How to Gather at Gathering Place:
The chaotic family guide
When our little fam first moved into this house, we were super excited about its proximity to one of our fave places. For years, since long before we had kids, we’d made a habit of overpacking snacks and beverages and blankets and throw pillows and essentially camping out for long days on the grass near the River’s Edge cafe around 21st and Riverside. Local bands or musicians would sometimes play, and we’d run into loads of friends and acquaintances, chatting and chilling as we watched the sun circle across the sky and then dip below the river to the west with a glittering opalesque finale.
Now here we were, smack dab in the mid two-thousand-teens, and we had three little kiddos that were getting to be the perfect age for Riverside shenanigans. But shortly after we moved in, our favorite section of Riverside Drive closed plumb down.
Despite the inconvenience, that inability to access that little stretch of road alone generated enough hype over the past three years to power a small city. When I finally got to preview the park with Diane and Tara last week, I had expected great things, but what I found was simply breathtaking. Then this past weekend, seeing the park like it’s meant to be, brimming with all kinds of people, bubbling with darling, Kool-aid-faced children squealing and hanging from everything like wild chimpanzees spun out on three cups of espresso, it was pure magic, as if the universe was singing.
Near, far, wherever Diane Morrow-Kondos are
So much has been written about this incredible gift to Tulsa that I considered not writing about it at all, but as the week passed, questions and experiences kept popping up in my Facebook feed that inspired me to put together this little list of tips and insights for future gatherers. If you are the family that does family yoga and successfully does menu planning, this may not be the guide for you. This is the guide for families who generally do not function at '90s sitcom family status. If you’re wearing second-day yoga pants but you don’t actually yoga, this is for you. If you’re more concerned about micromanaging your stressfully creative children long enough to survive a grocery trip than enrolling them in daily after-school activities, this is your guide.
Basically, file this under “news you can use” if you have more children than sense like me and Justin.
Stop and have a conversation each time you are in a new area.
For my family, the conversation includes the following points:
- What the signs say the rules are.
- Our family’s ground rules.
- Check-in times.
I’ve learned that my children are like beta testers for the worst possible scenarios of what kids can do. If there’s a way something cool can be used to bring about chaos and/or destruction, one or more of my children will work it out. When the kid ended up in the gorilla pit and poor Harambe had to be put down, my heart broke for the gorilla but also froze with the icy realization that “There but for the grace of God go I.” If we don’t pore over the rules, regulations, and remotest slippery slope possibilities of every situation, there’s always a marginal chance my children will do something they aren’t supposed to in the most extreme and publicly humiliating way possible.
If your kids are the kind of kids who can sit quietly at a restaurant while you and a friend discuss politics or reality TV for an hour, disregard this section. But if your child is like mine and despite having lost every privilege she had is still prone to suddenly playing “The Floor is Lava” in the library, church, or possibly at a funeral, stick around, and also I may or may not have a massive thermos of coffee and commiseration in my purse to share if you run into us at Gathering Place.
In a world of two-minute news reads and flashy headlines, I realize that actual reading is almost as unpopular as critical thought. But read those signs.
We made the rookie mistake of thinking our children could follow basic rules and social expectations without first thumping the trio over the head with them. Overwhelmed by the excitement of the park, we did not stop and go over the signs with the kids first, instead letting them run ahead like a gaggle of hooligans. Our children might be classified as gifted and talented at school, but all three of them ran directly past the massive sign next to the pond which reads “No Swimming,” and forgoing all common sense, plunged directly into the stew of mysteries adjacent to Willow Beach.
Embrace the grunge look.
The Gathering Place may look like a hidden corner of a mid-level Disney World resort, but by the time we shuffled into the van after an evening of sand and water feature play, my kids looked like something you’d find sticking to the inside of the kitchen trash can when you pull out the bag. Even if my children had not reeked of rancid swamp from the gentle intermingling of stank pond with the delicate notes of ten-year-old butt sweat, the sand was in everything and had taken on the unique properties of glitter at Pride, spreading and creeping into nooks and crannies where it would come to reside indefinitely.
When we arrived, Lucy was wearing an adorable white floral-printed skirt, which I imagine we can still probably salvage with the right shade of RIT dye. If your kids are the type of kids that go from Glamour Shots to Annie extras by the end of school picture day, Gathering Place is the perfect opportunity to work a little more mileage out of the name-brand outfit they failed at making DIY slime in.
For bonus points, put your minions in layers so they can banana peel away what they don’t need rather than wailing about how hot they are for three hours.
Take sole responsibility.
