Governors Island for Kids: New Water Features, Free Mini Golf & Family Highlights
Governors Island reopens to the public this Memorial Day weekend, and we've got the scoop on the coolest new attractions, activities and returning family favorites. In 2014, the isle unveiled 30 acres of new parkland, expanded its open hours to weekdays and instituted a fee for the formerly free ferry. While there's nothing quite as newsworthy this season, kids should be thrilled to hear that play fountains are set to debut, and parents should take note that the popular opening weekend Family Festival has been moved from Saturday to Sunday.
This 172-acre oasis was once home to the U.S. Army and Coast Guard, and is full of quaint 19th-century houses, grassy hills and traffic-free bike paths. It's just a seven-minute ferry ride from lower Manhattan, but if you stand in a spot where the city skyline is out of view, you feel as if you've been transported to 1800s New England. In addition to being a fantastic place for families to relax and explore, the isle hosts lots of cool FREE festivals like the Figment arts fest, and features awesome activities such as the Free Art Island Outpost, no-cost mini golf and an Interactive Sculpture Garden.
Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids this season, plus important visitor tips, including where to find real bathrooms, not Porta-Potties!
Play and get wet in Liggett Terrace
In 2014, Governors Island unveiled Liggett Terrace featuring climbing structures and swings, Hammock Grove and a large Play Lawn, and we loved them all. They're all back, along with three brand-new play fountains boasting 90 water jets, located in the Liggett Terrace hedge maze. This is the first time Governors Island has had a water feature, and we think kids will love it. So be sure to pack the bathing suits this season.
My daughter loves the climbing structures on the isle
You've got to get there early to snag a hammock: some visitors relax in them all day!
Play mini golf
The creative folks at the Figment arts collective design this annual staple, the only FREE miniature golf course in the city. It changes every year and always features wildly innovative holes that are usually fashioned out of recycled materials. "From Here to There" is the theme of the 2015 course, which will debut at the Figment Festival the weekend of June 6-7. You can check out the transportation-inspired designs online. Having hit Figment's courses in years past, I want to note that the holes work better as interactive art installations than as mini golf. They're visually striking but difficult to play. Plus many kids wander around, doing holes out of order. In other words, don't expect serious game play. There will be 12 holes in total. Open June 6-September 25. FREE
Play a mini golf with a view on Governors Island
Explore the Interactive Sculpture Garden and other ongoing art exhibits
Figment is also behind Governors Island's annual Sculpture Garden on the Parade Ground. You can check out designs for the brand-new works, which are all interactive in some way. Plus the super-popular TreeHouse returns for its fifth year. The kids just go wild for this one, especially the slide—I've lost my daughter in here many times. Open June 6-September 25. Of course, there will be lots of other art installations on the island, including eye-popping pavilions made from recycled and found objects. All of these exhibits are FREE
"Achilles," a life-size giraffe made out of plywood triangles, was one of the pieces in the 2014 Figment Interactive Sculpture Garden
The super-popular TreeHouse is back for its fifth year
Commune with nature
There are lush lawns and beautiful trees everywhere you look. However, if you really want to get your nature fix, GrowNYC is operating an urban farm with hands-on programming on weekends. Meanwhile, Earth Matter is offering composting lessons and face time with their menagerie of animals.
Go bike riding
The isle features multiple miles of flat, car-free cycling, which makes it perfect for kids. For the first time in years, most of the Island’s perimeter promenade is open, from just south of the new ball fields through the Historic District over to Yankee Pier. (The rest remains closed due to ongoing construction.) You can bring your bike on the ferry or rent one on the island from Blazing Saddles. Free Bike Mornings allow visitors to borrow a bike for FREE for up to one hour every weekday between 10am and noon.
Get creative with the Children's Museum of the Arts
The downtown institution runs a Free Art Island Outpost from 11am-3pm every Saturday and Sunday, plus Memorial Day and Labor Day, outside building 14 in Nolan Park. In recent years, my kid did lots of projects, including helping to paint a communal mural, fashioning finger puppets and playing with Flubber. FREE
Make something high-tech and cool
The Makery is running a pop-up makerspace on weekends from July 25 to September 20 in Building 8A in Nolan Park. Inventors of all ages can try 3D modeling and printing, learn coding and tinker with electronics. There will also be interactive digital exhibits and events.
Catch-and-release fishing is allowed in designated areas along New York Harbor. Kids can fish without a license but adults ages 16 and up need a valid NY State fishing license. Licenses inexpensive but they're not sold on the island. Click here for info on obtaining one. FREE for kids
Hang out on the "beach"
Formerly known as Water Taxi Beach, the rechristened Governors Club is a man-made beach with sand to play in, picnic tables to lounge at, bar food (and beer) to buy, and a stage. While the venue hosts adults-only concerts at night, it's kid-friendly during the day and a great place to take a break and grab a snack. The one downside: There is no shade whatsoever but you do get a nice breeze off the water. Only open on weekends and holiday Mondays.
Check out a cool castle and a fort
Castle Williams, royal as it sounds, actually served as a military prison. You can take a guided tour of the landmark, as well as Fort Jay across the isle, courtesy of the National Park Service. Kids can even earn Junior Ranger badges at the sites. The NPS offers lots of other programs on the isle, many of which are kid-friendly so check the calendar to see what piques your family's interest. FREE
Get a sneak peek at the Hills
Created from recycled fill materials, the under-construction Hills will eventually rise 25 to 70 feet above the isle, and its peak will offer visitors a panoramic view of New York Harbor. The Hills should be finished next year, but you can check out its progress during guided hard-hat tours this summer. The first takes place on opening day at noon; subsequent tours will be offered at the end of the day on the last Thursday of every month: June 25, July 30, August 27 and September 24.
