It's not quite time to proclaim spring is here, but you can certainly begin to plan for it, especially with this snowless winter we've been experiencing.
The Fox Valley Park District is already envisioning those warm-weather days. On Friday, Feb. 1, the doors fly open for the outdoor party season as picnic shelter reservations for the 2013 season will be taken on a first-come, first-served basis.
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With each day getting a little brighter and a few minutes longer, we'll be back outside soon, enjoying the sweet aroma of smoky grills, the sounds of laughing children on the playground and the friendly-but-competitive games of bags.
The park district features 17 picnic shelters for family get-togethers, special events, team parties, baby showers -- whatever the celebration. They're available for groups of 25 or more to reserve from May 1 to Oct. 28. Also, Waubonsie Lake is open on weekends through Thanksgiving.
Being that these are public parks, the land and playground areas must remain open to others, but your party will have exclusive use of the shelter, pavilion and grill areas during the reserved time.
Parks like May Street and Montgomery are ideal for smaller parties (capacity of 30), while larger parks such as Blackberry Trails, M.L. King and Wheatland can hold up to 150 guests.
Then there's Cool Acres, which stands on its own. Recently renovated with a host of modern improvements, this picturesque riverside venue features a farm country throwback-style shelter that can accommodate up to 200 people.
And, the fact that alcohol is permitted to be part of each celebration makes Cool Acres even more unique.
The "cool" shelter with its garage-like doors can be completely enclosed or converted into an open-air celebration -- or both -- depending on that day's weather. Extended patios and a designated paver area for grills, along with two age-specific playgrounds, add to the appeal. Unlike the other picnic shelters, Cool Acres is rented at an hourly rate with additional fees for parties with alcohol.
There's an ideal site for every type of outdoor gathering, said Mary Perez, who helps handle shelter reservations for the park district.
"I first ask people the size of their group and what type of amenities they're looking for -- such as grills, playground equipment, sand volleyball -- and then we go from there," said Perez. "There are plenty of alternatives, and we have picnic shelters throughout all geographic areas in the district."
Reservations are taken in-person at the Cole Center, Prisco Center and Eola Center during weekday hours, with bilingual services at Cole and Prisco (Cool Acres reservations are available only at Cole). A concept book is also available at each facility, providing an aerial overview and numerous photos from each reservable park site.
Start planning before the nice weather arrives -- the most popular sites don't last long, particularly during holidays. For more information, visit www.foxvalleyparkdistrict.org.
Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.