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Center lets children play, parents relax

Published Sep. 29, 2005

(ran PC edition of PASCO TIMES)

At Toddler Town U.K., kids can try out the toys as the adults eat lunch and watch from nearby.

At Toddler Town U.K., the emphasis is on tea and tender loving care.

This latest innovation in children's entertainment has something for everyone: free beverages, a cafe, someone to lend a hand to Mom or Dad, and a room full of the latest toys for the little ones.

"This is a place where the parents can come in, relax, have lunch and still watch their babies," said Melanie Cornett, a worker at Toddler Town U.K.

"This is not a day care center," she said.

The 2,600-square-foot establishment is in Gazebo Mall, a small strip center on Hillsborough Avenue about half a mile west of the Veterans Expressway.

The concept _ which features a mascot named Bertie Bear, signs that say "halt" instead of stop, and a British grocery store depicted on the walls _ is the brainchild of owner Lynda Littlejohn.

Originally from Warwick, England, Littlejohn moved to the Town 'N Country area 20 years ago.

She said she got the idea for Toddler Town U.K. after having lunch with a friend.

"A friend of mine had a baby, and when we would have our lunches out, there would be no comfort for us or the child," Littlejohn said. "I thought, "Wouldn't it be lovely to sit someplace where the child could play and we could talk and everyone would be happy?" "

She modeled her idea after child centers in England where weary parents pay a small fee to sit in a cafe that borders a large play area. Children can climb on equipment and slides or play with chalkboards, trains, dolls, little cars and at a gas station. The children can have fun while parents view them through a see-through railing.

All is not idyllic in the play center, though. The four roving staffers or mothers on their watch must sometimes quell arguments between toddlers.

Littlejohn, a former accountant, also offers CPR training from visiting nurses and mini-trade shows for toy vendors and women selling at-home products such as candles or makeup. She said the place is constantly evolving and will work with new ideas from the people who come.

"I wanted this place to have women helping women," she said. "We need to work together."

So far, the business, open since January, has been attracting parents from as near as Westchase and as far as St. Petersburg.

Toddler Town U.K. takes children from birth to 5 years old. Admission is free for babies under 6 months, $2.99 for children from 6 months to a year, and $5.99 for those older than a year, for the entire day. Parents can also get unlimited access to the center for a monthly fee. Classes for toddlers in subjects such as Spanish also are available for a fee.

The price, plus the idea of play with no cleanup for parents, has made the British playground a popular destination. As many as 30 children at a time have played there in recent weeks.

Sara Kalyvas, a native of England, and her mother, Sheila Cooney, drove from Clearwater to sip tea while Kalyvas' toddler, Joanna, played contentedly.

"It reminds me of home," said Kalyvas, who makes the drive once or twice a week.

Local women have other reasons for enjoying Toddler Town U.K.

"I like the cleanliness," said Kathy Albro, an Odessa mother. "And the food's good for everyone."

With prices of about $2 to $5, the cafe's menu runs from chicken salad sandwiches for parents to macaroni and cheese for children.

Debra Tarter, 17, one of the roving helpers at Toddler Town U.K., said she has learned a lot from working at the play area.

"It makes me think about having kids," she said.

Toddler Town U.K. is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. It is closed to the public on weekends, when private parties are held.