When I first started hearing something about a Berkeley “aquatic” park, I pictured a swimming pool or a sprinkler pad. To add to my initial confusion, it took me a while to realize I had already been there (and no, there are no sprinklers or pool) and knew this park to be Dreamland!
Now that I've been around the Berkeley park circuit quite a bit, I can say definitively that Dreamland (the playground amid the greenbelt that is comprehensively called Berkeley Aquatic Park) is among our top 5 favorite parks in the area.
And no wonder: just look at this whimsical, adventurous set up, complete with fresh-smelling wood chips and a sweet botanical garden with hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Parents and kids alike will find intrigue plentiful around here.
The aquatic park was created in the 1930s to accommodate model yacht racing, but in 1999 Berkeley's school children banded together with Robert Leathers and Associates (who also designed FROG Park in Oakland) to create the fantasy structure.
Why We Love it
As Dreamland frequenters, I've noticed that the style of play tends to be adventurous and imaginative as kids weave in and out tunnels, beams, slides and various castle look-out towers. When we first started going here, my daughter found herself at home within a set of wooden beams that mimics a playhouse and is all one level. Train enthusiasts will get an authentic experience here, as freight AND passenger trains hoot by around once every two hours.
It is difficult to summarize all the features of this park since there are so many! (There is even an open window for a puppet theater with some audience benches!) If you don't mind that a freeway buzzing with cars is nearby, you will see San Francisco's skyline across the water on a clear day. (Fun tip: Go here on the weekend coinciding your exit with sunset!)
What to Know
This park can be hard to find if you've never been. The main thing to remember is that the playground, Dreamland, is where Bolivar Dr. hooks up with the San Francisco Bay Trail. And also keep in mind that most roads going west in Berkeley will dead-end before reaching the aquatic park, so your best bet is taking Bancroft Way. (GPS users – enter the intersection of of Bancroft Way and Bolivar Drive)
This park is most ideal for ages 3 and up since the structures are mostly for bigger kids and because there is a definite escape route from the main playground for any on-the-run tots. With that said, I see toddlers here all the time and there is a baby swing and smaller play structure with a sand box perfect for early walkers.
This is a great spot to meet other families for a picnic lunch since there is an enclosed picnic area right next to the tot play area with plenty of shaded picnic tables and a small grassy area.
There is a refreshment stand nearby and it doesn't hurt that you're within minutes of Catahoula Coffee and Tomate Cafe. The San Francisco Bay Trail is often bustling with cycling families and kids on scooters.
It Can't All Be Perfect
The public bathroom, which is planted outside of the playground across the walk, is not the cleanest and often has no soap. (Bring your own!)
Since this is a waterfront park, you'll need to keep a watchful eye on your toddler, especially if she loves running toward ducks and water!
If your child is easily frightened or over-stimulated by loud sounds, the trains whizzing by may create a stressful situation. It does pass quickly, but if you think this could ruin the day (or even just the morning), you may want to wait on this one.
And finally, this park has a reputation of attracting illicit activity during the night hours as well as homeless wanderers. I do not think this should scare away daytime park goers (it is a “reputation” after all), but to be sure, head home before sunset.