TAMPA — Leah Marks remembers her grade school birthday party at Kid City fondly.
"We had a fake food fight in the grocery store that carried over to McDonald's. It was all plastic food, but we got in trouble for it because we made a mess," Marks, now 16, said. "It was fun running our own city for the two hours that we were there. That was one of my favorite birthday parties."
Kid City, the pint-sized town on North Boulevard where young imaginations ran wild, has seen its last tossed banana.
The modest attraction that has hosted Tampa's Children's Museum for decades is closing its doors, with construction set to begin this month on a sprawling new facility downtown at Curtis Hixon Park.
Today, Kid City bids adieu with a free open house from 1 to 8 p.m. and a closing ceremony at 6 p.m. featuring a proclamation by Mayor Pam Iorio.
Al Najjar, executive director of the Children's Museum, said closing Kid City was one of the most controversial issues the board faced when he was hired in 2007.
With the buildings decaying and public funds running short, the board opted to close it.
"It's not the end of an era," Najjar said. "It's the beginning of a new one."
Kid City got its start 20 years ago in the hands of Marian Winters and her friend Shelley Grossbard, who previously lived in Boston, a city with a renowned Children's Museum.
"Our daughters were friends and she said one day, 'Let's bring our kids to the Children's Museum and I said, 'What's that?' " Winters recalled. "She came from Boston. She thought there was one (here.)"
So the two raised $18,000 and opened the Children's Museum of Tampa in a storefront at the old Floriland Mall, equipping it with a bubble machine, a zoetrope and opportunities to play pretend with an old-fashioned telephone switchboard, grocery store and doctor's office.
"We were hoping to have maybe 25 kids a week, and we had 300 people the first day," Winters said.
About 18 months later, museum backers negotiated a deal with the city of Tampa to lease Safety Village, a Lilliputian streetscape built in the 1960s in Lowry Park, for $1 a year.
Kid City was born.
The buildings were made a bit taller so children could actually go into the insurance office, fire station, radio station, McDonald's, Publix and City Hall.
Kid City became home to bike safety classes, babysitting classes, Brownie troop activities — and birthday parties.
Planning for a larger museum began in the late 1990s, said Sandy Murman, chairman of the capital campaign that has raised $20.5-million for the project.
And in 2004, Iorio offered the downtown parcel for the museum, envisioning it as part of a cultural arts district that will include a new Tampa Museum of Art, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and a renovated Curtis Hixon Park.
The three-story, 53,000-square-foot Glazer Children's Museum is set to open in mid 2010. It will feature 175 exhibits ranging from a theater where children can make video recordings of their performances to a multistory tree that kids can climb to follow the path of water from the tree's roots to clouds above.
The old Kid City will become storage space for its downtown replacement.
"I'm nostalgic about what we started," Winters said. "But when your children go off to college, they grow up, they mature. And that's what the museum has done."
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.