Most people know the first exit on I-77 in South Carolina as the “Carowinds” exit, but just across the parking lot from the theme park is an indoor attraction all its own: the Happy Zone at Plaza Fiesta.
It’s pretty easy to miss if you don’t know where you’re going. From the outside, it looks like a generic red metal warehouse. And it’s on a narrow, one-way access road that’s overshadowed by the entrance to Carowinds just a few hundred feet away. But once you’re inside, the place comes alive with the sound of children playing.
You see, Plaza Fiesta is home to one of the largest indoor playgrounds in the Southeast. Think: fast food jungle gym on steroids. It’s called the “Happy Zone,” and it’s got 5,700 square feet of play area over six levels, as tall as a three-story building .
Manager Abdias Gonzales says it features “slides, mazes you can go through, a bridge you can cross. It has a little helicopter on top, and actually there’s a skylight up there and you can see all the way to the highway from up there. It has a good view.”
It’s $5 for an hour and 45 minute play session. Gonzales says on busy days there can be as many as 300 kids in the playground. When a session ends, it’s time to check the equipment. Maintenance director Jeffrey Wooley as he checks the equipment, from the slides and bridges all the way up to the very top level with a helicopter.
“You can see the view here, Carowinds is out there,” Wooley says, pointing out at a rollercoaster you can see through a skylight.
Maintenance breaks aren’t the only time adults are allowed in the playground, though. Brave parents and grandparents can join their kids anytime. There’s just one rule: “you must wear socks,” explains manager Abdias Gonzales, “for sanitation and health reasons.”
If you’re not up for monkeying around, there’s an arcade with about 50 games.
Now remember, Plaza Fiesta is a shopping mall. Cobblestone walkways and fountains give it the feel of an open-air market. Parents can browse more than 50 stores and restaurants. Or, you can just grab a table and kick back with a book, like Stephen Mitchell. He says he brings his children, ages 8 and 6, to the playground a couple times a month.
“So basically it gives them a place to run and expend the energy that they have, and I can sit back while they do it,” he says.
The Happy Zone at Plaza Fiesta in Fort Mill, a popular spot for kids----especially on rainy summer days, the latest stop in our “There & Back” series, exploring places you can visit as a day trip from the Charlotte region.
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