When I had the chance to rank the best indoor playgrounds in Houston the set-up at the Memorial City Mall stood out the most. So when it was announced that the play area would be closed and dismantled to be replaced with a new one, it left me wondering whether they could live up to what they offered before. Luckily, they've done more than enough to ensure they remain the top free indoor playground in the city.
Frolic's Castle is a fairy-tale wonderland located near the Sears instead of the more central location previously used. It combines the best aspects of the other excellent mall playgrounds like Willowbrook and the Galleria with the perks that made the Memorial City area unique in the first place.
The space is large, easily half as large as it was previously. More than that, it feels larger because it's not a moat-like set of ground around a central structure. It has the hideaways that kids love so much in the Galleria combined with the running space of the Willowbrook play area.
Where Frolic's Castle succeeds better is that great attention has been paid to the fairy-tale decorations. It's full of soft, climbable dragons, bears, troll bridges complete with troll, and even a sleeping giant that is rather unfortunately positioned so that children usually end up sitting on his face. There's even a witch's cauldron that seems to be a big hit for kids to climb into...I think Disney needs to tackle Hansel and Gretel soon.
But it's the castle that is by far the crown jewel. Unlike the previous location, it's tucked into a corner and towers three kid-stories high. There are soft pad mazes, turrets to climb and look out of, a warren of passages that are actually big enough to get slightly lost in, and a pretty impressive slide. It's a kid's stronghold of whimsy that makes parents feel big and unwelcome, and perfect for imaginary adventures.
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By far one of the great things that Memorial City did previously was the enclosed and guarded nature of the play area. The high walls and gate manned by a security guard gave parents a little relief since an out of sight for a second child didn't automatically mean they'd wandered out into the mall itself.
Frolic's Castle still has that, but the walls are smaller and the entrance is just guarded, not actually gated. It's still better than any other mall playground we have, but it's a lot easier for a taller kid to sneak out if you're not keeping as close an eye on him or her as you used to have to.
Taller kids actually aren't even supposed to be allowed in the area, a fact that I saw drive a child only slightly taller than my daughter away in tears. It also seemed really arbitrary because I immediately saw a girl nearly my own size running and playing in the castle. I know that the mall is probably trying to address the fact that the play area is always packed and sometimes full of a lot of pushing and accidental crashes, but it's important to take each case as it comes rather than be a stickler for rules in what is essentially just horsing around.
If I were called upon to re-do the list of the best indoor playgrounds in Houston, Frolic's Castle would still be on the very top. For a family that needs fun for free that involves air conditioning, it's still happily ever after.