The Central Park Conservancy has reconstructed Safari Playground to enhance the play experience, improve accessibility, and better integrate the playground with Central Park. Located between Central Park West and the West Drive at 91st Street, with sweeping views of the Reservoir, Safari Playground is especially beloved for its family of hippo sculptures, which encourage exploration, climbing, and imaginative play. While the playground is geared toward children ages 2 to 5, children of all ages enjoy the opportunity it provides for unstructured play.
“We are thrilled to expand on the popular safari theme and introduce more ways to play in this unique playground,” said Bob Rumsey, the Conservancy’s Studio Director for Landscape Architecture. “Our reconstruction makes the playground more fun and accessible to even more children and their caregivers.”
The Conservancy first created Safari Playground in 1997 when it rebuilt the traditional playground that was built under the direction of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in 1936. Artist Bob Cassilly worked with the Conservancy to design the original hippo sculptures. Last summer, after the Conservancy made 3D scans of the sculptures, it donated the original hippos to St. Louis’s City Museum, which Cassilly founded.
The Conservancy replicated the fiberglass hippos and reinstalled them on safety surfacing that transitions from blue, representing the river, to brown. Other custom additions include new play canoes, slides, wood climbing elements, play mounds that are evocative of mountains, and a user-activated water feature in the river-themed area of the playground. Unlike the former water spray, which would run continuously, the new feature conserves water and makes use of a reconstructed drainage system.
To improve accessibility, the entrance path to the playground from West 90th Street was regraded and a wheelchair-accessible ramp was built and set into the restored landscape. Additionally, many of the new play features, including the canoes, are wheelchair-accessible.
To better integrate the playground into the landscape of Central Park, the Conservancy created a wider border between the playground and the nearby path, and replaced the seven-foot steel picket fence that surrounded the playground — which was installed in the 1940s — with a four-foot steel fence.
This project was generously supported by private donors as part of Forever Green, the Conservancy’s $300 million campaign launched in 2016 to restore and preserve the historic vision for Central Park. The Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy provided lead support for this project (and also raised funds for the Conservancy’s 1997 construction of Safari Playground).
“The Women’s Committee is excited to see the transformation of this beloved playground,” said Alexia Kondylis Leuschen, Women’s Committee President. “This project dovetails with our Playground Partners program, which works tirelessly to maintain the quality and cleanliness of Central Park’s 21 playgrounds.”
The Central Park Conservancy manages the Park’s 21 playgrounds, which receive more than three million annual visitors. This is the 15th playground to be comprehensively rebuilt by the Conservancy.
The Conservancy’s work in the Park’s playgrounds is ongoing. This month construction of a custom net climber at Billy Johnson Playground (East 67th Street) will be completed, and the newly reconstructed East 96th Street Playground will reopen this summer. Future reconstructions will include Robert Bendheim (East 100th Street), Diana Ross (West 81st Street), and Spector (West 86th Street) Playgrounds.
To learn more about the reconstruction of Safari Playground and see before-and-after photos, visit the restoration project page.