BEST PLACE TO LET THE KIDS RUN WILD 2007 | Makutu's Island | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix
It's a jungle in there. Multistory slides. Mazes of ocean-themed connecting tubes for scampering in. A friendly treehouse. Places to climb and jump and run. Makutu's Island is like an energy-transfer facility for loud, hyper kids. It's an especially good spot to cure the cabin fever that takes hold in the dead of summer, with 20,000 square feet of air-conditioned, indoor play opportunities.

We enjoyed squeezing through the tight bends and narrow chutes of the Pirates Den with our oldest explorer — a far better experience than the sterile plastic crawl-tubes of other kid entertainment destinations. One note of caution: Although adults are allowed just about everywhere the kids can go, we dropped down one of the big slides so fast that we were afraid of crushing whatever — or whomever — was at the bottom.

We try to make it here every third month or so. The $7 per kid and $3 per adult is on par with taking the family out to a movie, except the kids might need a nap when they get home. We know we certainly need one.

In our endless quest to find something for the kids to do that doesn't involve food or a video screen, we stumbled upon Gilbert's lovely little bird park near Greenfield and Guadalupe roads. It's a bit artificial, like all other attempts to make the desert into something it isn't, but the Riparian Preserve elicits more of a feeling of wonder in children than typical lake-based Valley parks. Instead of acres of grass surrounding the lakes, like you'll see elsewhere, we found hiking paths to explore amid dense vegetation. The bushes are only about three feet high, naturally, but the place is a jungle to kids.

The trail-weary tykes spent most of their time in a shaded sandpit, digging for dinosaur bones. (Success guaranteed; there's a permanent stockpile.) The lumpy vertebrae and other skeletal features emerge from the sand with a bit of effort, though they won't come out entirely. We sat on one of the benches surrounding the pit, watching our future paleontologists squeal with delight as they uncovered more bones. A timeless experience.

This sweet little patch is all you need to satisfy fall's pumpkin-y urges. From mid-September to mid-November every year, kids of all ages stop by to peruse the Halloween crafts in the gift shop, walk the maze, ride the hay, and even — on some days — pet an alligator. Oh, yeah, and pick out that pumpkin, for the all-important annual ritual. You can take it home and carve it, or paint it right there at Brooke's pumpkin patch.
We've made an unspoken deal with The Phoenician. We won't ask why you call yourself The Phoenician, but have a Scottsdale address. And you won't ask what a bunch of Jews were doing at your Easter egg hunt last year.

Actually, if you must know, we were enjoying ourselves immensely! There's no better lawn in town for an egg hunt than the beautiful expanses at this well-manicured resort. Our toddlers were delighted with the enormous Elmo and Cookie Monster that roamed the grounds, the face painting, and the beautiful day in general. Best of all, we didn't have to spend hours rooting around in our own backyard for rotten eggs!

In the ever-changing, nothing-is-sacred urban landscape that is the Valley, any spot that's been around as long as Big Surf deserves a special place in our hearts. Soon after it opened in 1969 as America's first artificial wave pool, it was pictured in National Geographic for an article on Phoenix. We'll never forget the early days of burning our feet on the sand that would heat up on the hottest summer days to temperatures found only on the surface of the sun. Well, the sand's been replaced by water-filled, shallow canals that make for easy walking, and the 2-million-gallon wave pool is still there, as good as ever.

It's an impressive and relatively safe operation thanks to its purchase by Golfland Entertainment Centers Inc. a few years ago. Apart from the main attraction, there are 15 water slides and two low-key play pools for infants and toddlers, (where you can find out if those silly "swim diapers" really work as advertised). Workers do a good job managing the hordes of visitors, many of whom are unruly brats, and somehow prevent mass drownings in the wave pool, which is large and dangerous enough to deserve respect.

Big Surf can still be something of an adventure. If you don't get there early, you might not secure that crucial shady spot on the "beach." Although it claims to open at 10 a.m., the workers made us wait twice last summer in the heat for another 30 to 45 minutes before we could get in the water — not a fun thing to do with little kids. And the crack teenage staff at the door searched our bag thoroughly for food and drinks. That way, park visitors can't avoid the overpriced food counters. We had to smuggle some juice boxes in our pants pocket. Cowabunga!

