Governors Island: Playgrounds, Camping, and More 2018 Highlights

Best Things to Do on Governors Island with Kids: Events, Festivals, Water Playgrounds, Slide Hill and Zip LIne
Photo courtesy of Governors Island

Governors Island opens to the public on May 1 this year and its season, which runs through October 31, promises plenty of family-friendly fun, plus some spectacular overnight accommodations that give you even more time to play on the island!.

The opening of Governors Island is an event we anticipate annually as the island seemingly reinvents itself with new attractions and old favorites return. The aforementioned glamping accommodations are sure to be a big draw; while the adventure playground gets a new name, The Yard, plus Adventures at Governors Island returns with a larger footprint plus new mini golf, and the island's events calendar is, as always, jam-packed with family-friendly events like our favorite, the Figment arts fest.

Read on for the scoop on the very best things to do on Governors Island with kids, plus important visitor tips, such as ferry schedules and where to score free biking and kayaking. 

The only way to spend the night on Governors Island is in the luxury tent city.

Plan a sleepover
Collective Governors Island is set to open a luxury tent city on the island's Western Development Zone, where you'll sleep in high-quality tents under the watchful eye of Lady Liberty. Choose from double-occupancy tents with shared restrooms, or premium tents with an en suite bathroom. Prices are steep, but New Yorkers can snag half-off rooms ($75) some nights.

Get some amazing views of New York Harbor when you make it to the top of Climb Wallz at Adventures on GI.

Tap into your sense of adventure
The folks at New York Carousel, who operate attractions like the SeaGlass Carousel, Fantasy Forest Amusement Park in Queens, Staten Island Fun Park, and more kid-friendly attractions, return with Adventures at GI in the Western Development Zone. The zip line, that measured 300-feet last year, gets some added length and the climbing wall and maze return, too. A mini-golf course will be added in June. There will also be a snack bar and shade canopy added for heat-weary onlookers.

Check out a cool, FREE exhibit
The HoloCenter transforms former officers' quarters with light-based installations. Artist David Brooks site-specific installation Rock, Mosquito and Hummingbird: A Prehistory of Governors Island returns to Fort Jay, while artist Susan Philipsz plays off the isle's military history with her interactive sound installation. For more programming, bookmark the official calendar.

The Liggett Terrace climbing playground is always a popular spot. Photo by Bruce Monroe via Flickr.

Play and get wet in Liggett Terrace
A staple since 2014, Liggett Terrace features climbing structures and swings, Hammock Grove, and a large Play Lawn. We love them all. They're all back, along with three play fountains boasting 90 water jets located in the hedge maze, so be sure to pack the bathing suits. FREE

Rent a bike or bring your own and spend the day cruising around the island.

Go bike riding
The isle features six miles of flat, car-free cycling, which makes it perfect for kids. Indeed, you can cycle the island's entire perimeter. You can bring your bike on the ferry or rent one on the island from Blazing Saddles or Citi Bike. Blazing Saddles' Free Bike Mornings are back and allow visitors to borrow a bike for FREE for up to one hour every weekday between 10am and noon.

Cruise the harbor for free with a kayak rental.

A new dock allows for kayaking on weekends, beginning in June. Free rentals are provided by the Downtown Boathouse.

Get creative with the Children's Museum of the Arts
The downtown institution runs a Free Art Island Outpost from 11am-5pm every Saturday and Sunday, plus Memorial Day and Labor Day, in Nolan Park. In recent years, projects have included communal murals, finger puppets, and playing with Flubber. FREE

No adults allowed at in The Yard.

Enjoy Adventure Playground
A major addition in 2016 was play:groundNYC's adventure playground. It's back again this season, with a new name and is open on weekends from May 5 through October 27. Parents take note: You'll be sitting on the sidelines while your kids romp in the 50,000-square-foot creative space, turning recycled materials (OK, some would call it junk!) into playthings limited only by their imagination. We visited several times last year and were impressed. Be forewarned: You'll be hard pressed to get your kids to leave! It hosts a weekday summer camp, as well as school groups at other times.

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, many of which are kid-friendly, so check the calendar to see what piques your family's interest.

Go fishing
Catch-and-release fishing is allowed in designated areas along New York Harbor. Kids can fish without a license but adults ages 16 and older need a valid NY State fishing license. Licenses are inexpensive, but they're not sold on the island. Click here for info on obtaining one. FREE for kids

Commune with nature
There are lush lawns and beautiful trees everywhere you look. However, if you really want to get your nature fix, GrowNYC operates an urban farm with hands-on programming on weekends. Meanwhile, Earth Matter offers composting lessons and face time with its menagerie of animals. Artist Maria Mattingly, of the SWALE floating forest, will produce a new exhibition on the Urban Farm as well as in Nolan Park to engage the public in the farming process.

Build your oyster knowledge
The Billion Oyster Project and the New York Harbor School, which is located on the island, join forces to educate the public on the importance of oysters in our estuary in season-long educational weekend workshops. If you want to get hands-on and help out, there will be volunteer days throughout the season, too.

Or learn about birds
The New York Audubon Society (note the site has not been updated for 2018 as of yet) operates weekend-only, family-friendly programming, ranging from bird walks to bird-inspired arts and crafts. Families can learn how to create bird-friendly spaces in our urban environment.

Slide Hill offers four mega slides and great views over 10 acres of parkland.

Play on The Hills and Slide Hill
Created from recycled fill materials, The Hills now rise above the isle offering visitors a panoramic view of New York Harbor. Not-to-be-missed: Slide Hill, which offers the city's longest slide at 57 feet and three more fun ones. Don't be shy—make sure you take a whirl with your kids!

Just relax
Seriously. You don't always have to be doing something. Hang out in the hammocks, Adirondack chairs, oversize swings, or at the tables. Or bring your own picnic and dine alfresco on the grass. You can also pick up great grub from the excellent food vendors on the island. Little Eva's hosts a beer garden at Liggett Terrace and Island Oyster, near Soisson's Landing, serves mixed drinks and sustainable summer seafood fare. Keep in mind that most vendors are only open on weekends and holiday Mondays.

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.) We've highlighted some of our favorite annual celebrations for families below:

Video by Terraform Entertainment for Mommy Poppins

NYC Holi Hai – Saturday, May 12
Celebrate the coming of spring and the diversity of our city by joining in this fest on the Play Lawn. A special kids area engages youngsters in the action, which celebrates love and togetherness.

Family Festival – Sunday, May 27
Enjoy Memorial Day Weekend on the isle with this day-long celebration of family-friendly programming. Live performances entertain; there will be story times, arts and crafts, ice cream, and a chance to build-your-own playground, plus plenty more. FREE

Figment Festival – Saturday, June 23-Sunday June 24
This is one of our top annual festivals. Although this scrappy arts fest isn't aimed at families, it's kid-friendly and 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. Warning: Catch an early ferry! It gets super-crowded later in the day. FREE

Vintage Bus Bash – 2018 Date TBD
All aboard four vintage buses, which make the journey from the New York Transit Museum to spend a weekend on Governors Island. You'll be able to climb aboard (fare free!) 1940-50s era transportation.

City of Water Day – 2018 Date TBD
Another one of our top family fests, City of Water Day celebrates NYC's wonderful waterfront with boat tours, fishing, a fair, and more. We always love it. Note: If you want to take any of the no-cost boat tours, you'll need to register online in advance. FREE

New York City Poetry Festival – 2018 Date TBD
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 – 2018 Date TBD
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

Things to Know Before You Go

Where to go when you need to go: There are lots of port-a-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 trailers at Liggett Terrace and near Slide Hill.

Bring a refillable water bottle: You can refill your bottle (and save some cash!) or thermos at Liggett Terrace, near Yankee Pier, Slide Hill, and Soissons Landing.

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, a hat, and comfortable walking shoes: You're going to be spending a lot of time running around outside.

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 Tuesday, May 1-Wednesday, October 31, 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. (The ferry is FREE to all for opening week.) 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 is also available for purchase online. The NYC Ferry also stops at Governors Island on weekends but costs more.

Photos courtesy of Governors Island unless otherwise noted

This article first published in June 2010 but is updated annually.

Governors Island
Ferry Line Road
10004 New York , NY 40° 41' 34.008" N, 74° 0' 55.5264" W
New York