This Midwestern City Is Home to the Coolest Park in America
Trust us: you haven’t been to a park until you’ve been to THIS park.
“This is Tulsa’s Disney World!â€
“This park is mega-awesome!â€
“I’ve never been to heaven, but this has got to be close to it!â€
That’s a sampling of praise Tony Moore, executive director of the Gathering Place, has overheard from Tulsa’s youngest residents who have visited the park, a 66.5-acre wonderland that opened in September 2018 and is the first phase of a 100-acre riverfront transformation.
The Gathering Place is remarkably unique not just because of the thrilling zip line designed for kids or the whimsical playgrounds with towering castles and floating bridges and larger-than-life animal play structures, like a gigantic blue heron with wings that double as slides. On top of all that, the Gathering Place is making U.S. history because it’s the result of the largest-ever private gift to a public park.
Yes, the Gathering Place looks as though someone used one of three wishes to bring a fairytale to life on the banks of the Arkansas River. But really, the ambitious $465 million park was initiated and largely funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Eighty donors came together to invest in Tulsa by creating the fun and inclusive space.
“The Gathering Place is for all Tulsans, regardless of zip code, or race or socioeconomic background,â€ Moore says. “It’s funded by Tulsans for Tulsans to bring Tulsans and Oklahomans together.”
At the heart of George Kaiser’s philanthropic efforts is a belief that “no child is responsible for the circumstances of his or her birth.â€ A Tulsa-born billionaire, Kaiser, through his foundation, supports an array of initiatives, like sponsoring children enrolled in high-quality early education centers and supporting a “Women in Recoveryâ€ program that provides alternatives to incarceration for mothers who have committed low-level offenses.
The Gathering Place, which has more than a 100 different play structures – all of which are free to the public and intended to let imaginations run wild – coincides with Kaiser’s work to address intergenerational poverty and bridging race and class divides.
As part of that, the park’s design and programming has an intentional focus on inclusivity. For instance, there are sensory rooms in the park designed to offer calming environments for children with autism. Ice cream cones are $1.50, visitors can get a meal for under $6, and kayak rentals are free for now, as the park strives to be an affordable destination. Also, a community relations team has liaisons who work with Tulsa’s Native American, African-American, Latino and Asian communities to best understand what they want from the park and to help inform the planning of multi-cultural festivals that celebrate the city’s diversity.
In addition to the 100 attractions in the park, there’s also a calendar of events that includes free concerts, fitness classes and storytime gatherings. Guests have dining options in the park, too, and there are sports courts and a skatepark. A quirky “Cabinet of Wonderâ€ is part-museum-part-art-installation, with meticulously organized collections of artifacts (books, ornaments, postcards, awards, photographs). Think of it as a museum of “conversation starters.â€ You can even spy on the collection from anywhere in the world via a webcam.
But, the No. 1 attraction in the park?
The zip line, says Moore.
“Kids get off of it, run back and get on it again,â€ Moore says. “The ‘let’s do it again’ factor is huge.”
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