Something was missing at Washington Dulles International Airport, customer service manager Dennis Hazell realized. For grown-ups, the concourses offered sports bars and duty-free shops. For dogs, “pet relief areas” beckoned with fake fire hydrants on artificial grass. But for the youngest travelers, there was nothing.
"We had forgotten a huge part of our customer base," says Hazell, who saw kids getting out their preflight wiggles by crawling beneath seats and leaping over luggage.
That changed with the arrival of the FunWay, an indoor play area sponsored by NASA that turns three years old in August. Thousands of visitors have hung out by gate B70 to scramble over its squishy foam airplanes and the smiling “Tommy Tower,” a control tower with a few improvements. “There are steps on one side, a slide on the other, and you can crawl through an opening underneath Tommy,” Hazell says.
Philadelphia International Airport has Ready for Takeoff in Terminal A-East, created in partnership with the Please Touch Museum. It features an airplane, a control tower, and a tug carrying luggage. Children can pretend to be pilots, passengers, drivers, or air traffic controllers. Radios in the tower and jetliner allow them to communicate with each other.
Diane Gerace, of the airport’s public affairs office, said the airport hopes to create a second play area that is Philadelphia-centric and is looking for another regional partner.
Parents have long seen the need for kid-friendly spaces like these, and they’re finally taking off, says Jeff Williamson, business development director for Playtime, the Denver company behind the Dulles FunWay. In the last 15 years, Playtime has installed more than 50 airport play areas in cities around the world, including in Bejing.
Chances are the Tovmasyan family has spent time at many of them.
“We travel a lot — more than we want to,” Mari Tovmasyan says.
Her husband’s job with the U.S. Army means they’ve bounced around the world. For now, Hayk and Mari and their two sons, ages 3 and 5, are based in Vicenza, Italy. They’re always on the lookout for ways to stay entertained, whether it’s a piano player in Brussels or the taxidermy animals on display in Anchorage, Alaska.
That's why Mari Tovmasyan always researches kid stuff at each airport along the way whenever they book a trip.
"Connecting flights are the most important," she says, noting that recent hits have included the play areas at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall and Warsaw Chopin in Poland.
In Germany, Munich’s airport is next to a visitors park with a playground, mini-golf, and vintage aircraft to explore. Each November, a winter market pops up between its two terminals.
“Kids love ice-skating; parents love the gluhwein,” notes Philipp Ahrens, the airport’s head of center management. (Gluhwein is a mulled wine drink popular in Germany at Christmastime.)
But the big draw for families, Ahrens says, is Kinderland, a drop-off day-care facility for ages 3 to 10. Kids can jump in a ball pit, build at a Lego station, make crafts, or get a glitter tattoo.
The world’s most kid-friendly airport? It’s probably Changi in Singapore, where you can spend a layover wandering in a butterfly garden, creating a woodblock print, feeding koi, or climbing around Chandelier, a five-story red net structure. The airport was to recently open a building with a 130-foot indoor waterfall, giant trampolines, hedge mazes, and “foggy bowls,” where puffs of mist are meant to make it seem you’re playing in the clouds.
For most airports, these kinds of projects are too expensive and take up too much space.