There are 10 pools at the Gainey Ranch Hyatt, including a three-story water slide, whirlpools and a cold plunge, but you'll always find us on the beach. That's right, the beach. We don't know how they did it, but we're awfully glad the folks at the Hyatt found a way to import all the best parts of the beach (soft sand, clear water, plenty of deck chairs) and none of the worst ("Hey, Mom, it doesn't smell bad here like the real beach!"). Some genius designed the beach so that much of it is very shallow, perfect for lounging adults and digging toddlers, and the whole thing merges nicely into the main pool, for older diving kids. A filter keeps the sand out of the rest of the pool, and while you'll have to do a little dance on the hot sand on an August day in Scottsdale, this is one beachfront property that won't slide off a mountain into the ocean.
Uh, yeah, can I get a Big Mac, fries, and a master cylinder to go? Such is the scene on Saturday nights at the McCoolest fast-food joint on the planet, which, thanks to its affiliation with the Rock-and-Roll McDonald's Classic Car Show, is transformed weekly from a run-of-the-mill McD's into a swarming pit stop for buff dudes and their chicklets. The cars are supercool, but it's the people-watching that sets this show apart, as hundreds of auto geeks and party hounds wander among the rods, exotics, and lowriders, clogging traffic arteries — and their own — in their quest for a heart attack on a bun.
Little Caitlin's birthday is coming up, and she's remembering the gigantic Wild West bash you threw for her older brother a couple of months ago. She wants a fairy princess party, with pink napkins and a bouncy castle and a pony ride and a face painter dressed like Jasmine from Aladdin. Where the heck are you going to get everything together on your schedule, and within your budget?

Try A Child's Joy, which you'll think could be more aptly named A Parent's Joy after you've done business with them. This one-stop party planner has everything you might want to rent for your little darling's birthday or bar mitzvah. Inflatable slides, bouncy rooms, mechanical rides? No problem. Clowns, jugglers, face painters? Those start at a measly $120 an hour. A Child's Joy is home to enough livestock to populate several petting zoos, and their friendly party planners are ready to help you organize the best bash your kids have ever attended.

Other parents will hate you for pulling off such a cool party, so long as you don't tell them how easy it was, thanks to your new pals at A Child's Joy.

In the 2006 movie Keeping Up With the Steins, parents compete to see who can throw their kid the most obscenely lavish party. One bash is on an ocean liner; another is at Dodger Stadium — the whole stadium. We don't know about you, but we miss the good ol' days when a birthday party consisted of a store-bought cake, a few presents, and an on-your-merry-way.

If you're looking for something between a ride in the space shuttle and a shrug of acknowledgment, call up the good folks at McCormick-Stillman. In addition to having the best play area in the Valley, the Railroad Park offers a square deal on parties that both your kid and your wallet will appreciate. The nice price — $57 plus $3 per child guest — includes the use of a covered ramada, various games facilitated by two "recreation leaders," free rides on the Paradise & Pacific Railroad and the Charros Carousel, a Railroad Park T-shirt and paper engineer hat, ice cream, and punch. All you bring is the cake and the kid. See? That was easy.


In the Raw

It's believed that one year for humans equals about seven in dog years. So it stands to reason that every time your pooch celebrates a birthday, you'll wanna pack septuple the amount of fun and frolicking into their party. The folks at In the Raw can help with that, as both locations of this holistically inclined juice bar/coffee bar/dog bar provide some pretty posh party options for feting Fido's anniversary of existence. The basic package starts at $6 per pup (with a minimum of five dogs in attendance) and offers a specialty menu of gourmet canine treats — featuring hors d'oeuvres of smoked lamb roll on potato and duck crackers, as well as tasty "pup-cakes" baked goods — with the higher-end alternatives (which costs $8.50 or $10 per pooch) also including such options as treat bags for guests, a gift for the birthday bowser, balloons, and party favors. Your four-legged friend might need a little help blowing out his candles, however.

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