A Special Central Park Playground Gets a Multi-Million Dollar Update, With Extra Attention to the Hippos

By Michael McDowell

The hippos are here to stay. After a comprehensive effort, including almost a year of construction, Central Park’s Safari Playground reopened last week, just in time for summer.

Safari, which is known to many Upper West Siders as “Hippo Park,” is perched atop a bedrock rise at 91st Street. The inviting space offers magnificent views of the Reservoir.

The playground, which is shaded, features a water sprinkler; colorful, spongy terrain (recycled rubber, a common safety surface); and formations that resemble the mysterious hillocks built by the pre-Columbian Mound Builders. A play structure atop these mounds leads to an irresistible metal slide.

“We wanted to create topography throughout the playground,” said Bob Rumsey, Studio Director of the Landscape Architecture Team at Central Park Conservancy, who led the Rag on an advance tour of the space. “We’re going from the mountains down to the water, the river is flowing. That’s the abstract form of the playground,” he added.

Bob Rumsey.

The first iteration of Safari Playground was built under the direction of Robert Moses, in 1936.

“All 21 of Central Park’s playgrounds were put in during the Moses era in the 1930s, but they’ve changed over time,” Rumsey informed.

Hippos didn’t arrive on the scene until much later.

In 1997, the Conservancy hired a St. Louis-based artist, Bob Cassilly, to design the animals. But now, after nearly two decades in the big city, these animals have returned to Missouri.

New hippos were a key element of the renovation.

“We 3D-scanned the original hippos, each one of them: the baby hippos, the adult hippos, the swimming hippos,”—the hippos sunning themselves—“and the scans were brought into a program. An initial form of them was fabricated with a CNC machine; they have a steel framework, but the outside is fiberglass, which was hand-carved,” Rumsey explained.

He had made his way toward two of the hippos, and eyed them warily.

“Artists created their skin, with scratching and molds, and when you look at the faces…we talked ad nauseam about some of these eyes,” he recalled. “Although there was some artistic license.”

The layout of the hippos was changed slightly.

“The two kissing hippos were kept, as well as relationships between hippos—baby hippos and mother hippos, which we tried to maintain—but we took some liberties elsewhere,” he admitted.

While there was a canoe in the playground prior to the renovation, a second canoe has been added. Both are accessible to a child in a wheelchair, as is most of the space, including the approach from Central Park West.

Aside from the rehabilitation of the playground and accessibility improvements, site work included challenging upgrades to a drainage system, which meant drilling into bedrock. All of this resulted in a price tag of several million dollars, funded as part of the Plan for Play campaign, part of Forever Green, a major, decade-long Conservancy initiative to restore and preserve Central Park.

Of the 21 playgrounds in the park, 15 have been fully restored, and the remaining six are due for upgrades in the next few years; renovations are on the horizon for the Diana Ross Playground, at 81st Street, and the Abraham and Jospeh Spector Playground, at 86th Street.

That’s important, as Central Park’s playgrounds receive more than three million visits annually by children and their caregivers, according to the Conservancy.

As the tour concluded, three engineers conducted impact attenuation tests using a tripod, which apparently tests a surface for how hard or soft it is.

Rumsey surveyed the as yet unplayed-upon playground with satisfaction. Prior to construction, several years of design, planning, approvals—including public comment—and all manner of review had gone into this renovation.

“The great thing about this playground is that it’s a place for open, creative play.”

NEWS, OUTDOORS | 19 comments | permalink
    1. wombatNYC says:

      Looking forward to this . I witnessed a big push to get this done . I never saw anyone working at 5am/6am but over the past 4-6 weeks the crews were there

    2. Karindnyc says:

      Isn’t Hippo Park part of Riverside Park?! Not near the reservoir, near the Hudson? I’m so confused.

      • upperwestmom says:

        There’s ALSO a Hippo playground in Riverside, also near 91st Street!

      • Steen says:

        There are two hippo parks. This one is in Central Park. My kid always preferred this park to the Riverside one. As I recall, the kids could hide inside the hippos.

      • TJ says:

        This playground is actually called Safari Playground and is home to many hippos. It is in Central Park in the 90s.

        • West Sider says:

          It is Safari Playground, as we wrote in the first sentence, though some also call this hippo playground.

      • Chris says:

        Yes it is. This one is “Safari Playground.”

      • Catherine Holmes says:

        Yes there is definitely a Hippo Park in Riverside as well

    3. NYYgirl says:

      Yes! Hippo Playground is & has been for years & years at 91st in RIVERSIDE Park…totally confused by this!
      Btw, can any of our knowledgeable readers tell me if the Bactrian camel in the 104th & Amsterdam playground (friend of the camel in the100th & Amsterdam playground) will be back post-renovation? Those two go way back in our family lore 🙂 Many thanks to anyone who may know. We can’t find it in the ‘after’ picture posted at the worksite. “Uh oh” 🙁 say our kids.

    4. Sid says:

      Yeah, this is incorrect. Hippo Park is the actual name of the park in Riverside and 91st (https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/riverside-park/facilities/playgrounds). This one is called Safari Park. Who fact checks at the Rag?

    5. Richard Fader FT Lee NJ says:

      The article uses the phrase “Central Park” at least 7 times and it is in the title. It is almost impossible to read the article and not get that this is in Central Park.

      Can we all acknowledge that some things have nicknames in addition to their official names?

    6. UWSmama says:

      We have been to the 91st and Riverside hippo park many times. I had no idea there also were hippos at 91st in Central Park. And what an odd coincidence to locate all hippos along 91st street??

    7. Gila Lipton says:

      Does anyone know Ed Lipton’s charming & imaginative CD album, ” Fly, Hippopotamus, Fly”, featuring that as one of its songs? Available on line from CDBaby.

    8. Meris says:

      Would this safari playground be appropriate for my 8 and 6 yr old granddaughters?

    9. Barbara Michalak says:

      I take visitors of any age to this beloved playground, to play or enjoy it as an art installation. I’m glad to see from the photo that the open-mouth hippo survives. Kids love to daringly put their head inside. A favorite photo op.

    10. ST says:

      The playground is beautiful. I don’t quite understand why the bouncey bouncey ground covering eas injection molded right around the trumks of the beautiful trees in there. The rest of the playground is asphalt so how are the tree roots supposed to get water? What is the effect of that synthetic material on the tree?

    11. Natalia says:

      Is there a sandbox?

    12. Bob Mayer says:

      Where is the long, high slide located?

    13. Sean says:

      Do they serve cocktails?