Although Fête Paradiso isn't on Governors Island for summer 2014, it's supposed to return in 2015! By now you may have heard about Fête Paradiso, the summer-long installation of vintage French carnival rides and attractions on Governors Island. Everyone's been writing about it, including us, but we wanted to experience it in person to see if it really was as awesome as it sounded. So despite the threat of rain, my seven-year-old daughter and I went on opening day and I can say without reservation that it's the most fun we've had this summer.
With its Victorian houses, lush lawns, lack of cars and old-time vibe, Governors Island is already a fantastic seasonal destination. Fête Paradiso makes it even more magical and if you click through our slide show, it's easy to see why. When you get off the ferry, just follow the spray-painted merry-go-round horses on the ground to Nolan Park where you'll find meticulously restored carousels, flying swings, swing boats and other rides from the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the rides aren't its raison d'être: Fête Paradiso is all about atmosphere and it transports you to old-world Europe with mimes, musicians and French cuisine.
Before you hop a ferry back in time to Fête Paradiso, we've got some insider tips that will help you make the most out of your visit with kids.
Fête Paradiso is the first installation of its kind in the U.S. When my daughter and I visited, there were seven rides you could actually go on:
Two different sets of swing boats (one for toddlers, the other for bigger kids)
A traditional carousel with horses from 1850
A set of flying swings
A bicycle carousel—one of only two in the world! It was originally created to introduce the public to bikes when they debuted in the 19th century
A slightly out of place 1950s ride with a van, a convertible and other cars going round and round on a platform, which was best for preschoolers
An undulating red dragon carousel, which goes surprisingly fast and seems more like a roller-coaster
The organizers hope to open a few more rides in the weeks to come. Update: By the second weekend, two more rides opened: A set of kids-only swings, which don't really fly, and a super-mellow carousel with chariots, no horses. Both rides are perfect for toddlers.
While my daughter and her friends certainly had a blast on the rides, I spent much of my time gawking at (and taking photos of) all the stunning artifacts. There are beautiful out-of-commission rides, an ornate pipe organ, hand-carved wooden kiosks and salvaged pieces of carousels long gone nicely arranged around trees. I think I was most in awe of the Music-Hall Ball Guzzler, a carnival game featuring animatronic figures of famous '30s stars like Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier and a bunch of people I couldn't identify.
To complete the feel, the workers are all attired in old-fashioned clothing; mimes and musicians wander through the crowd and also perform on the main stage; and popular French restaurant Le Gamin serves crêpes, frites, burgers, beer and wine that you can enjoy in a picnic area fashioned from an old bumper car ride. Since you can't see the NYC skyline from Nolan Park, it's easy to forget you're not in turn-of-the-last century France.
Things to Know Before You Go
Bring money Admission is free but carnival rides and games cost $3 each. Or you can buy a pack of 10 tickets for $25. The first weekend tickets were cash only but they're now taking credit cards.
Skip the games They're not worth playing. I loved looking at the Music-Hall Ball Guzzler but was annoyed when my kid lost $6 in two minutes when she failed to win the ring or ball toss. And even if you do win, all you get is a drink or a lollipop.
French food is not fast The food at Le Gamin is yummy but the service is bumpy. Prepare to wait in a long line to order and another to pick up your food. The upside? You get to sit at the picnic tables where outside food is not allowed. Bonus: Credit cards are accepted. If you just want a drink, there's a separate bar that serves water, soda, freshly made iced tea and lemonade, and alcoholic beverages.
Avoid the crowds Visit before noon or on a day when the weather isn't ideal. We went on a rainy day and only had to wait in line for the bicycle carousel.
Be prepared to work The two swing-boat rides are parent-powered. If you don't push your kids, they don't go anywhere.
It's not just for kids While Fête Paradiso is great for kids, it's not just for children. On the day we visited, we saw lots of adults without kids having a blast. The good news? Even if it gets overrun with grown-ups, there are a few rides only kids can fit on, like the small swing boats and that 1950s ride with the cars.
Bring a camera You will definitely want to document your day. There are so many amazing photo ops.
Want to learn more about the history of Fête Paradiso? Check out this great piece in the New York Times or one of these other articles on the Fête Paradiso website, which also has an incredible photo gallery.
What's next? After you're done with the rides, check out all of the other fun things to do on Governors Island, including free mini golf and projects with the Children's Museum of the Arts.
Fête Paradiso is in Nolan Park on Governors Island through September 29. It's open on weekends from 10:30am to 6:30pm.
Find out about other awesome seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide.