Recapturing the magic of Fort Kid

An illustration of the proposed play structure that will replace the wooden castle at Fort Kid later this year. Source: City of Knoxville

For thousands of kids of all ages, the aptly named Fort Kid once occupied a special place in both Knoxville and their hearts.

Officials hope its replacement will be loved at least as much.

City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to go forward with a $450,000 contract to build a replacement play structure that will hopefully be finished by the end of this year. 

“It was always very clear that Fort Kid is cherished and that people wanted its legacy to continue,” said Chip Barry, the City’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer. “This will be a one-of-a-kind play structure, specifically designed for Knoxville. We appreciate the support from our partners and the survey input from nearly 400 people who wanted their children and grandchildren to be able to continue to play at Fort Kid.” 

Fort Kid as it appeared during much of its 30-year history.

Perched on  the western  edge of the World’s Fair Park on the border between downtown Knoxville and the Fort Sanders neighborhood, the sprawling wooden castle entranced young children, teens and adults alike for 30 years with its towers, bridges and slides.

Built by volunteers during the city’s 1991 Bicentennial Celebration, many residents saw Fort Kid as something special from the beginning.

Kristi Nelson Bumpus, a local writer, discussed her years-long relationship with the playground.

“As a teen, I was part of a group that helped with the construction of Fort Kid,” she said. “I think it was, in part, that sense of community attachment to the playground that made it so special. We helped bring it to life, and then we got to see our own children enjoy it.”

Bumpus also discussed how, as the years passed by, Fort Kid gradually became something of an architectural outlier.

“In addition, that style of wooden playgrounds, such magical places in our own youth, had gradually become novelties as they were replaced by new structures that were safer and more inclusive, but also more sterile,” she explained.

The former site of Fort Kid by the World’s Fair Park. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh

“Whatever is decided for the new space, I hope there is an opportunity for the community to help build it, to develop that sense of large-scale ownership and honor the legacy of the original playground.”

Like many Knoxvillians, Alyssa Spiers experienced Fort Kid from the perspectives of both a child and adult.  

“My dad went back to college when I was a kid and as a poor family my mom was always finding free fun things for us (to give her a moment of peace),” Spiers said. “It was one of my favorite parks when I was little because of the wood, the more advance places to run around on, and weirdly the walk way. It felt like someone had a personal castle just outside of their apartment door and we were the kids stealing a moment in it.”

Spiers said her relationship with the playground changed as the years passed.

“Instead of being the kid who played on the playground I was the older teen celebrating a baby’s first birthday party, watching others play. And when I got lost downtown when I was first learning how to drive by myself I’d pull up there until I could figure out my way to where I needed to go. Yet, each experience brought up the same feelings of familiarity, safety, peace, joy, and fun,” she said.

Years of often passionate debate over the aging playground’s ultimate fate (often triggered by rising maintenance costs) ended last April when it was announced that Fort Kid would be torn down due to safety concerns.

The void left by its absence won’t be empty for long, Barry said. 

In order to learn what the playground’s users wanted in a replacement, City officials conducted a survey early last year in which they asked people about their personal experiences with Fort Kid and the features they appreciated the most.  

These two illustrations of the planned structure show children at play. Source: City of Knoxville

The survey found that playground users “wanted to maintain a mix of natural elements with vibrant features and earth tones on a unique, connected, multi-level play structure. They favored a design with hiding places and observation points that encourage creative discovery and active exploration,” according to a press release from Knoxville spokesperson Eric Vreeland.   

“Climbing and sliding were at the top of the list of most-desired activities. The top-ranked elements included modern features like climbing walls, balance and agility features, and bridges for connectivity,” the release said. 

A Murfreesboro-based company, Great Southern Recreation, was deemed the most responsive of the seven companies that offered bids for a new playground structure. City Council on Tuesday authorized Mayor Indya Kincannon’s staff to finalize an agreement worth up to $450,000 with the company. 

Knoxville businessman Thomas Boyd donated $200,000 to the new Fort Kid structure. Also, the Downtown Knoxville Alliance contributed $250,000 to add an accessible entryway path with interactive features on the slope from World’s Fair Park Drive.  

Illustrated aerial view of the planned Fort Kid playground. Source: City of Knoxville

“Hedstrom Landscape Architecture has developed a concept for the slope and path, which will be built in conjunction with the City play structure being installed atop a regraded flat area at the top of the hill. The project will include a newly-created accessible entrance to the play structure and a new accessible parking area,” the release said. 

Construction is projected to start later this summer.

If all goes well, the new structure will be installed this fall and the entire project finished by the end of this year, officials said.

Construction notice at Fort Kid site. Photo by Jenna Stambaugh.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at 

Published on June 3, 2021.