Governors Island with Kids: Vintage Carnival Rides and What Else is New for 2013
This Memorial Day weekend Governors Island reopens for the season. It's truly my favorite summer destination in NYC. Whenever I go I think to myself, if they built condos here, I would totally want to buy one. (Thankfully, the island is considered a national monument, so not even Trump can get his hands on this real estate!)
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 festivals and activities throughout the season, most of which are FREE. The ferry ride there is FREE, too.
For 2013, all of the big kid attractions will be back, including the Opening Weekend Family Festival, the Figment arts fest when the mini-golf course and Interactive Sculpture Garden debut, and the Children's Museum of the Arts Free Island Outpost. But there are also some really exciting new additions, notably Fête Paradiso, a French festival of vintage carnival rides and carousels in July! Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids this season.
The southern half of Governors Island, including Picnic Point, will be closed this season due to a massive overhaul that includes the creation of 30 new acres of park and public spaces. So all events and activities take place in the isle's Historic District. That said, families with children ages 7 and up will be able to take hard hat tours of the construction site with members of the design team on select dates. The schedule is on the Governors Island website. The tours are first come, first served, and all participants must sign waivers and wear closed-toe shoes. Hard hats and safety vests will be provided.
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, all designed by artists and usually fashioned out of recycled materials. "State of the Art" is the theme of the 2013 course, which will debut at the Figment Festival the weekend of June 8-9 on the Parade Grounds. You can check out the designs online. Having hit Figment's courses in years past, I want to note that they're usually more like interactive art installations than traditional mini golf. The holes are visually striking but hard to play. Plus many young visitors wander around, doing holes out of order. There will be ten holes in total: nine official ones plus a bonus hole. Open June 8-September 22. FREE
Explore the Interactive Sculpture Garden and other ongoing art exhibits
Figment is also behind Governors Island's annual Sculpture Garden on the Parade Grounds. (That's my daughter and her pal, posing in one of last year's works, a gigantic TV set.) There will be 11 brand-new sculptures this year, most interactive in some way, plus the super-popular TreeHouse returns for its third year. The kids just go wild for that one—I've lost my daughter in there many times. Open June 8-September 22. Of course, there will be lots of other art installations on the island. The ones that sound particularly interesting for kids include Shipwrecked! featuring artifacts discovered in NYC's harbors, and Studio Klimoski Chang Architects’ Head in the Clouds, which gives visitors a chance to romp inside a cloud-like structure. All of these exhibits are FREE
Enjoy vintage French carnival rides
We are super excited about the summer-long Fête Paradiso festival. On weekends from July 13 to September 29, you can take retro rides on vintage French carousels, flying swings and other carnival attractions from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Admission to the festival is free and rides are $3 a pop. But really it's the old-fashioned atmosphere that sounds thrilling: There will be a Music-Hall Ball Guzzler, a carnival game featuring life-size caricatures of Josephine Baker, Maurice Chevalier, Charlie Chaplin and other period stars; a bumper car pavilion repurposed as a beer garden and a children’s carousel that will function as a live performance space.
Go bike riding
Since the southern part of the island is closed for construction, you won't be able to cycle the perimeter of the island down to Picnic Point like in the past. However, there are still multiple miles of flat, car-free cycling, which makes it perfect for kids. You can bring your bike on the ferry or rent one on the island from Bike and Roll. The shop even has a neat four-seat bike for families. On Memorial Day and Labor Day, Bike and Roll offers free one-hour rentals. Plus Bike New York will offer learn-to-ride lessons on select dates and the Skate Truck NYC will be on hand with roller-skate rentals on Sundays in June, July and August.
Make art with the Children's Museum of the Arts
The Soho institution runs a Free Art Island Outpost from 11am-3pm every Saturday and Sunday in Nolan Park. In recent years, my kid did lots of outdoor art projects, including helping to paint a communal mural and fashioning finger puppets. CMA will also screen short films in Building 11 and showcase children's artwork in Building 14. FREE
Challenge your brain
Academic fun on the isle? Why not? This year, there will be a Pop Up Library with books, learning activities and children's programming throughout the summer. Plus Mü-Math: The Mobile Unit to Promote Mathematical Thinking returns for a second year with hands-on math challenges for ages 8 and up.
Catch-and-release fishing is allowed in designated areas along the harbor. Kids can fish without a license but adults ages 16 and up need a valid NY State fishing license. They're 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 Beach 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.
Attend an awesome special event
There are so many cool happenings at Governors Island, we can't possibly list them all. (Happily, the Governors Island calendar does that.) However, we've highlighted some of our favorite annual celebrations as well as new events that sound promising.
Opening Day Family Festival – Sunday, May 26 noon-4pm
Originally scheduled for opening day, this fest was rescheduled to Sunday, May 26 due to rain. Enjoy arts and crafts, storytelling, live performances by the kindie folk bands Astrograss and The Maybelles, a puppet show by Arm-of-the-Sea Theater, face painting, a bike helmet giveaway and harbor-themed fun. Note: The Figment mini-golf course and sculpture garden won't yet be installed but there's still plenty to do. FREE
Figment Festival – Saturday, June 8-Sunday June 9 10am-6pm
This is one of our top 25 annual festivals for families 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! Last year, so many people tried to come in the afternoon they canceled the later ones. FREE
Come Out & Play Field Day and Family Day – Saturday, July 13
Part of the River to River Festival, this annual interactive event is like a big collaborative all-ages playdate. Try new games or new takes on old standards. You can even submit your own game ideas. FREE
The City of Water Day – Saturday, July 20 11am-5pm
Celebrate our city's wonderful waterfront with boat tours, fishing, a fair and more. I went last year with my daughter and just loved it. We even got to hoist a sail on the Clearwater Sloop! Note: If you want to take any of the boat tours, you'll need to register online in advance. FREE
New York Hall of Science presents Designing for Flight – Sunday, July 28 noon-4pm
Kids can learn about the design and science involved in flight. Bring your own kites to fly, catch demos by NYSCI educators and create your own flying machines. FREE
NYC Unicycle Festival – Saturday, August 31-Sunday September 1 noon-5pm
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.
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 food and a blanket and dine on the grass. It's a great place to picnic.
Governors Island is open every Saturday, Sunday and holiday Monday from May 25-September 29 10am-7pm. Free ferries regularly run to and from Governors Island from lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. Plus, the East River Ferry stops at Governors Island on weekends although it's not free.
Find more great seasonal activities in our Summer Fun Guide.