By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 17, 2021 at 12:56 PM

Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. and the Northwestern Mutual Foundation cut the ribbon Thursday morning on the Northwestern Mutual Community Park on the lakefront at Henry Maier Festival Park. It opens to the public on June 19.

It's the first major renovation of the kids area on the grounds since 2006.

According to Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. President and CEO Don Smiley, the 1.25-acre (about 54,000 square feet) park will be open to the public through Aug. 5, from noon to 4 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends.

It will then close for festival season and related prep work.

This ought to have parents cheering, especially parents of Downtown and Third Ward-area kids, who have scant options for quality playgrounds in their neighborhoods.

If you've traveled with kids to Chicago and have been to Maggie Daley Park, this playground is on that level.

"Transformation is an appropriate word for this project," said Smiley at the ribbon cutting. "Our team aimed at completely reimagining this space.

"It badly needed an upgrade, as you can see," he added, pointing to an enlarged photo of the previous play area.

How the area looked before.

This new playground has a wide array of structures to appeal to all ages and spongy soft padding on the ground. Its predecessor had wood chips.

Unsurprisingly, since it's at the home of the Big Gig, much of the area is music-themed, with giant xylophones and drums and musical notes adorning the park.

The park, playground and building are also wheelchair accessible. The adjacent building has a nursing mothers' room, three calming sensory rooms and family restrooms. A shaded parents' seating area is also included.

There's a performance stage area and a dedicated area for toddlers as well as a 4,000-square-foot flexible programming space.

The whole thing, said Smiley, is eco-friendly, with recycled content used in the flooring and play equipment, LED lighting, low-flow bathroom fixtures, site stormwater management and the use of local materials when possible.

The project – which has a focus on inclusive play for children who face a range of challenges and may be one of the most accessible playgrounds in the state – was designed by Eppstein Uhen Architects and landscape architect RA Smith, and was built by JCP Construction.

“We are thrilled to continue our partnership with the Northwestern Mutual Foundation to provide children and families of our community a fun and accessible entertainment experience. The redevelopment of this area has been a priority for some time, and we cannot wait to see the children enjoying this new amenity,” said Smiley when the project was announced last autumn.

“We are exceptionally grateful to all of our sponsors for their support in making Henry Maier Festival Park a world-class venue for fans of all ages.”

The partnership between Summerfest and Northwestern Mutual Foundation began in 2006, when the Milwaukee company became the sponsor of the children’s area. It has also sponsored the “Make a Child Smile Day” admission promotion that has collected tens of thousands of children’s books that have been donated to area non-profit organizations like Next Door and Betty Brinn Children’s Museum.

"Cultural attractions create connections and offer new experiences for residents and visitors,” said NM Foundation President Eric Christophersen.

“We're proud to continue to partner with Summerfest through this redevelopment. Through investments like these, we’re helping to actively ensure that everyone can participate in the thriving cultural environment our hometown city of Milwaukee offers.”

Here are some photographs of the new park's debut:

Giggle Grounds for toddlers


Performance stage




A musical theme


The building


The entrance

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.