Palm trees behind closed black gates at John Bishop Park caught the attention of 22-month-old William Stanek.
On July 5, William and dozens of other children gathered at the park for the grand opening of Whitehall's splash pad.
"William pointed to the palm trees and has been watching and waiting," said Heather Stanek, William's mother.
"It's beautiful. Look at all the kids here – that's what it's all about," said John Fetters, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission.
Children participated in the grand opening by walking hand in hand with various elected and appointed city officials, then using a can to "water" the components of the splash pad one by one until the entire facility was activated.
Construction of the 3,500-square-foot, $1.2 million splash pad began in November. It was scheduled to open Memorial Day, but a delay in receiving materials and in retrofitting an existing shelter house to support the splash pad postponed its completion, said parks and recreation Director Shannon Sorrell.
The final cost of the splash pad is not expected to greatly exceed the budgeted amount, but modifications likely will increase the final cost by "amounts not yet solidified," Sorrell said.
The water playground has been a long time coming; Mayor Kim Maggard first broached the idea in 2014.
"This has been on our radar for several years (and) we are excited to provide this opportunity to the children in our city," Maggard said.
Also enjoying the grand opening of the splash pad were Sara Stock, along with her fiance, Mike Wilson, and her daughter, 7-year-old Yelana Stock.
"We knew it was coming, we just didn't know when," said Stock, adding she learned about the grand opening on social media earlier the same day.
"I found out at 3:30 (p.m.) and said, 'We need to go,' " said Stock, who was among about 50 people lined up when the gates opened two hours later.
Summoned by her mother to be asked her opinion of the splash pad, Yelana paused just long enough to say "I love it" before hustling back into the water.
Wilson said he is thrilled to have a splash pad closer to home.
Previously, the family went to the Barnett Community Recreation Center in east Columbus, or to an aquatic center in Obetz, near the home of a friend, Wilson said.
"It was always far too crowded" at Barnett, Wilson said.
The capacity at the splash pad at Bishop Park is 70, but some discretion is allowed, Sorrell said.
At least two parks and recreation department employees will staff the splash pad at all times.
Drink vending machines can be found at the site, but those who want to eat should bring their own food for now.
"Down the road, we will consider placing a food truck nearby, but at this time that has not been arranged," Sorrell said.
The daily operating hours through Aug. 15 are noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Beginning Aug. 16, when classes at Whitehall schools resume, the splash pad will be open from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. weekends.
As it did twice last week, the splash pad will close in case of inclement weather.
Admission is free for Whitehall residents and their guests; a $5 fee applies to nonresidents, payable by credit card only.
Use of the splash pad is limited to children ages 10 and younger, a restriction that some residents have criticized via social media.
Sorrell said this week the parks department has received comments and questions about the age limit, but there are no plans to change it.
She said the goal is to provide a safe environment – a target that could be difficult to meet without the rule, given the "injury potential caused by the difference in play of older kids."
Sorrell said most residents are appreciative of the city's thought process after hearing its explanation. She added the city is looking for ways to include other age groups – including preteens and senior citizens – in its recreation programming.