By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Oct 07, 2020 at 6:00 AM

The efforts to transform the Summerfest grounds continues even as a pandemic rages.

Milwaukee World Festival, Inc. and the Northwestern Mutual Foundation, announced early Wednesday morning that the the Northwestern Mutual Children’s Theater & Playzone, at the lakefront Henry Maier Festival Park since 2006, will undergo a major revitalization.

The rebuilding of the American Family Insurance Amphitheater is expected to be completed in time for Summerfest 2021 and many of the grounds stages and other amenities have been replaced or upgraded in recent years.

In addition to creating a new 1.25-acre (about 54,000 square feet) playground and entertainment area called Northwestern Mutual Community Park, this upgrade will be open to the public even on non-event days, which will allow the community to enjoy this amenity all summer long.

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.

According to Milwaukee World Festival statement, “Priorities of the redevelopment project include updating the area with accessible playground surfaces and completely new play equipment, as well as reconfiguring the area for adaptable activation areas and exhibit spaces.

“As the expectations of families have changed over time, the project intends to better meet those needs through new family restrooms and a flexible and accessible stage area for enhanced, family-focused programming delivered in an environmentally-conscious design.”

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 is being built by JCP Construction.

The fenced playground, which has soft-surface flooring and a shaded seating area for parents, will include all new age-appropriate playground equipment for toddlers, preschoolers and school age-children.

Because it's at Summerfest, interactive musical play will be incorporated into the playground.

The area also has a new elevated, covered and wheelchair-accessible stage with accessible seating and a viewing area for more than 500.

The former stage will become a separate toddler play area, and there will be an 1,800-square-foot famnily services building with nursing stations, restrooms with changing tables and sensory rooms with air conditioning to provide a calming experience.


“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 Don Smiley, who is president and CEO of Milwaukee World Festival, Inc.  

“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.”

As is required by the lease between the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., for the lakefront property, this project requires the review and approval of the Board of Harbor Commissioners on behalf of the City of Milwaukee.     


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.