With many park options for families in Sarasota, it’s important to have the inside scoop because, as we have learned, not all parks are created equal. Here is my review and rating of some of our favorite and not-so-favorite parks in Central Sarasota!
Part I: Guide to Playgrounds in Sarasota: North Sarasota click here
Park II: Guide to Playgrounds in Sarasota: South Sarasota click here
Part IV: Guide to Playgrounds in Lakewood Ranch click here
Rating Categories (Low: 0, High: 10)
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- Play Date 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?
- 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?
Urfer Park is popular among young and older kids due to the diversity of the playground equipment. There is a separate, fenced in area for the toddlers. There is a nature/fitness trail if your little ones get bored with the equipment. It is centrally located on Bee Ridge Road near the interstate.
Pros: There are 3 separate playgrounds with a unique set of equipment that will please all ages.
Cons: Crowds. I have never been to Urfer Park when there has been less than 50 people swarming around like bees on all 3 sets of equipment. It is always so crowded. And there is little shade. Also, it is close to 2 busy roads with a mere 2 slate wood fence to keep the kids in the play area.
- Diversity of Equipment Score: 9 – There is a wide array of equipment. Some pieces are unique to just this park, such as a skateboard slidey thing. The toddler playground is fenced in.
- Approach Score: 7 – The playgrounds are not directly next to the parking lot, but they are close enough to the action. As soon as you hit the sidewalk from the parking lot, you can let your children run free to the equipment.
- SPF Score: 6 – There are parts of this park that have the shade cover to them, but overall I find this park relatively hot on most days I have been.
- Prison Break Score: 10 (toddler area), 6 (other areas) – The toddler area is fenced in. The other areas are not. I suppose the other areas are meant for older children who would not run off like toddlers, but if you have big siblings, the younger sibling(s) is almost guaranteed to want to be on the bigger equipment with older sibling.
- Crowd Score: 6 – This playground is almost always bustling with multiple families. It can get pretty crowded.
- Play Date Score: 7 – Eh, if you are meeting up for a toddler play date, this park is great due to the fence around the toddler area. For older children, again, it is ok to catch an adult conversation as long as you don’t have multiple children and any of them happen to be 3 or under.
- Bathroom Score: 7 – The bathrooms are relatively close, especially to the toddler area.
Payne Park (aka The Circus Park)
Payne Park is a local favorite, with its cute circus theme and wide array of equipment. It is brightly colored and has one of the most unique designs of all the SRQ parks. There is a skate park for the older kids, a small running trail, and a delicious little café in the park.
Pros: The circus theme and bright colors will attract any kid ages 0-13. There are some really cool big kid things to do, not just toddler slides and swings.
Cons: I cannot emphasize how much I love this park, but how little time I actually spend going to this park due to the immensely inconvenient walk from the parking lot to the playground and the lack of shade once you get to the equipment. There are no close parking spots no matter where you park. The nearest parking is a field away. You can park on the street in front of the police department, but even that is not a quick walk. There are “shades” over the equipment that do nothing in the Florida sun, nor do the “misters” which only make you feel more humid and sticky. The bathrooms are also a hike away.
You have to experience this park, but do it in the evening or winter months. Also, do not try to plan a play date here. You and your mom friend, unless you bring the husbands, will end up following your child around in all directions because they will most likely not want to do the same things. Elementary age kids – they are good to go though.
- Diversity of Equipment Score: 10 – This park has amazing equipment. The diversity and uniqueness and sheer amount of things to do here are top in the county.
- Approach Score: 4 – You can probably tell by now that I don’t like being in the hot, Florida sun for too long. Anything that makes me sweat just by standing and breathing is on my hate list. Although the walk in is really not too far from the parking lot, I always dread this walk because it just feels long because of the lack of shade. If you happen to park on the street in front of the police department, that for some reason feels a bit better due to the trees on the way in, but it really frustrates me that there is no direct parking to this park.
- SPF Score: 4 – The porous shade covers are an optical illusion. They really don’t do very much for shade unless the sun is directly above you, and who in their right mind would go to this park at high noon – 2:00pm in any month from March-October.
- Prison Break Score: 9 – This park is perfectly fenced in.
- Crowd Score: 7 – A very popular park, but crowds do not seem so bad here because the park is so large itself.
- Play Date Score: 6 – For older elementary aged children, this is a great place to meet up with mom friends. The older kids are independent and can take care of themselves. For the preschool age group, supervision is needed, and different moms at different times during your play date will have to rush off to save or check on their little one.
- Bathroom Score: 4 – The bathrooms are not close. They are behind the outdoor café, up a bit on a hill. On a side note, if you have not eaten at the Café in the Park, you are really missing out on one of Sarasota’s best kept secret restaurants.
This park is located east of the interstate, off of Bee Ridge Road. It consists of a toddler playground, a school aged playground, swings, a nature trail, and a pavilion. The crowds are usually low.
Pros: Low crowds, close parking, good play date park.
Cons: Minimal shade over equipment, diversity of equipment is low.
- Diversity of Equipment Score: 7 – Fair amount of equipment for all age groups.
- Approach Score: 8 – The parking lot is directly adjacent to this equipment.
- SPF Score: 7 – There is a shade covering that does a mediocre job at providing some shade.
- Prison Break Score: 7 – This park is not fenced in, but it has well defined borders. The road is close to the playground, but it is not a high traffic road.
- Crowd Score: 8 – This park is rarely crowded.
- Play Date Score: 9 – This is a great park to meet up for a play date due to low crowds, close proximity of equipment, and well-defined borders
- Bathroom Score: 8 – The bathrooms are directly attached to the playground. Perfect for a quick bathroom trip.