That’s the best shoe pun I’ve got, and so for that, I am sorry. Basically, don’t wear your good shoes if you plan to play with your kids in the sand. I wore my favorite steampunk-looking boots, and after an evening chasing my kids around puddles and sand, they qualify as authentic post-apocalyptic cosplay attire. By the same token, the park eats cheap flip flops. Noah’s were sacrificed to the trash can gods in record time, and he spent most of his evening barefoot. What’s great about that is we will never hear the end of the kids begging to run around barefoot because of that one time Noah spent the day at the park barefoot.
Sharpie your kids.
I can’t really take credit for this one. My friends Jessie and Mo showed up with their little daughter Kenz wearing basically a markered novella on her arm. Inspired, I immediately stopped what I was doing and wrote the words “Please return” with my phone number below it in giant letters on my trio. Next time, I am going to add a meeting time and place: “STARBOARD BOAT SIDE 2 PM.” That way if the kids get lost and ask for help, maybe someone will be like, “Oh hey, it says right here you need to go wait over there.” The Sharpie website says the markers are safe and non-toxic, but if you’re still worried about Sharpie-ing your kids, you could always write it on their shirt. They already ruined it making DIY slime, so why not?
Leave your gun at home.
I don’t really want to get into the politics of gun ownership, like how I actually totally support gun ownership if you’re a competent human being but in fact most human beings are barely competent to park their cars and I know because I’ve been to Wal-Mart and I’ve seen humanity laid bare for all its shortcomings in between the Capri Suns and Hefty bags. No, I will leave that controversy for Facebook scholars to sort out and only say that as it currently stands, the park doesn’t allow guns, and if your family is like mine, having to take something back home causes high-level drama of the “But I’m hungry!!” magnitude, and bribery ice cream is spendy at that park. Save yourself the trouble and plan ahead.
Leave your glass at home.
If you’re one of those fancy-pants hemp-loving hippies who likes to run around with a Mason jar of kombucha, use an old sippy cup like all of us tired moms who don’t have the energy for dishwashing between our three jobs. If this is tricky, you can just stick your kombucha in your gun safe next to your pistol. Glass isn’t allowed in the park, probably because of all those questionable parents who let their kids run around barefoot.
Leave your doggos and puppers at home.
Presumably, this also includes the broader range of pets including floofers, bunnos, booplesnoots, kittehs, hedgies, birbs, and sneks. I know you’re thinking, “But that’s downright unAmerican!” It was my first thought as well. But then someone reminded me of the one reason, the only reason you need to leave your fur fam at home: the brown emoji. If you find this rule tricky, just store your booplesnoot next to your kombucha jar and flip-flops so you have something to look forward to when you come home.
Note: Working floofers are allowed, and you can walk doggos down the Midland Valley and riverfront trails, just not in the park unless it’s a special occasion, like a pupper party.
Know where your accommodations are.
If you have a sensory-sensitive kid like mine, you need to know where to retreat to experience low-fi chillage and come back down to self-regulation town. The Lodge and the Boathouse are fairly big and offer plentiful quiet corners for relaxation, which means you can hide out with your kombucha sippy cup looking at pics of your booplesnoot with very few people around to judge you for your post-apocalyptic grunge orphan chic. The park also offers a couple of “Desensitization spaces,” one at Guest Services in the Lodge and the other in the restroom on the north side of the Adventure Playground. I recommend staking these out ahead of time and discussing them with your group.
This park was built with legit attention to ADA compliance, which means it’s a place where everybody can hang. The park is committed to providing equal play, and pretty much every place has an accessible path which you can read about on the website.
Be prepared to hang a while.
This isn’t a come and hang out for thirty minutes to kill some time kind of park. This is a destination. Justin told me, “I can’t believe we didn’t pay admission to get in.” And that’s exactly right. This is the kind of place that could easily have charged an admission, but it was a gift to our city from George Kaiser and some other amazing donors. One of my friends said, “We thought we were going to be there like an hour. Three and a half hours later, we hadn’t seen everything.”
My advice? It’s a huge park and it’s not going anywhere. If being dragged around Disney with my mom taught me anything, it’s the value of pacing yourself. This is a huge enchilada; take a bite, but don’t feel like you have to devour it all at once because that is how you get gas. Pack a murder mystery and park yourself in Slide Vale. Be patient--time spent with your kids climbing those tall, steep slides is an investment with a pretty decent payout. After a couple of hours climbing those steps ad nauseum, your kids are guaranteed to fall asleep early, which means only one thing: parental wine-thirty. That’s as close to a date as some of us can expect to get these days.
