Manhattan's only outdoor amusement park, Victorian Gardens, opens for its 12th season this Memorial Day weekend. It's one of those annual summer attractions that you think all New York City families know about and go to... until you realize a bunch of your friends have never even heard of it.
Victorian Gardens is especially wonderful for younger children, which is why we included it in our roundup of best theme parks for preschoolers (although elementary schoolers should enjoy themselves, too). The rides are contained in a small enclosed space so you don't have to worry about kids wandering off like at Coney Island, and there's little walking between attractions. Most of the rides are gentle (a few have height requirements) and there aren't any teens rushing through the crowd. Plus you can't beat the location at Wollman Rink in Central Park, just steps from the zoo, Heckscher Playground and the carousel.
Victorian Gardens is run by the same company that manages Luna Park in Coney Island, so there are a lot of similar rides, like the massive Happy Swing that can seat an entire family, the Samba Balloons that simulate a hot-air balloon ride and the Rockin' Tug, which are all great for preschoolers. While the park says its rides are good for 2- to 12-year-olds, tween thrill-seekers won't be happy here. Adults can accompany kids on the rides, but sometimes it's a tight fit.
There are also a handful of carnival games like Whac-A-Mole where kids can win prizes. The bad news: These games aren't included with the unlimited ride wristband. The good news: If you and your child sit down for a game and no one else shows up, you can compete against each other, which guarantees you'll go home with a stuffed toy of some kind. (Or perhaps that's just more bad news, depending on how many you have already.)
Like all amusement parks, Victorian Gardens sells treats like cotton candy, candied apples, pretzels, etc. and you can sit and snack on outdoor benches, if you can snag one. Inside the clubhouse you can buy overpriced kids' meals like chicken nuggets and hot dogs. Some people seem to sneak in their own food from home but we don't believe it's allowed (but perhaps it's tolerated. We've never seen anyone stopped at the door).
There's also live entertainment on weekends, mostly local performers like clowns Sammie and Tudie, vaudeville-style juggler Will Shaw and magician R. J. Lewis. Kids like them well enough but the shows are outside and it can get hot! Shady seats are in short supply.
A day at Victorian Garden doesn't come cheap, but that's par for the course at amusement parks. However there are ways to maximize your money. If your child plans to do more than five rides, an unlimited ride wristband is the way to go. Some of the rides have a height minimum of 42 inches so if your child is shorter than that you'll need to pay to accompany her. Once kids are about 5, they should be able to do most of the rides alone. You'll also save if you visit on a weekday and it will be a lot less crowded. Party packages are also offered.
Unlimited wristbands are $15 on weekdays and $17 on weekends and holidays. You also need to pay an entrance fee of $8 on weekdays and $9 on weekends and holidays. Children under 36 inches don't need to pay an entrance fee.
Victorian Gardens at Wollman Rink is located in Central Park, enter at 59th Street and Sixth Avenue and walk north.
This post was originally published in May 2012.