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Del Valle Park Flies High Again

A welcome banner frames the new aviation themed playground at Del Valle Park in Lakewood, Calif. The interactive plane that greets kids as they enter the playground, and the other custom airplane-themed playground equipment, is by
Little Tikes Commercial.

The 'Track Ride' is a modern take on monkey bars. Children just grab the hanging grip and let gravity and their motion motor them across the beam.

The landscape architect firm of Meyer and Associates designed a new layout for the park to accommodate the expanded Korean War Memorial (left). The new playground was moved a bit further to the east. The Douglas F3D-2 Skynight jet was donated in 1959 as one of the play pieces of the old 'space-age' playground. For kid safety, the plane went atop a 12' concrete pylon in 1964. Two bronze plaques with the names of 43 Lakewood residents killed in the Vietnam War were later added, and stolen! The deck of an aircraft carrier is replicated on the ground under the plane, with blue colored surfacing simulating the ocean.

The tallest element on "Airport Playground" is the Control Tower, which connects to the main ramped structure. It includes a slide and fabric shades in lieu of a roof. The Control Tower has an 8.4'-tall elevated control center platform with interactive panels with moveable dials and knobs for imaginative play. For easier access, there are also "air traffic control" panels at ground level.

The children enjoy rocking back and forth on the wings of the custom planes. Spinners also dot the play area for fun away from the main structures.

The 'Sway Net' is an accurate descriptor of the back and forth motion achieved by children pulling on opposite sides of the rope climbers.

The ground level wheelchair-accessible plane allows children to become pilots and take to the cockpit, climb the tail of the plane, or sit and play in the fuselage.

Del Valle Park in Lakewood, California (pop. 80,048) earned its nickname as the "Airplane Park" when a decommissioned Douglas Aircraft Company F3D-2 Skynight fighter jet was installed as play equipment in 1959 in this Los Angeles County community. The plane was the most prominent piece in the space-age themed playground, which included a rocket and flying saucer.

Kids and adults loved interacting with the carrier-based twin-engined, mid-wing "all-weather night fighter," which had been manufactured in nearby El Segundo, Calif. The plane, which saw service in the Navy and Marine Corps during the Korean War, earned the nickname "Willie the Whale" for its stout profile.

How cool was that, a real jet on the playground! It's hard to image today a jet fighter being casually placed on a playground as one of the play elements, but the 1950s were certainly a hardier time, an era of kids playing on asphalt or concrete surfaced playgrounds on metal play equipment. It was also a less litigious time.

But after years and years of kids and adults interacting with the plane, the jet began to deteriorate. Injuries to children playing on the jet also increased, or were at least given more serious consideration. The jet was once again "decommissioned," this time as playground equipment. Instead of putting the jet fighter in mothballs, the decision was made to mount the plane atop a 12-foot high concrete pylon and make it the centerpiece of a Korean War Memorial. The jet was officially dedicated on Memorial Day 1964 in remembrance of the Lakewood residents who lost their lives in service to their country. The tradition continues every Memorial Day. Lakewood residents gather beneath the wings of the jet to remember those whose names are memorialized on plaques in the plaza.

Del Valle Park celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2014. During the ceremony, city officials revealed plans to redesign and expand the Memorial Plaza, including the replacement of stolen bronze plaques with the names of Lakewood veterans killed while serving in Vietnam. The historic fighter jet would be restored as the centerpiece in the plaza, with enhanced computerized lighting effects to bring new life to the old jet fighter and the plaza.

In Need of a New Playground
In addition to renovating the airplane memorial at Veterans Memorial Plaza, the city of Lakewood realized the need to renew the adjacent playground. When designing the new playground, city planners wanted to keep the spirit and theme of Airplane Park alive as a way for future generations to learn and respect the history behind the memorial. The theme of the playground was intended to complement the memorial and tie into the theme of the park.

The landscape architect firm of Meyer and Associates designed a new layout for the park to accommodate a larger airplane memorial and a new playground, which was moved a bit further to the east of the old playground to make more room for the memorial expansion, landscape architect Randall Meyer told LASN.

A Winning Playground Design
The city of Lakewood is no stranger to the fanciful custom designs that Pacific Park and Playground and Little Tikes Commercial create. The whimsical Walt Disney inspired custom playground at Jos? San Martin Park in Lakewood ("Pumpkin Park"), for instance, is a testament to the talents of Little Tikes Commercial. The city was eager to see what the team would dream up for Lakewood's newest custom playground.

Cindy Grabow of Pacific Park and Playground and the Little Tikes Commercial Custom Design Studio put their design expertise together to come up with a playground that celebrated the proud history of the old play area, but with a fresh new approach. The winning playground design was an airplane field complete with opportunities for children of all abilities to play side by side. The themed play area includes runways, small planes, a large inclusive airplane and a 96" high control tower. Several types of play equipment are integrated to complete the accessible aviation masterpiece.

Pilot to Control Tower
Ramped and accessible Little Tikes Commercial play structures allow children of all abilities to play together. The prominent Control Tower, for instance, connects to the main ramped structure. The inclusive design of the Control Tower offers two deck levels, both of which have air traffic controls that allow for imaginative play.

The 'Track Ride,' a different take on the zipline, allows children to grab onto suspended handles and be propelled through the air. Children can rock back and forth on the wings of custom plane-themed rocking equipment. The ground-level wheelchair-accessible airplane allows children to become pilots and take to the cockpit, where gear panels inspire budding pilots to do their preflight checks and prepare for takeoff. The tail of the plane doubles as a climbing wall, while seats and panels line the fuselage.

One of the most popular features at the new playground is the Little Tikes Commercial equipment fitted with rope climbers and overhead apparatuses to challenge active children. The 'Sway Net' provides fun for multiple children as they work in sync to rock the net back and forth. Arch swings and spinners also dot the play area for fun away from the main structure.

Spectraturf provided colorful pour-in-place surfacing for the playground, which allows children in wheelchairs to easily access all the play elements. The play surfacing features a runway with striped markings to further bring the airport theme and aviation designs to life. The pour-in-place surfacing helps unify the two sides of Del Valle Park--the new playground and the redesigned Veterans Memorial Plaza--in a material way that joins the two sections together beautifully.

Memorial Day Celebration
The grand opening of the new Veterans Memorial Plaza at Del Valle Park was on Memorial Day 2015. After 15 months of meticulous planning, designing and construction, the playground was opened to a crowd of eager visitors on May 21, 2016.

Today, Lakewood residents have another beautiful park to enjoy for years to come. The Little Tikes Commercial playground was custom designed to expand the impact of the Veterans Memorial Plaza. The playground delivers exciting and challenging play in a safe and inclusive play environment. The vibrancy of the site is inviting and inspirational, set against a backdrop of trees and blue California skies. Airplane Park is sure to be a favorite destination for years to come.

As seen in LASN magazine, September 2016.

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October 21, 2019, 1:48 pm PDT

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