Lucy playing air guitar at The Roots show
Get a map.
As much fun as it is to wander aimlessly, if you want to pick up a map, stop by Guest Service in the Lodge. If you play your cards right, your kids never have to know about the sand. You can send thank-you cards to Kristi Roe Owen ℅ Tulsa Kids at 1622 South Denver, Tulsa OK, 74119.
Don’t expect an easy way to get around.
This one is for my friend Brittany, who went to the trouble of renting the bikes found around the park only to learn bikes aren’t allowed inside the park (outside of the trails). The inside of the Gathering Place is more of an attraction like the zoo or a resort attraction. If you want to ride bikes, you have to stick to the trails outside the park where all the floofers are. You will also need to remember there’s no basement at the Alamo.
Know where the bathrooms are.
It never fails that just as we are settled in and in the middle of a much-deserved adult conversation one of my children needs to go, usually number two and it’s usually an emergency. And they can’t all go at once. No, they have to go in sequence, each in turn before you really have a chance to settle back in and get comfortable. There is a bathroom in the Boathouse, one in the Lodge, and one on the north side of the Adventure Playground. It’s probably a good idea to show everyone where they are before you release your kids to the mayhem of the playground.
Find age-appropriate areas ahead of time.
There are playgrounds for all age groups including a really neat little crawling space for little babies and toddlers. The playground equipment for big kids is nothing short of spectacular--think suspension bridges and a pirate ship. You can also bring some balls and frisbees and let your big kids run around and go bananas on the big lawn.
Bring something to grill.
Despite the reportedly spendy food prices over at the Lodge, there are grills in a few locations around the park. And as sad as this is to say in 2018, remember folks, grilling in the park is completely legal for everyone, regardless of race, gender, or post-apocalyptic attire, so like don’t call the cops on people for just grilling or hanging out. In fact, I recommend you bring extra barbecue and share it with others and try to branch out and make some new friends just to spread some of those hippie values I know you kombucha drinkers have.
Me and my friend Jyl Johnson at the Roots
A Few More Things
I asked my friends what they wanted to know before visiting the park, and here’s what they wanted to know:
Q: Should I hold off on visiting the park until the hype dies down?
A: Nah. It wasn’t really all that bad because the park is just so massive. As long as you pick a slower area and dress your kid in highlighter colors and flashing bicycle lights, you’ll be fine. Now if you have social anxiety, you might want to wait until later, like sometime after the rapidly impending apocalypse.
Q: What about parking? Is there a better place to park?
A: Park at OSU-Tulsa and take the shuttle. It runs about every 15 minutes, Saturdays and Sundays in September. [Editor's Note: Another option is to park in the Triangle Lot at River Spirit Casino Tulsa, 8330 Riverside Pkwy. This shuttle service runs Monday-Friday.]
Q: Does it cost to attend concerts?
A: The park does have heckloads of rad concerts coming up. The Roots were awesome. I totally had to run directly from Comic-Con through the crowd to get in front of the stage in time to snap this pic, so I hope y’all appreciate it. That said, concerts are all free, so definitely get down there and check them out. Oh also, there’s a pretty neat light show on the pond for the first 100 nights by the same people who do Disney’s lights, so check that stuff out.
The Roots pic that almost wasn't
Q: How’s the wifi?
A: Not good. If you need to work remotely like I do, you won’t have much luck in the park outside of the Lodge.
Q: Can I bring my boom box?
A: Nope. Nobody wants to hear your Katy Perry-trap music mix tape.
What We Bring:
I’m a notorious over-packer, which means I bring everything for every possible eventuality. Unexpected rain? Check. Booboos? Check. Interdimensional wormhole to parallel realities? Check, check, check.
We stick everything in a little red Radio Flyer wagon so it’s easier to tote around, and if anyway gets whiny or sprains an ankle, it’s easier to carry the stuff from the wagon than the kid.
Here’s what’s in the wagon:
- Blankets for sitting on the ground
- A couple throw pillows
- A folding chair for Justin
- Water bottles (empty ones will work too, just refill)
- Umbrella (works well for shade, too)
- Sunscreen (my kids are pale as heck)
- Bug spray
- Pen and paper (when a kid needs a timeout, drawing works really well to calm them)
- Whatever Stephen King book I’m reading
All right, I think I’ve covered everything there is to cover that all the normies missed. There are plenty of ways to enjoy this phenomenal park, but I’m just working from my own experience. If you feel like there’s something I haven’t covered or you have additional questions, hit me up in the comments.
If you see me out at the Gathering Place this weekend, come say hi!