It is my firmly held belief that Adventure is an essential ingredient in any person's childhood. Without adventure kids are just as boring as adults. We might as well make them wear ties and stick them in cubicles typing away on Tomy play computers.
But this is not the realm for children, their place is outdoors or at least exploring the forbidden zones of indoor areas. One place I grew up with that provided both opportunities was a gated realm called Adventure Playground.
Although it had been around since 1977, I first heard about Adventure Playground (or AP as it was known) through a visit from "Mudman" to my elementary school in 1990.
There in the elementary school auditorium we gathered, the future leaders of America, wiggling with anticipation at the stirring words this man of mud would speak to us.
"Who is this Mudman?", we asked, "Does he know Swamp Thing?" Soon a soggy, brown behemoth took the stage as we sat there captivated. "I am Mudman! I come from Adventure Playground! Do you like Mud? Then you'll love Adventure Playground".
In reality, "Mudman" was just a college kid who worked for the city and drew the short straw that day before the assembly. His costume consisted of jumpsuit and goggles covered in mud, but either way he became our Pied Piper as we all followed his muddy trail to the Kong-like gates of Adventure Playground.
As you may be able to see by the sign on the gates there were only a few rules at AP:
1)Always listen to Leaders
2)Close Toed Show Required
3)Children under the age of 6 must be accompanied by an adult
4)Builders Card required for Builders Corner
5)Please do not enter Builders Corner without Staff Member
10)Secret Rule #10 was no one over the age of 12 aka Rowdy Teenagers
These rules will make more sense as we continue on into the exploration of what can only be described as a magical wonderland that gave anyone under 12 the best of The Goonies, Double Dare and Bob Vila's "This Old House" all rolled into one.
As you passed through those ominous gates, any apprehension quickly gave way to pure, unadulterated excitement. The view from the entrance was amazing! Looking out all you saw was a giant kid filled valley, the centerpiece of which was the Mud Pit, which in retrospect reminds me of all those muddy freaks in the Smashing Pumpkins video for "Bullet with Butterfly Wings".
Very rarely was the Mud Pit empty and most often it was filled to the brim with dirty, slimy kids who couldn't seem to wipe the smile off of their faces. Popular mud pit activities included: Rolling, Belly Flopping, Sliding and according to the picture below Mud Wrestling.
But honestly, I never saw many girls there myself and if there were, they were not wrestling. But I found this pic under a Google search for "Adventure Playground" so I guess I just missed out on those days.
During the summer months another angle was added to the Mud Pit, the ever popular Mud Slide. Basically the leaders laid down these giant tarps from the top of the hill above the mud pit that led into the pit itself. They would spray the tarps with water and you would slide down at Mach 5 until finally landing in the muddy goodness.
When we weren't wallowing in filth at AP, we were building forts. For me this was the ultimate draw of the park. After taking your Builders Training course and learning not bash people's brains in with a hammer you were given a Builders Card and allowed to rent the necessary construction tools to erect your own clubhouse from the Builder's Corner. We're not talking a tent or a tee-pee here, this was full fledged construction.
Kids really went all out or I should say their parents did. That was about the only time adults were allowed within the walls of Adventure Playground, to help with fort construction. My friends actually built an amazing Club House that was "Where's Waldo?" Themed. It had red and white stripes on the outside, a sign painted with Waldo's face, a porch and even bunk beds built into the walls (which came in handy later). It was classy.
The Waldo Hut was an anomaly though, most kids built the forts themselves and they came out looking like this:
Yeah, pretty much a shanty town look here, but hey, at least it belonged to you. I lived in Brazil for a few years and they call their shanty towns Favelas, basically just wooden shacks built onto mountainsides. You may remember seeing Edward Norton running through a Favela in the recent Incredible Hulk movie. Well that's what the place ended up looking like in the end a Munchkin Favela.
I also want to mention this strange memory I have, that I know can't be real, but is as vivid as my last viewing of Wayne's World. I distinctly remember being invited into one the more finely constructed forts, wherein this little old lady showed me that she had a couch and a TV and even carpet in her "Fort".
I was amazed to find that someone had actually made a home there, a resident of Adventure Playground. This is obviously a product of too many Lemonheads and Alexander the Grapes, but for some reason I have always believed it really happened.
Kids stocked their forts with weird stuff, usually lots of old office furniture, trading cards and Nintendo Power magazines. Most of the clubhouses had locks on them too, in order to avoid someone trying to jump their claim while they were away.
You were allowed to build 2 stories if you could manage, but never 3. Although there was this one abandoned fort when I started going to AP that had the third story loft, it was like the legendary fort, before it got torn down. Some kids got around the third story restriction by building a basement level, basically a hole under the floorboards.
If you didn't keep the fort in safe condition or you just stopped coming to AP, your fort would be condemned. They would put up the notices and finally the dreaded "Condemned" sign.
The lame part was you couldn't just move into an abandoned fort, you had to wait for the leaders to tear it down and then start over building your own.
For those of us that didn't build our own forts, there was still a cool construction related activity to take part in: Old Nail Collecting! In order to keep the park safe the Leaders made a deal where for every 2 nails you turned into them you could get a piece of licorice. You better believe I was out there with metal detector every day collecting that rusty gold. I wish the real world worked like that. Hey, McDonald's I'm returning all these old Big Mac wrappers I found in the gutter, give me a Happy Meal. SWEET!
During the summer Adventure Playground would also have a few sleepover nights which were pretty awesome. You could actually spend the night in your fort! I was invited to occupy one of the bunk beds in my buddy's Waldo fort. I remember we all roasted marshmallows and the Leaders made a poor man's Bat-Signal that wasn't quite powerful enough to reach the clouds. Thanks anyway, guys.
My other memory of that night was being kept awake by my friend's constant muttering to himself in his sleep. He would just mumble and then all of the sudden shout out "Mommy! Don't go Mommy!" and then drift off into mumbling again.
When you're a kid you don't understand why anyone other than a mental patient would be doing this, so needless to say I was freaked out until morning. But it was worth it to say I was one of the few allowed entrance into the Waldo Mansion.
I feel I should explain briefly about the mysterious "Leaders". They were all college-age kids working for the city, who also doubled as counselors for Kids Club, which was right next door to AP. I actually got a lot more exposure to Adventure Playground when I started going to Kids Club after school.
The leaders were always cool and fair to everyone, never did I feel slighted when one of the Leaders made the final decision on a dispute. Truthfully, Adventure Playground was surprisingly dispute-free, I never feared bullies or being picked-on when I was there like I did at school. Maybe that was why it was so magical to me.
Adventure Playground is still around after all these years, I haven't been back since I passed the age of 12, but the memories are heartwarming. I never saw the Where's Waldo? fort get torn down and for that I'm glad. My friends who built it were a few years younger than me and had an even younger brother, so maybe they passed it on to him.
Who knows, maybe it's still there, maybe they added a second story and a secret basement. Either way, I'm thankful for the memories.