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.
Celebrate the special day with a spin on the one-of-a-kind Totally Kid Carousel at Riverbank State Park. Photo courtesy of the park
Best Playgrounds in Manhattan to Host a Birthday Party
Inspired by Japanese urban rooftop green spaces, this 28-acre, multi-level park is 69 feet above the Hudson River. It's got a slew of attractions, including playgrounds, indoor and outdoor pools, a roller 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. Off-season, 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.
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, wide lawns, and a pond with fish. There's also a bathroom nearby. Picnic on the grass and let the kids run amok in the playground. All groups of 20 people or more require a permit.
Enjoy sweeping views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island at Hudson River Park's longest pier. Pick your party activity from a long list of offerings, including the borough's only 18-hole miniature golf course, sand volleyball courts, a playground with water features, and a large turf field. Skip schlepping your own food and hit up one of the many kid-friendly restaurants in the area, and if you need a change of scenery, nearby Pier 26 has its own set of activities. Gatherings of 20 people or more require a permit.
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 cook out. 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 stunning backdrop on summer evenings.
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The Arthur Ross Pinetum Playground is an often-overlooked Central Park treasure. Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy
5. Central Park – Upper East & Upper West Sides
What about Central Park, you might ask. We figured this is a no-brainer. Some of our favorite NYC 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, plus trees cover the whole area, 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, a 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. This area 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.
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. A pair of restrooms are never far away, no matter where you decide to set up your party.
Hanging out at this playground 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. There's an on-site Parkhouse that can be rented, or picnic tables free for claiming. A bathroom is also located within the playground's borders.
Step back in time at this relatively untouched park, which offers a glimpse into what Manhattan looked like before it was developed. Since the park has been purposefully preserved to maintain the feeling of open space, you'll find plenty of room to spread out. And kids can be left to do what they do best—use their imagination to engage with nature. There are several playgrounds with nearby bathrooms, and, if you're planning to grill, there are plenty of designated barbecue areas. Parties with 20 or more people require a permit.
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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 stocked with loose tools, parts, and space for kids to use their imaginations. 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.
Best Playgrounds in Brooklyn to Host a Birthday Party
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 many 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 indoor party room in the Old Stone House is now available to rent, as well as the adjacent patio, with or without a tent.
There's lots to love about this park that occupies the former grounds of the historic Domino Sugar Refinery. The imaginative playground structures cater to a broad range of ages, and there are two good-sized green spaces to gather, as well as a multi-level splash pad where kids can cool off on hot days. If you want to grab food on-site, the delicious taco stand from Union Square Hospitality Group, Tacocina, offers plenty of tasty fare. Lines do get long, though, especially on weekends, so factor in a long wait time for food. Events of 20 or fewer guests, including small celebrations and birthday parties, are allowed, but the park would appreciate a heads-up on the details of your gathering via email.
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Brooklyn Bridge Park's perks include picnic tables next to the carousel. Photo by Etienne Frossard/courtesy of BBP
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 reimagined piers and grassy areas for parties, and while there are spectacular playgrounds, they're not open to group gatherings. A permit is required for 20 or more people. There are various picnic and grilling areas; most are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are also bathrooms at Pier 2, Pier 5 Boathouse, Pier 6, Squibb Park, and Main Street.
This 24-acre green space includes lots of room for gatherings, plus two playgrounds, and scenic walking trails along the water with breathtaking views of lower Manhattan. A popular skate park makes this the perfect spot for skateboard enthusiasts to get together. There are no barbecue areas here, but there is loads of space to spread out for a picnic. The park is also known for its impressive variety of trees, including pine, locust, oak, maple, cork, and beech trees. As with most NYC parks, a gathering of 20 or more people requires a permit.
Bring a cake and pick a spot in sprawling Prospect Park. Photo courtesy of the Prospect Park Alliance
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, is also popular. The carousel is also nearby. There are also multiple year-round restrooms in the park, plus port-a-potties in summer.
Best Playgrounds in Queens for Hosting a Birthday Party
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, a spectacular splash pad, and a mini-amusement park, Fantasy Forest at the Flushing Meadows Carousel, which has 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 with lots of extras available. Keep in mind birthday packages are only available for bookings on weekdays.
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Socrates Sculpture Park offers stunning views of the Manhattan skyline. Photo courtesy of the park.
We've raved about this outdoor art spot 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 Hallet's Cove. 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.
Located along the East River and with glorious views of Midtown Manhattan, this 12-acre gem has a fishing pier, a state-of-the-art playground, two big grassy areas perfect for picnics, and many 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.
Best Playgrounds in the Bronx for Hosting a Birthday Party
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, 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.
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Recent renovations to Williamsbridge Oval have made it a Bronx family favorite. Photo by Ed Crimmins
With four playgrounds, the Williamsbridge Oval likely has one play section to fit your party animal's age. Renovations have led to a renaissance over the past few years. Sports-savvy kids appreciate the tennis courts, running track, football field, and basketball courts. There are also bathrooms and a recreation center. Large, mature shade trees shelter the benches scattered throughout the park, and the sprayground helps you keep your cool.
At nearly 3,000 acres, surely you can find a perfect party spot in Pelham Bay Park. There is something for everyone in this vast green space, from a beachfront property and a historic mansion to kid-friendly play equipment. Perhaps the most party-ready spot to set up shop is near the Playground for All Children, the biggest play area 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.
This article, first published in August 2013, is updated regularly.