It all started during one of those conversations that moms have when their kids reach a big milestone. Melinda Gross and Moira Roberts, Raleigh neighbors and moms, were wondering what they were going to do next.
Both have three kids; their youngest each is 4. The friends chatted about life without little ones under foot.
"We were pondering life's mysteries and what we should do with our next phase of life," Gross said of that conversation.
The talk, back in April 2011, turned to the times their kids and the moms were happiest. It was easy to come up with the answer: When they were all outside.
And that sparked the beginning of Three Bears Acres, a wildly fun outdoor play space that spans 50 acres and includes everything from a mud kitchen to a 300-foot toboggan run. This place in northern Wake County is, in the words of my three-year-old, "awesome."
Roberts and Gross got to work, scouting sites for their vision and figuring out exactly what they wanted to put there. The two bought the land on a rural stretch of Beaver Dam Road in Wake County in April. With the help of friends, family and their kids, they opened the business in October.
I went with my three-year-old and a friend and her three-year-old and stayed for more than three hours last week. This is easily a spot where you could spend an entire day, especially with older kids who don't need an afternoon nap (which is just about the only reason we left when we did).
Three Bears Acres is split into two sections.
The "farm" includes a jumping pillow; outdoor painting wall; mud kitchen complete with old appliances and pots and pans; and a water wall. Roberts, Gross, along with friends and family, planted about 4,000 sweet potatoes, which visitors were able to harvest when they first opened. Now there are carrots ready to be picked. Visitors are welcome to take their produce home with them.
The area also includes archery and an old boat that kids can climb in.
Between the two sections is a large pond with a handful of pedal boats and a little island in the middle.
The forested area includes a "tree house," which isn't exactly built into the tree tops, but is a massive play set that sits high up among the trees. You'll find slides, all kinds of swings and a couple of play houses. There also are some baby swings nearby.
And then there is the giant 300-foot sledding hill. The hill has four runs that sit side-by-side, divided by soft barriers. Visitors zoom down them while riding in a plastic sled. It's fast. And it's so much fun. My friend and I went down it nearly as many times as our little ones, who giggled just about the entire way each time.
Our preschoolers loved every bit of it, brushing strokes on the large painting wall, which is just plywood painted white; mixing up mud in the kitchen; and watching the water pour down the water wall. They ran, hid and shrieked in the tree house and could have jumped on the jumping pillow for hours.
What I loved about Three Bears Acres was the space. It's expansive. And the activities are spread out across the site. There is so much room for kids to just run and explore and play.
Gross and Roberts tells me that's part of the design. They have plans to add more features as time goes on. But, at the same time, they just wanted to create a place where kids have the freedom to be outside and enjoy some electronics-free imaginative play.
"You see moms actually finishing a conversation because their kids are busy playing," Gross said.
And that's what it's all about.
The details: Three Bears Acres is open from Oct. 1 to May 31. Admission is $10 for adults and $18 for kids. That includes everything on the property. There are no additional charges. Kids under 2 are fee with a paid adult. On Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., admission is $13 for kids ages 5 and under; one parent is free.
There are bathrooms on site, but otherwise no enclosed space.
Santa is visiting the spot on the weekends in December. Join him for pictures, crafts and other special activities.
Three Bears Acres, which is about 15 minutes up Creedmoor Road from its intersection with Interstate 540, offers birthday parties, annual passes, field trips, group discounts and Y Guides patches. The site also offers no fuss fundraising opportunities for schools. Three Bears Acres will give back $3 to a school for each paid child admission on a day set aside for the school.
I can't wait to get back with my seven-year-old!