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We’ll Always Have Wondercamp

Why the Hot Spot Indoor Playground Is Still A Legend Among City Kids

February 13th, 2013

     

   

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Paradise Lost: The Space that Now Occupies Wondercamp on 23rd Street



Long before the days of Le Bain, the Darby, Tao and Lavo, there was only one place to see and be seen in this city- Wondercamp. You were nobody unless you had danced the worm under its crazy lights, lost your little sibling among its massive crowds, celebrated your sixth birthday in one of its exclusive side rooms and left the admittance wrist band on to show off at school. Long since closed, the space now occupied by a drab looking corporate headquarters, the legend of Wondercamp lives on in the hearts of city kids privileged enough to play there.


First opened in 1993, Wondercamp was an indoor playground destination and birthday party venue that featured an elaborate system of tunnels, slides, ball-pits, and playrooms. It was located on West Twenty-Third Street down the corner from Fifth, in the days when Eataly was still the International Toy Center, when Home Depot was still a myth, and when no one would spend ten minutes in sketchy Madison Square Park, let alone wait forty minutes for a milkshake. The space was immense, the lighting was a dim and tripped-out purple and green, and giant flower wall decals suggested a Honey, I Shrunk The Kids motif.


Growing up in a city, especially New York City, is much more bizarre than people give it credit for. City kids have a completely different experience than most of America. The only car they ride in is the occasional taxi for good behavior. The most nature they see are the bushes decorating the entrance to some apartment buildings, and the trees they climb are embedded in sidewalk and have “Down with Corporate Greed” carved into them. They count car alarms to go to sleep at night and bang on the ceiling with brooms to annoy their neighbors. They know a variety of games to play while waiting for the elevator, waiting to cross the street, and waiting for the Subway, all of which vary tremendously of course. While suburbs kids grow up watching movies about New York and dreaming of their “escape” into it, city kids grow up watching movies about suburbs kids, wondering how silly it must be to live in a house with stairs to stomp up when grounded.


As a kid in New York City, it can sometimes feel like you are trapped in a total grown-ups world. There may be kid friendly activities, ice-skating lessons at Chelsea Piers, art classes at the Met, trips to Dylan’s Candy Bar for good report cards, but without that holy land of holy lands- the backyard- there are not many spaces where young kids can truly dominate. Until that glorious age, usually around 11-12, when you are allowed to venture out by yourself, your time in the world is spent hand in hand with or arms length away from a guardian. In the playground they are only a set of swings away from their parents and even in their own home, only a paper-thin kitchen wall away from a time out. The city above and around you is endlessly fascinating and extraordinary, but because of its immensity it is completely and utterly off limits.


Whether they meant to or not, the designers of Wondercamp spoke to this strange existence in a way other similar child-targeted business did not. While DZ Discovery Zone was a night atmosphere for parent-child fun, Wondercamp was parent hell and I particularly remember learning the meaning of “insurance hazard there”. While DZ Discovery Zone’s play area was manageable and spread out so that parents could easily find their children, Wondercamp’s jungle gym three stories tall with several suspended play areas and a complicated system of ball-pits, tunnels and tube slides. While I remember DZ Discovery Zone as having nice coloring areas and being very pleasant, Wondercamp was dark and somewhat sinister. It was loud with the sounds of screaming children, hectic with packs of two-year olds knocking down strollers, and its trademark logo was a creepy broken smiley-face. In many ways, with its celling-high suspended play areas, chaotic environment, and terrible acoustics, Wondercamp was the New York that we were waiting for the freedom to explore.


Ironically, this childhood paradise was where I learned some of my most adult lessons. As soon as they slapped on that wristband on you, and after you threw away your coat and tossed your shoes in some difficult place (or places) to find, you were both in charge and responsible. It was frightening to get lost in the tunnels, so we learned how to team up with other adventure seekers. We learned when to break away from the pack when they had chosen the wrong tunnel to get to the “rainbow play room,” the most special of playrooms. I learned how to look out for my little brother in the chaos as I was the nearest thing to a guardian and learned what happens if you eat too much ice-cream cake at a birthday party. I also learned how to make friends with kids from different walks of life, as there would often be West Side kids there who were very different from us East-siders, and their parent’s even more so. Sometimes I would even meet a stranger from uptown, which might as well have been Iceland to me back then. To this day I am still bitter that my mom had to throw out my last standing souvenir of the place- a broken cup with a faded half moon face on it that I traded with another kid for and have heard similar stories from friends.


There are many different types of New Yorkers, some here to shake off small town dust, some who here for work, and some who live in Bergen County but call themselves New Yorkers, but the strangest of them all are the ones who grew up here. Although many have moved furniture into a walk-up, hobbled on heels over cobblestones, and endured a crazy neighbor, not many played with subway tokens in their strollers and ran around the Central Park Reservoir in high school gym class. In that way, Wondercamp really is sort of an exclusive club in it self, its most stringent requirement being that your parents were crazy enough to raise you here and that your apartment was small enough to require Winter excursions. The city may have changed since then and we with it, but no matter what, we city kids will always have Wondercamp.



     
       

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