Winterfest in Bushnell Park

As someone who has lived in the Hartford area for close to six years now, I am almost embarrassed to admit that I had never set foot in Bushnell Park until two weeks ago. Sure, we had driven by it countless times, but I had never actually had a reason to stop.

Well, all that changed when a friend of ours clued us in to the special Winterfest event happening in this park from November though February. (You may have read an overview in Mandy’s Holiday Happenings post.) It seemed like the perfect excuse to take a drive over there on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Admittedly, city driving always makes me nervous. I know it’s silly, but with all the one-way streets and the confusing intersections and the people behind me who know where they are going (and like to rub it in that I don’t by honking loudly and often) and the parking–oy vey the parking–I like to be über prepared for my city excursions. Since I don’t have GPS in my car, preparation for me means maps. Printable maps. So I was delighted to find this map of downtown Hartford that also–joy of joys–includeds very clear indications of where the parking garages and lots in the general vicinity of Bushnell Park are located.  Can I get a hallelujah?

Well, as typically happens with my obsessive preparations, we didn’t need any of it. The park was almost a straight shot off the highway. From our location, we followed Route 2 West right to the end, which becomes State Street. We continued straight across Main Street, where we noticed that the street name was now Pearl. Then, we hung a left on Trumbull and followed that straight down to the park. And the parking? TONS of metered street parking all around the perimeter of the park. Granted, it was a Sunday. So during the week it might be harder to find street parking. But fortunately, there’s a map for that (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

So let’s talk about those meters for a moment. Meters used to be very stressful. I mean, in this day of ubiquitous debit cards, who carries around quarters anymore? I’m lucky if I even have paper money on me (seriously, just last week I swiped my card for a 66 cent cucumber at the grocery store). Well, some very smart people at the Hartford Parking Authority must have felt this way too because now these nifty “pay and display” stations seem to be just about everywhere.

You simply insert your money or swipe your card (one hiccup is that they only accept exact change, as in coins, so you can’t say, pay with a $10 bill), take your printed ticket and display it on your dashboard. No scrounging under the seat required.

Of course, we were there on a Sunday and no one ever knows what to do on a Sunday as far as meters are concerned. Pay? Don’t pay? It’s the eternal parking question. If someone could answer that for me, I would be exceptionally grateful.

Anyway, we parked just about here on Elm Street.

Here’s the general layout of the Winterfest activities. I know this map is kinda blurry, but it’s the best I could do. It will give you a general sense for where things are located.

As it turned out, Winterfest made for the most pleasant walking loop around the spacious, but not tundra-esque park. And since the largest activity (the ice rink) is not really suitable for a toddler like my Boo, it was wonderful to meander around the park, checking out the various activities and letting Boo blow off some steam in the process.

You can definitely take a stroller around the park no problem as there is a paved walkway, but since Boo is a pretty accomplished walker these days (and since we weren’t in a rush and didn’t mind the fact that it was going to take us about ten times longer to make the loop with Boo repeatedly heading off in 1000 directions other than the one we wanted to go), we let him lead the way on foot.

We started at the carousel–a straight shot across from our parking spot.

Although the park’s website indicates that the historic carousel in only operational from May to mid-October, it is open Saturdays and Sundays from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm until December 31st as part of Winterfest. You do still need to pay the $1 to ride it though. Boo was too busy running around to take a break for the carousel anyway, but since our disastrous run-in with the carousel at the Glastonbury Apple Harvest Festival this past October, I have not exactly been chomping at the bit, as they say, to get him back on those prancing ponies.

Tickets are for sale at a counter to the rear of the building. Also for sale here: ice cream and popcorn. (Well, the sign said both but we only saw people eating popcorn; who really wants ice cream outside in December?) You can also buy balloons and assorted novelties.

And over in one corner (if a circular building can have a corner. Hmmm. Something to ponder while you wait in line for your carousel ride) was Santa.

It was an adorable display with a Christmas tree and a rocking horse, and Santa seemed dressed for the occasion, even if his pants were a little too short and his boots were more like black sneakers. But hey, when Santa is handing out FREE 5×7 photos, we’ll let him choose whatever footwear he wants! Who can see his feet in the picture anyway? Santa is ready for his close up Saturdays and Sundays from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm until 12/18.

The line wasn’t very long when we were there, and we saw both the young and the young at heart getting their pictures taken with Santa. Are you ever too old for a little holiday magic? I think not :)

After checking out the playground right next to the carousel…

and puzzling over this intriguing sign that absolutely requires us to come back and investigate in the summer (spray pools??? Neat!)…

we started down the walk towards the ice rink.

With the pool and fountains it was quite pretty.

There are also a lot of lights in the park–wrapped around tree trunks and lamp posts, and a giant Christmas tree too–which makes me think it would be especially magical to experience Winterfest after dark. (I know this is a family blog, but add in a dinner reservation downtown and this could make for a nice little “date night” too. Just saying…)

The ice rink was hoppin’. Picture this: kids racing about, laughter floating through the air, Bing Crosby crooning “A Marshmallow World” over the loudspeaker, all we needed was a dusting of snow (notice I said “dusting,” I think we are all DONE with snowstorms this year, am I right?) and some hot cocoa to make it a winter wonderland.

Well, the snow I could live without, but unfortunately for some reason none of the food stands were open.

The Winterfest website indicated that the food vendors would be there every Wednesday through Sunday, so I wasn’t sure what the story was. Well, you’ve been acquainted with me long enough to know that I am a girl who needs answers. So we returned last weekend to see if we could get to the bottom of this. At 3:30 pm, one of the two food stands was open (the one on the left, The Kitchen at Billings Forge), but the other one (Vito’s by the Park) was not. Hmmmm.

I tried to investigate, but no one on-site seemed to have any clear idea about the food service schedule. So I went straight to the source. I called Vito’s. Finally! Some answers! Here’s the deal: for the most part, the food can only be counted on after 4:00 pm and only from Wednesday to Sunday (I was told by an event official that the food starts after 5:00, but Vito’s says they open their stand at 4:00).

Now, this is not the best news because, as you know, it starts to get cold and dark after 4:00, which is great for all those snuggly young love birds out there, but not so hot for us parental folks with the kiddies. With small kids, it is much nicer to be out during the warmest part of the day, say, around 1:00. And since those of us with toddlers aren’t really partaking of the ice rink, it would have been nice to be able to hang out and watch the skaters whiz by while sipping hot chocolate and enjoying a slice of pizza. Sigh.

Fortunately, Vito’s at the Park has a great take-out menu, and it is right across the street from the park (as the name suggests). So you can always bring your own. At the very least, I would suggest stopping somewhere on the way for a latté. There’s something about outdoor holiday events that begs for warm beverages.

Like I said, we weren’t going to be skating with a 16-month-old, but there was plenty of seating around the rink for the observers.

The great thing about this event, is that you can actually rent skates for FREE right at the rink.

The rental skates looked plenty sturdy and ice-worthy to me, and we saw everyone from elementary school kids to adults coming back from the window with skates, so they must have a pretty good range of sizes. There was also this bin to donate skates if you are so inclined.

There didn’t appear to be any secure location to corral shoes (as indicated by the fact that they were strewn all over the place), and I’d be lying if I told you I thought it would be just fine to leave your shoes completely unattended while you and your party go for a skate. So I would suggest having at least one bench-warmer in your crew to keep an eye on your possessions. And don’t forget to return your rental skates to the window when you are through skating so someone else can enjoy them. (Of course, you can bring your own skates too.) Be sure to check out the ice rink rules posted next to the rental window.

Winterfest also has a slew of special activities, including FREE ice shows on Fridays and Saturdays from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm, and an art exhibit at the Pump House Gallery on Friday and Saturday afternoons (see Momsense for schedule).

On December 17th, there will be a carol sing led by the Hall High School choir with FREE songbooks for the first 1000 carolers.

And of course, First Night Hartford on December 31st is chock-a-block with fun activities, although, maybe not for the wee ones who will likely be enjoying visions of sugarplums by that late hour. There will, however, be a set of fireworks at 6:00 pm (and another at midnight, of course), so if your tiny tots are up for all the attendant racket, you can bring them down to the park for a fireworks display before bedtime.

And really, there are few better ways to spend a beautiful afternoon with the family than outdoors in this lovely, scenic corner of our city.

All in all, Winterfest might not be the flashiest holiday celebration you’ll attend this season, but as far as FREE, family-oriented events go, this one is a delight.

Jolly Holidays,



Winterfest (runs through February 20th)

Bushnell Park, Hartford

Winterfest website:

Hours & Admission:

Skating: 7 days a week through 2/20/12, 11:00 am to 9:00 pm; FREE (including FREE skate rental)

Photos with Santa: Saturdays & Sundays through 12/18, 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm; FREE 5×7 photo (1 per family)–Once you’ve got your picture, check out our recent Quick Crafts For Photos post for some fun ideas on ways to make it even more special.

Carousel: Saturdays & Sundays through 12/31, 11:00 am to 7:00 pm, $1 per ride

Food Vendors: Wednesday to Sunday through 2/20/2012, @4:00 pm to 9:00 pm

Art Exhibit at the Pump House Gallery: Fridays from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm & Saturdays from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm (through 2/20/2012)

Ice Shows: Fridays & Saturdays from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm; FREE (through 2/20/2012)

Park grounds, playscape, holiday lights: FREE

Visit the Winterfest website for more information on special events including First Night Hartford.

Click here for a printable map of the Bushnell Park area.

Also check out this interactive parking map that lets you mouse over the different lots and garages for information on hours and rates.


We’ve got an adorable, non-commercial Santa experience (yes! they do exist!) that is perfect for the young and the young at heart. And it’s FREE too.


  1. Brooks says

    RE: Street Parking in Downtown on a Sunday, you captured the answer in your photo:

    Hours of Enforcement are Monday – Friday, 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. At all other times, there is no need to pay to park on the street, including Saturday and Sunday.

    Another parking tip, outside of Winterfest, there is usually always plenty of parking in Bushnell Park just past the Soldiers and Sailors arch. I like to park here for free, and then walk just a couple of blocks to the Allyn/Ann Uccello/Main/Trumbull corridor for evening dining and entertainment activities.

  2. Jen McDonagh says

    Re: Parking
    1.)  Free Street Parking:  From 6:00 p.m. until 8:00 a.m. (and all day Saturdays and Sundays) all metered parking turns into free parking. 
    2.)  Double edged sword… There are a bunch of meters around town that are no parking from 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. and again from 3:30 – 6:00 p.m.  This is so they can open up more space during rush hour.  It may drive you completely crazy when you’re looking for a spot during those hours, but when you’re trying to get in and out of downtown, it’s a great help.
    3.)  Yes.  You can now safely park on Pratt Street.  The great Pratt Street parking mystery has come to an end.  It’s now metered parking with a big loading zone at each end of the street.  Read the signs carefully, pay the meter per usual, and you’re going to be fine.
    4.)  You may not get a ticket, but you might get towed:  On street parking in bus lanes late at night is not a good idea, even though sometimes it looks like one. 


  1. […] Bushnell Park in downtown Hartford is a wonderful public space with plenty of green grass, a smaller-scale playscape, and the pièce de résistance: the carousel. We checked out this park during Winterfest, but we can’t wait to go back to see what it’s like in the summertime. We hear there are water activities there too. […]

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