Attend an awesome FREE event
There are so many cool happenings at Governors Island, we can't possibly list them all. (Happily, the Governors Island calendar does that.) We've highlighted some of our favorite annual celebrations for families below.
- Opening Weekend Family Festival – Sunday, May 24
Craft puppets, write tall tales with the Story Pirates, catch performances by the Central Park Zoo Wildlife Theater and the Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, enjoy carnival games and make masterpieces with the Children's Museum of the Arts. Note: The Figment mini-golf course and Interactive Sculpture Garden won't yet be installed but there's still plenty to do. FREE
- Figment Festival – Saturday, June 6-Sunday June 7
This is one of our top 25 annual festivals and frankly, it's my personal favorite. Although this scrappy arts fest isn't aimed at families, it's kid-friendly and super-engaging. In years past, my child has danced in a G-rated outdoor rave, scored a free costume, participated in various art projects and spent about an hour frolicking in a tent filled with rose petals. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own art—of any kind! For an idea of just how fun and funky Figment is, check out our slide show from 2011. This is also the weekend the mini-golf course and the Interactive Sculpture Garden debut. Warning: Catch an early ferry! It gets super-crowded later in the day. FREE
- City of Water Day – Saturday, July 18
Another one of our top family fests, City of Water Day celebrates NYC's wonderful waterfront with boat tours, fishing, a fair and more. My daughter and I have gone three times now and always loved it. We even enjoyed free sails on the the Clearwater Sloop and the Schooner Pioneer! Note: If you want to take any of the no-cost boat tours, you'll need to register online in advance beginning Friday, July 10 at 1pm. FREE
- Come Out & Play Field Day and Family Day – Saturday, July 18
This annual interactive event is like a big collaborative all-ages play date. Try new games or fresh takes on old standards, all of which connect through the theme of time travel. You can even submit your own game ideas. FREE
- New York City Poetry Festival – Saturday, July 25-Sunday, July 26
The Poetry Society of New York celebrates verse with more than 60 poetry organizations and 250 poets on three stages, plus vendors and a beer garden. But the main attraction for families is the mini Children’s Poetry Festival, complete with writing workshops and games, and an all-kids stage. FREE
- NYC Unicycle Festival – Saturday, September 5-Sunday, September 6
The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus founded this offbeat fest, where kids can marvel at unicycle basketball and hockey, races, obstacle courses and even learn to ride one. FREE
Seriously. You don't always have to be doing something. Hang out in the hammocks, Adirondack chairs, oversize swings or at the tables (assuming you can snag one). Or bring your own picnic and dine alfresco on the grass. You can also pick up great grub from the excellent food vendors, including Thai and Vietnamese fusion from Top Chef finalist Lisa Fernandes' Sweet Chili, Carl's Steaks, El Paso Taco, Blue Marble Ice Cream, Deli N' Dogz and more. You can find the complete list of food vendors on the website and follow @govislandfood on Twitter for updates. Keep in mind that most are only open on weekends and holiday Mondays.
Things to Know Before You Go
Where to go when you need to go: There are lots of Porta-Potties on the isle. However, if you must use a traditional bathroom, you'll find regular flush toilets in Building 110 at Soissons Landing (right by the Manhattan ferry dock) as well as a trailer of them at Liggett Terrace.
Bring a refillable water bottle: Last summer the isle finally added water fountains! You can refill your bottle or thermos at Liggett Terrace or near Yankee Pier.
Bring your own food: Yes there are wonderful food vendors, but they're not cheap and the lines are often super long. If you can, bring your own picnic.
Arrive at least 15 minutes before your weekend ferry departs: Or better yet, a half hour. Lines are always long, especially on weekend afternoons when you need to pay for tickets.
Wear sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes: You're going to be spending a lot of time running around outside.
Bring your camera: There are all kinds of cool photo ops.
Even though the isle is open seven days a week, many attractions are not: Food vendors and many special programs only take place on weekends so if you're going on a weekday, make sure you check the calendar to confirm what's going on.
Take time to explore: Even if you go for a specific event or have an itinerary in mind, there are so many wonderful things on the isle, it's best to have a flexible schedule. Many buildings house artisans and boutiques, art installations or other programs. Since the isle is totally walkable, it's ideal for exploring and there are cool discoveries to be found in every nook and cranny.
Download the map: Honestly you probably won't need it as there are maps and signage on the isle, but it can't hurt to have.
Keep an eye out for bikes: While there are no cars on the isle, there are a ton of cyclists. Most are careful, especially since there are so many children wandering around. But remind your kids that when they're walking on the streets, bikes may come flying their way.
Governors Island is open seven days a week from Saturday, May 23-Sunday, September 27, 10am-6pm on weekdays and 10am-7pm on weekends. Ferries run every day to and from Governors Island from lower Manhattan. The Brooklyn ferry only runs on Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays. The cost is $2 round-trip for adults on weekdays and weekend afternoons, free for children under age 13, and free to all on weekend mornings. You can buy ferry tickets in person at the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan or at Pier 6 in Brooklyn as well as in advance online. A season pass will also be available for purchase online. The East River Ferry also stops at Governors Island on weekends but costs more.
Find more great seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide.