Savvy DIY parents know that during the warmer months, New York City's parks make a fun (and inexpensive) backdrop for a birthday bash. Granted, this type of party requires more work than booking one of those all-inclusive packages, but you get to control most of the details, including the cost (though sadly, not the weather).
Find more party spots in our NYC Birthday Guide, including inexpensive room rentals for when bad weather threatens the fun.
While you can just set up in your local playground (assuming you have less than 20 people, otherwise permits are technically required), not all green spaces are created equal. Certain parks have special perks that can make hosting an outdoor party easier or more fun, like picnic tables, lots of space to run around, nearby play equipment and even rides. Here are our 16 favorite parks for throwing a kid's birthday party in NYC.
Remember: If you have your heart set on a specific spot, try to reserve it through the NYC Parks Department. Often arriving early to stake out your space is enough. However, if someone else reserves that same place, you may be forced to move.
Brooklyn Bridge Park perks include picnic tables next to the carousel. Photo by Etienne Frossard/courtesy of BBP
Brooklyn Bridge Park — Dumbo & Brooklyn Heights
Ever since it debuted in 2010, the attraction-filled Pier 6 Playground has been a family magnet and the restored Jane's Carousel is also a favorite. There are multiple piers and grassy areas for parties, and while there are playgrounds, too, they're not open to group gatherings. A permit is required for 20 or more people. There are a variety of picnic and grilling areas; most are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are also bathrooms at Pier 1, Pier 2, Pier 5 Boathouse, Pier 6, Squibb Park, and Main Street.
J.J. Byrne Playground in Washington Park – Park Slope
The adjacent Old Stone House allows families to reserve the North Garden along Third Street and the Cafe Table area in this amazing renovated park. The Colonial-themed playground has lots of cool attractions, including a beautiful water play area, separate sections for toddlers and older kids, and the ever-important bathroom. There is a huge tree with benches around it, and if your party is less than 20 people all you need to do is arrive early to claim it. The Old Stone House also has an indoor party room you can rent.
Prospect Park – Brooklyn
This lush 585-acre park affords plenty of room to party, but there are two general spots I particularly recommend. The designated barbecue areas offer grills but also picnic tables perfect for parties. The area near the Picnic House where the tables sit under huge trees near grassy fields and hills are popular. I also love the small green patch next to the carousel. There's more space to run around by the grills, but the spot by the merry-go-round is more contained, plus you can treat the kids to a spin or two. If you have 20 or more people, you need to obtain a permit. Not a DIYer? The Carousel and Lefferts Historic House offer birthday party packages. There are also multiple year-round restrooms in the park, plus port-a-potties in summer.
Riverbank State Park – Harlem
Inspired by Japanese urban rooftop green spaces, this 28-acre, multi-level park is located 69 feet above the Hudson River. It's got a slew of attractions, including playgrounds, indoor and outdoor pools, a skating rink, the one-of-a-kind Totally Kid Carousel, and incredible views of the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey. There are plenty of shady areas to lay down your blanket and, best of all, a ton of picnic tables. A permit is required for gatherings of 15 people or more, and picnic tables are often reserved in advance during the summer. Offseason, they're first come, first serve with a limit of three tables per family. There is no grilling here, so bring takeout or a picnic lunch. Bathrooms are located on the premises.
Nelson A. Rockefeller Park – Battery Park City
Located along the waterfront, this park features a true destination playground for all ages including water areas, a sand table, and an awesome circular bicycle ride under a gazebo. Outside the playground you'll find gardens and wide lawns, a pond with fish, and the Parkhouse, which lends games, toys, and sports equipment for free to families every day from May through October. There's also a bathroom nearby. Picnic in the grass and let the kids run amok in the playground. All groups of 20 people or more require a permit.
Nature Discovery Playground – Washington Heights
This Upper Manhattan playground is one of my family's favorites. It requires a bit of a schlep to get there if you're not in the neighborhood, but once you arrive, you're rewarded with spectacular views of the Hudson River, the New Jersey Palisades, and the George Washington Bridge. The playground has a cluster of picnic tables just outside its entrance and during high season, there are also port-a-potties parked nearby. Grills dot the pathway nearby along the park should you want to cookout. The playground has plenty of spots for kids big and small to play and the sprinklers and large trees keep everyone cool come summer's heat. The westward view makes a particularly pretty backdrop on summer evenings.
RELATED: 12 Great Manhattan Party Spots for Preschoolers
The Arthur Ross Pinetum Playground is an often overlooked Central Park treasure. Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy
Central Park – Upper East & Upper West Sides
What about Central Park you ask? We figured this is kind of a no-brainer. Some of our favorite playgrounds call this massive green space home. However, there is a semi-secret spot in the middle of the park that's perfect for parties: the Arthur Ross Pinetum Playground. It's a bit of a misnomer since there are only swings (with no fence). But there are also picnic tables and open space to roam, and the whole area is covered by trees, so there's plenty of shade. It's an ideal spot and is fairly close to a bathroom, too. Want to reserve it? Contact the Parks Department.
While not off the beaten path at all, the Heckscher Playground, at mid-park near 65th Street, offers all the necessary creature comforts: bathrooms, playground, picnic tables, and the bonus of Umpire Rock to climb. Another favorite spot to play on the park's northern edge is the East 110th Street Playground. Located near Lenox Avenue, there are no picnic tables nearby, though there are two lovely lawns where you can spread a blanket in the sun or shade, plus a bathroom and this edge of the park offers plenty of other opportunities for family-friendly fun, without the crowds you'll see on the south end of the park.
Carl Schurz Park – Upper East Side
For stunning East River views, as well as rolling, grassy hills, it's hard to beat this gem of a park on the Upper East Side. Home to Gracie Mansion, this urban oasis has one large, well-trafficked playground to delight kids of all ages. Peter Pan fans will get a kick out of visiting a statue of the playful character in the on-site fountain. There's plenty of room to roam or ride scooters or bicycles along the East River, too, and a pair of restrooms are never far away no matter where you decide to set up your party.
Hippo Playground – Upper West Side
If you want an inside-outside feel to your party, this playground is the perfect spot. Hanging out here is practically a rite of passage for an Upper West Side kid and that's one reason we chose it as a top spot to celebrate your toddler's birthday. Another reason: Renting the on-site Parkhouse is affordable! If you don't want to spring for a rental, there are on-site picnic tables free for claiming. A bathroom is also located within the playground's borders.
Celebrate a birthday with friends at the adventure playground on Governors Island. Photo courtesy of the Yard
There are plenty of free attractions for kids at this seasonal green space, from the no-cost ferry ride (if you hop aboard before noon on the weekends) to Slide Hill to an adventure playground, and the Children's Museum of the Arts' outpost. Or you can just picnic and play games on the grass. Food and beverage options have grown every year, and you can even reserve a grill or picnic spot for your fete. There are tons of port-a-potties on the isle, but if you must use a flush toilet visit the building by the Manhattan ferry landing, as well as several flush trailers throughout the island.
Van Cortlandt Park – Riverdale
NYC's fourth-largest park is a natural gem. As you wander its nature trails and forested areas, you'll forget you're in the city. There are two barbecue areas, including Shandler, which is near two renovated softball fields, bathrooms, benches, and picnic tables. The second barbecue section is near the pool. Gatherings of 20 or more people require a permit and there are restrooms throughout the park.
RELATED: Best Party Spots for Kids in the Bronx
Recent renovations to Williamsbridge Oval have made it a Bronx family favorite. Photo by Ed Crimmins
Williamsbridge Oval – Norwood
With four playgrounds, the Williamsbridge Oval likely has one play section to fit your party-animal's age. Recent renovations have led to the spot undergoing a renaissance over the past few years. Sports-savvy kids will appreciate the tennis courts, running track, football field, and basketball courts on-site. There are also bathrooms and a recreation center. Large, mature shade trees shelter the benches scattered throughout the park and the newly installed play showers will help you keep your cool.
Pelham Bay Park – Pelham
At nearly 3,000 acres, surely you can find a perfect party spot in Pelham Bay Park. From beachfront property and a historic mansion to kid-friendly play equipment, there is something for everyone in this vast green space. Perhaps the most party-ready spot to set up shop is near the Playground for All Children, the biggest of the play areas in the massive park. There are bathrooms nearby to boot. Your best bet for partying here is to plan outside of beach-going season to avoid the crowds; some days it will even feel like you've got the entire park just to yourselves.
Flushing Meadows Corona Park – Corona
This 898-acre Queens green space features two barbecue areas, a beautiful lake surrounded by lawns for picnicking, and a bunch of kid attractions, including multiple playgrounds and mini-amusement park Fantasy Forest at the Flushing Meadows Carousel with several fun kiddie rides. There is a picnic table area and plenty of benches around the merry-go-round, plus a bathroom nearby. A permit is required for 20 or more people. Rather not do any work? Fantasy Forest also offers an all-inclusive party package.
RELATED: Best Party Spots for Queens Kids
Socrates Sculpture Park offers stunning views of the Manhattan skyline. Photo courtesy of the park.
Socrates Sculpture Park – Long Island City
We've raved about this outdoor museum many times. I know a few families who have hosted kids' birthday parties here, including an 8-year-old who asks to celebrate her big day at Socrates every year. It's a well-maintained green space with rotating art installations, plenty of grass to roam, a nice shady area under trees where you can put down your blanket, and since it's on the waterfront, there's even a tiny beach area known as Hallets Cove. On Saturdays from June to September there are free art workshops. All you need to do is call ahead to let them know a group is coming. Warning: You'll only find port-a-potties here, no bathrooms.
Gantry Plaza State Park – Long Island City
Located along the East River with glorious views of midtown Manhattan, this 12-acre gem boasts a fishing pier, a state-of-the-art playground, two big grassy areas perfect for picnics and lots of benches along the water. There is a picnic permit processing fee for gatherings of all sizes. Find additional info on the website. Gantry has a single big bathroom and the nearby Foodcellar & Co. Market has one, too.
This article first published in August 2013, but is updated regularly.