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2018 Best of the East Bay: Kids

Welcome to the family-friendly businesses and play spaces that cater to the region’s youngest residents.


Beach Blanket Babylon star Rena Wilson shares her experience with students at Performing Academy.

Photo by Cali Godley

Renee DeWeese. Illustration by Paddy Mills.

Summer Camp

Performing Academy

Renee DeWeese and Rena Wilson met a decade ago while performing in a Diablo Theatre Company production of Peter Pan. During their countless hours rehearsing in the company’s Pleasant Hill studio, known as the Fire House, they became fast friends—and soon began teaching performing arts classes together in Castro Valley.

Today, DeWeese and Wilson still lead children’s theater programs through their business, Performing Academy. The pair enlist professional actors, singers, and dancers—themselves included—to teach performance skills and techniques to kids of all ages. “In the summer, we put on whole productions with lights, costumes, sets,” DeWeese explains. “Everyone gets a part in the show; they audition. They get that experience.”

In late 2017, DeWeese and Wilson purchased the storied Fire House building where their relationship first began—a milestone that brought Performing Academy’s location count to three. Diablo asked the duo about their popular classes and camps.

Rena Wilson. Illustration by Paddy Mills.

Q: What do students learn at Performing Academy?

RD: The arts provide [kids] a platform to … get up in front of an audience, get up in front of their peers, and put themselves out there. They have to be able to speak clearly and play a character. All those skills can lead to bigger life skills that are going to serve them whether they become artists or [pursue] any other career.

RW: One thing we’ve found with kids is that it’s hard for them to make choices. So, theater is an opportunity for them to make choices. We always tell the kids: “There’s no wrong choice when it comes to the arts. You just … continue to make a choice until you find what fits best for you.”

RD: And [we provide] them a supportive community … to feel comfortable doing that. Castro Valley, Lafayette, Pleasant Hill; performingacademy.com. —V.S.


Opened in 2014, the sprawling all-abilities playground at Heather Farm Park is known for its dazzling color scheme. Photo courtesy of the City of Walnut Creek.


Heather Farm Park

"We love Heather Farm Park because of its size and variety of activities. There is something for every age and ability, which is wonderful for families with multiple growing children. In addition, there are shaded benches as well as plenty of sunny grass spots for picnics in the park—and the scenery is beautiful!" Walnut Creek, walnut-creek.org. —Lacy Taylor, Orinda




Toy trove Five Little Monkeys also offers summer art and science classes to occupy little ones when school is out. Photo by Tyler McCarville.

Toy Store

Five Little Monkeys

Named for her family of five siblings (she’s the oldest), Stephanie Sala’s Five Little Monkeys stores are the East Bay’s go-to destinations for high-quality toys. There are fun discoveries on every shelf—from a kid-safe kitchen knife set, to unicorn bath bombs, to a miniature garbage truck with a loading arm. The knowledgeable staff can help lead you to the perfect present and provide complimentary gift-wrapping services—a lifesaver for last-minute birthday-party shoppers. Albany, Berkeley, and Walnut Creek; 5littlemonkeys.com—L.J.







Advanced dancers develop their craft in The Next Step Dance Studio’s Turns, Leaps, and Technique class. Photo courtesy of The Next Step Dance Studio.

Kids’ Classes

The Next Step Dance Studio

The Next Step Dance Studio teaches youngsters a full range of contemporary dance styles, such as ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, and lyrical/modern in its three Danville locations. Future Broadway stars are encouraged to audition for the performance team, which trains more intensively than the other groups and participates in national competitions. Interested new-comers should register early for July and August summer camps, which include hula dancing to the Moana soundtrack for ages three through six and a Greatest Showman–themed musical theater workshop for ages seven to 11. Danville, nextstepdance.com. —L.J.







Birthday Venue

Pump It Up

Why rent one bounce house when your child can celebrate his or her birthday with friends in a space filled with a dozen of them? Founded in Pleasanton in 2000, Pump It Up now has more than 100 party places across the country. Best of all, each venue’s team can take care of the little details, so you don’t have to: Invitations and paper goods come with your private rental time, and you can upgrade your package to include pizza and goodie bags. There’s even an inflatable birthday throne. But don’t limit the bouncing to birthdays. All locations offer regular “open jumps” and special events. Our favorite: Parents’ Night Out every Friday at the Pleasanton location, where you can drop off your children for three hours of play and pizza while you enjoy an evening off. Concord, Oakland, Oakley, and Pleasanton; pumpitup​party.com. —L.J.


Capture a sweet family moment outdoors—where kids can clown around and the sun bestows a golden glow—with Ultra-Spective Photography. Photo by Derek Gaumer for Ulta-Spective Photography.

Family Photographer

Ultra-Spective Photography

With a five-person team of top-notch photo-graphers and a 3,000-square-foot studio, Ultra-Spective Photography is professionally equipped to document a wide range of milestones, from wedding and engagement portraits to corporate head shots. But the business really shines when it comes to children. The Forever My Baby package covers an infant’s entire first year, including Mom’s maternity photos, a first birthday cake smash, and a few points in between. Customized senior portraits for teens are available in studio or on location, with the option to add hair and makeup styling. Book a value-priced Fall Mini Session each year to ensure your family always has an up-to-date, superbly shot photo for the requisite holiday card—​and of course, for the mantel, allowing your cherished memories to live on forever. Livermore, ultra-spective​.com. —L.J.


Gameday VR Lounge’s state-of-the-art hardware allows players to fully experience vast virtual reality worlds. Photo courtesy of Gameday VR Lounge.

Next-Level Gamer Haven

Editor Pick: Gameday VR Lounge

Get ready, player one, for some eye-popping virtual ​​reality gaming (no movie ticket required). Gameday VR Lounge’s first location, in Walnut Creek, opened late last year, offering nearly 40 immersive experiences—ranging from space adventures, to football drills, to arena-​​scale multiplayer battles—playable on various screens in 10-minute increments. (Book time online or wait your turn; weekends can get crowded.) Users ages 17 and under can sign up for the monthly Club Gameday VR membership, which includes unlimited weekday play plus other discounts and freebies. The lounge hosts birthday parties, too. Pleasanton and Walnut Creek, gamedayvr.com. —R.O.


Indoor Play Space

Round One Bowling and Amusement

Two years ago, Japan-based Round One Bowling and Amusement transformed the Sunvalley Shopping Center’s former Sports Authority site into 52,000 feet of fun—featuring bowling lanes, billiard and Ping-Pong tables, dartboards, karaoke, and a 250-game arcade. Here’s how the entertainment center stacks up. Concord, round1usa.com. —L.J.


By the Numbers

4: Languages available for karaoke: English, Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese. Most popular song? “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey.

11: Bowling lanes (plus four dragon-​shaped bowling ramps for toddlers).

220: Pairs of bowling shoes available for rent—from a toddler’s size 8 to a men’s size 16.

176,000: Arcade tickets needed to claim top-tier prizes. Options vary but have included a drone and a Segway.

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