On days like Black Friday, weary shoppers dragging children behind them can be seen crawling toward a mall play area like a man in a desert crawls toward an oasis. Or is it a mirage? Several mothers here at tbt* took our kids out for a test drive at Tampa Bay's mall playgrounds, figuring holiday shoppers could use the inside scoop on where to find some respite from bargain hunting. — Dong-Phuong Nguyen, Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Susan Thurston and Lisa Buie
The Shops at Wiregrass
Where: 28211 Paseo Drive, Wesley Chapel, at the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and State Road 56.
Theme: Western. It pays homage to the Porter family, the original owners of the ranch land the mall sits on, with replicas of a ranch house and livery stable. For $2 a ticket, kids can ride a train around the mall. Train hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.
Cleanliness: A 4 a.m. deep cleaning daily and then spot cleaning throughout the day.
Where to park: It's in the mall's center court, so the spaces near GrillSmith restaurant are closest.
Notes: It's a brand-new mall and a brand-new play area. It lacks the climbing equipment that other malls have, but the playhouses are fun for kids to run around in. They even have props; the house has little plates attached to the bench table and a stuffed buck head over the mantelpiece. Rocking chairs are a plus for weary parents. This mall is outdoors, so take hats or jackets if needed and sunscreen. A fence and landscape buffer help corral the kiddies, and there is a family restroom with a nursing lounge and diaper changing table near the management offices. Safety note: The mall has streets running through it, so hold tightly to little hands and watch for cars.
Where: 2200 E Fowler Ave., Tampa
Theme: Pirate, with two pirate ships, an octopus, shark, treasure chest, palm tree, rocks, waterfall slide and treasure map carpet.
Cleanliness: Closed for cleaning from 2 to 2:30 p.m. daily. Hand sanitizer dispensers next to the shoe cubbies.
Where to park: Near the mall entrance, next to Sears.
Notes: New to the local mall scene in October, this area has 10 objects to climb on, from a large octopus for the older kids to small rocks for the newly walking. Kids can slide down a "waterfall'' or follow a map on the carpet to find the treasure chest. Two large pirate ships accommodate several tots at once, avoiding potential fits from those not keen on sharing. The play zone is part of a $10-million mall renovation, which includes family restroom suites with nursing lounges and recliners.
Where: 6901 22nd Ave. N, St. Pete
Theme: A clubhouse. The club has a small slide. The play zone features a pig, plane, ladybug and car to climb on and a library nook for reading.
Cleanliness: Sanitized in the morning and then cleaned several times a day.
Where to park: Near JCPenney.
Notes: A small slide from the clubhouse is perfectly toddler-sized, and the kids loved to pretend to drive a car or fly a plane. The back wall had been stocked with library books and puzzles when the area opened, but on a recent visit, they were noticeably absent. Turns out the books were getting destroyed, so the mall is now thinking of reconfiguring that area. The seating area is comfy for parents who no doubt get asked to visit the nearby Orange Julius or Dairy Queen.
Where: 2223 N West Shore Blvd., Tampa
Theme: Baseball and Looney Tunes. It has Warner Bros. characters such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck wearing Tampa Bay Rays jerseys. A big-screen TV shows baseball highlights while the kids play.
Cleanliness: Sanitized once a day, more if needed. Deep-cleaned monthly.
Where to park: Parking lot "B" near Nordstrom or lot "D" near the California Pizza Kitchen
Notes: By far the largest play area of all the malls, this space is large enough that it doesn't turn into a traffic jam when a child tries to climb onto a favorite object. You can spend a good 45 minutes here just watching the kids play. With two places to enter and exit the play area, keep a close eye on your kids. Security does its job and shoos the big kids away.
Where: 250 WestShore Plaza, Tampa
Theme: Journalism. Features a giant camera, a microphone, a computer and a big brown hat.
Where to park: Near either of the two main entrances by JCPenney.
Cleanliness: Sanitized each morning, maintained throughout the day.
Notes: Kids loved sitting on top of the hat, and there was room for more than one child. One child crawled through the computer while the other sat on top of it. The wavy newspaper proved to be a lot of fun, too.
Westfield Citrus Park
Where: 8021 Citrus Park Town Center, Tampa
Theme: There are two play areas at this mall. Near the food court is the large food-themed play area with a fallen soda cup, a hamburger, hot dog and ice cream cone. Near Dillard's is a smaller romp space with turtles, logs and spinning activity boards.
Where to park: Outside Quickfood Cafes for the food court play area, near Dillard's for the smaller one.
Cleanliness: Both sanitized daily at 3 p.m. (Play area is closed for 30 minutes.) They are cleaned again either that night or the next morning and deep-cleaned monthly.
Notes: Kids love the hot dog launch pad. The soda cup tunnel is pretty cool, too, but watch out for jumpers from the cup above when others are emerging from the tunnel. A line of coin-operated rides lined up against the play area drew attention, so bring plenty of change. The smaller space near Dillard's tends to draw younger kids who are crawling or still unsure on their feet. It was nice not to have to watch out for lumbering big kids. Our littlest ones liked to play with wheels of beads mounted against the inside of the play area.
Where: 459 Brandon Town Center, Brandon
Theme: Similar to other Westfield malls. This one features two fun cars with steering wheels.
Where to park: Outside Sears.
Cleanliness: Sanitized several times a day. Deep-cleaned once a week. An antibacterial hand gel dispenser is just outside the play area.
Notes: A rainbow-shaped ramp attracts kids who like to climb and slide. Outside the play area, coin-operated rides feature a rocket ship and cars. Our boy laughed as he climbed on and tumbled down the arc. He "raced" in the soft cars, turning their steering wheels with fury. There were plenty of colorful plastic panels for the little one to flip and turn.