd Score:  8 – This park can get crowded from LWR families, tweens and teens using the skate park, and adult recreation groups using the fields.
  6. Play date Score: 8 – This park is close together, easy to keep an eye on the kids while talking to mom friends.
  7. Bathroom Score: 7 – Bathrooms are close but are sometimes locked for LWR residents only.

Riverwalk Park in Downtown Bradenton

This park is located in downtown Bradenton near the Manatee River.  It is a pretty setting along the river.  You can take a walk along the riverwalk if your kids get bored with the equipment.  There is a train track that my youngest loves, even though I discourage him from playing near it due to all the broken glass near it.  It has a toddler playground, an elementary-aged playground, and a splash pad.  Restrooms are close to the action. 

Pros:  Splash pad, close bathrooms, pretty setting.

Cons: This park can get hot.  The walk to the park is not too long or too hot, but the elementary-aged playground is not shaded at all.  The equipment is usually scalding hot, and it can get very crowded here.  If you stroll along the riverwalk, you can encounter some homeless people, teenagers in love, and older kids near the skate part of the riverwalk.  I also get a bit nervous with the playground being so close to the edge of the water.  There is no barrier to prevent a runaway toddler from falling in. 

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 8 – Decent, diverse, age appropriate equipment.
  2. Approach Score:  7 – A short walk, but has covered area to cool down under.
  3. SPF Score:  6 – The toddler area is decently covered, the elementary-aged area is not covered at all. 
  4. Prison Break Score:  5 – There are no barriers that prevent children from wandering off to the riverwalk and edge of water.
  5. Crowd Score:  6 – This park can get crowded in the summer during the peak splash park months, but in general, the crowds here are manageable.
  6. Play date Score: 6  – The distance between the two playground sets and the fact that you must keep a watchful eye on young children make this place not so great to catch up with other mamas.
  7. Bathroom Score: 8 – The bathrooms are close and conveniently located near the equipment.


Benderson Park

Sarasota loves Benderson Park.  My running friends love to run there.  There are always so many people out riding bikes, walking dogs, bird watching.  I, perhaps in the minority, do not get the appeal of Benderson.  As a runner, up until 3 months ago, I noticed there were no water fountains.  Currently, there is no decent shade anywhere along the 3.25 mile loop.  As far as the playground, it recently opened.  The equipment is semi-unique.  But again…why do we not shade our Florida playgrounds?  There is no shade to be found in this Florida park built in 2016.  They have a cool, trendy solar powered cell phone charging station.  If you are not going to shade the place, I suppose those stations get quite a bit of use. 

Pros:  Close parking, close bathrooms, fenced in.  You and your partner can take turns running and watching your child if you are looking to get some exercise in.

Cons: No shade, crowded, parking lot is small. 

  1. Diversity of Equipment Score: 7 – The equipment is decent, although for being Sarasota’s newest playground, I would expect some more never-seen before type of equipment.
  2. Approach Score:  8 – The parking lot is very close the playground.
  3. SPF Score:  2  – No shade anywhere.  Anywhere. 
  4. Prison Break Score:  9 – This playground is fenced in, but I have seen 80% of the parents struggle with the opening/closing gate mechanism here.
  5. Crowd Score:  5 – This park is always packed.
  6. Play date Score: 8 – This park does have a fence, and the equipment is close together and generally safe for all ages (unless your 3-year-old likes to climb to the top of the giant spider web net).
  7. Bathroom Score: 8 – Bathrooms are close to playground.

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