South Lido Park
Locals know that Siesta is for tourists, and South Lido is the place to be to avoid the out-of-town crowds. South Lido Park is a simple beach park. It is relatively shaded, equipment is minimal and simple. The main advantage to this park is you can go to the beach and give your kids a chance to run around a playground in the same trip.
Pros: Close parking, shaded.
Cons: RACOONS. Seriously, every time we have ever been to this park, we have been harassed and scared back into our cars due to the over abundance of not-afraid-of-humans raccoons. They try to get into the trash, and there is a family of them that are not afraid to scamper around you and your children. The other con is that the playground itself is not that interesting and the bathrooms are a bit of a walk away.
- Diversity of Equipment Score: 5 – This is a very simple playground, with swings, a couple of individual spinny seats, and a small pirate themed tower.
- Approach Score: 8 – You can usually find a close parking spot (usually in the shade) right in front of this playground.
- SPF Score: 8 – This playground is well shaded under trees.
- Prison Break Score: 7 – There is no fence around this playground, but equipment is far enough away from the parking lot that if your toddler does escape, you will have plenty of time to run after him.
- Crowd Score: 8 – This park is usually not very crowded. Usually beachgoers with small children visit this playground, so it is sparse of many children.
- Play Date Score: 7 – The equipment is not fantastic to keep little ones entertained for too long, but it is a small, confined area that will allow two adults to have a decent-length conversation. I have been to many a birthday parties at this park, and it really is a nice place to catch up with grown-ups.
- Bathroom Score: 6 – The bathrooms are located at the end of the parking lot, not a quick trip away.
- Raccoon Score: 10!!!!! The raccoons are intense here. We haven’t been back to this park in probably 6 months, so maybe the raccoon issue is not as bad anymore.
Ken Thompson Park
This park is located near Mote Marine. It consists of one main playground, a smaller fitness area, swings, a large field, and a mangrove boardwalk to the bay.
Pros: Close parking, close bathrooms, boardwalk is unique, great for Pokémon hunting
Cons: No shade, not much equipment to keep kids entertainedd for too long.
- Diversity of Equipment Score: 5 – There is one basic jungle gym, swings, and a fitness area.
- Approach Score: 8 – Very close to parking, steps away.
- SPF Score: 6 – This playgroaund is not covered or shaded, but if you go in the late afternoon, you can catch the cool breeze from the bay.
- Prison Break Score: 6 – There is no confinement piece here, but there is a wide sidewalk between the equipment and the low-traffic parking lot. Kids will most likely want to explore nearby boardwalk trail through the mangroves.
- Crowd Score: 8 – This park has low crowds.
- Play Date Score: 8 – Due to the low crowds and the one main piece of equipment (the swings and fitness area are a measurable distance away), this is a pretty good play date spot.
- Bathroom Score: 8 – The bathrooms are a few steps away from the equipment.
Bayfront Park at Marina Jack
This is a favorite local and tourist park. Located on City Island, it is beautifully surrounded by Sarasota Bay. There is a walking trail around the island, a splash pad, a restaurant, and view of the bay. There is one fenced-in playground. The bathrooms are a bit of a hike, especially if you have a newly potty-trained toddler who needs a bathroom fast when they say they have to go. I have been known to sweep my son up and run him to the bathroom down the hill.
Pros: Beautiful setting, semi-diverse equipment, fenced in.
Cons: It is a hike from the parking lot to the playground. I am usually hot and sweaty by the time I reach the playground. The bathroom is not conveniently located. The splash pad is nice, except they have a play area at the top of a series of steep steps, which a toddler could easily fall or slip from.
- Diversity of Equipment Score: 8 – Very nice equipment, enough to keep toddlers and elementary aged kids entertained for awhile. I get a little nervous when my toddler climbs to the highest point of the play set, but there is really only one open area where he could potentially fall from the height.
- Approach Score: 6 – I love this park, and the walk from the parking lot to the playground is nice because of the marina and bay views, but I don’t consider this park on my top go-to list because it is an effort and I’m super lazy. Yes, the equipment and setting is ideal and so Sarasota, but my ideal park is a hop away from the car with close bathrooms, shade and a low likelihood that I have to dress/look decent because I might run into someone I know.
- SPF Score: 6 (from parking lot to playground), 7 (actual playground) -If I go here in the summer, I am usually sweating before I even leave my car (I know this post makes me seriously sound like a princess who hates to sweat, but I promise you I really do run long distances and sweat all the time). Once I make it to the playground, it cools down a bit because this park is decently shaded with trees.
- Prison Break Score: 8 – This park is fenced in and well-confined.
- Crowd Score: 6 (usually very crowded) – The people of Sarasota love this park – for good reason. It is a nice park in a bustling location. The crowds are usually medium to high here.
- Play Date Score: 7 – This is a decent play date location due to the fence around the playground and there’s only a small risk of younger children needing supervision on the elementary aged play set.
- Bathroom Score: 6 – This park inspired me to include a bathroom score on this article. It was at this park where my youngest, newly potty trained toddler, announced that he had to go potty. As he is holding his pants, I scoop him up, and high tail it down the hill to the bathrooms. We made it in time, but it was an intense 30 seconds. The bathrooms are not attached to the playground. They are for public use for all the other activities going on at Marina Jack. If one kid has to go the bathroom it requires packing up your whole crew to make the trip.
Tell us what you think? Are we missing one of the playgrounds in Sarasota: Central that you love?