What seemed a one-time, $3,000 jungle gym purchase was only the beginning for Kim Noonan. A couple thousand dollars later, she had added a fort, a rock-climbing wall and a spiral slide to the top-of-the-line wooden swing set, which already had a straight slide, trapeze and monkey bars.

What seemed a one-time, $3,000 jungle gym purchase was only the beginning for Springfield, Ill., resident Kim Noonan. A couple thousand dollars later, she had added a fort, a rock-climbing wall and a spiral slide to the top-of-the-line wooden swing set, which already had a straight slide, trapeze and monkey bars.

Monkey business, indeed.

Metal swing sets sell for between $100 and $300 at retailers such as Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart. The higher quality wooden sets, however, offer more bangs, albeit for a few more bucks. Whereas the metal sets are swings only — with maybe monkey bars or a slide attachment — the larger wooden ones can include any or all of the following: forts, bridges, swings, slides, monkey bars, rock-climbing walls, tic-tac-toe boards, ropes, ladders and sandboxes.

Of course, what you pay is what you get; Toys “R” Us and other retailers sell wooden sets from $300 to $3,000 or more. And those are the low-end models.

Companies such as Backyard Adventures, Creative Playthings, and Rainbow Play Systems sell higher quality play sets at specialty retailers around the country. Jim Kinsella in Bloomington operates one such store — Backyard Adventures of Illinois.

His cheapest sets start at $2,000, but with a smorgasbord of additions available, the sky’s the limit if your wallet can roll with the punches.

A neighborhood draw

Noonan bought her jungle gym from Kinsella five years ago and wasn’t shy about taking advantage of add-ons.

Noonan now has three children, ages 10, 8 and 4. She said that hers and the neighbors’ kids usually spend about an hour at a time on the jungle gym between trampoline breaks — another addition to the rapidly shrinking back yard.

Kinsella installed the set and additions for her.

“That was another nice thing with the company,” Noonan said. “They will come down and set it up.”

Though Kinsella says he installs 95 percent of the sets he sells, he insists they are build-it-yourself friendly, as long as you’re willing to put in the time.

Kinsella also helped the family move the set. Its two-level fort is now nestled against a 150-year-old oak tree.

The specialty swing set industry is not one that takes itself lightly. Many national retailers have built-in warranties of five years or more, and use customer service as a point of competition.

One such company, Maine-based CedarWorks, is different in that it doesn’t have showrooms — customers buy direct via a catalog, or online.

The company relies on local contractors for installation, and owner and president Barrett Brown says they use past customers to show off the products to potential buyers.

“We found they (jungle gym owners) were extraordinarily willing to let other interested families come take a look at their play sets,” said Brown, whose company has been in business since 1981.

Worth the cash

Kinsella says there a few factors that make the higher end models worth the purchase.

“Well, No. 1 is safety. A lot of the sets that they sell at the big box stores are rated (for children) up to 10 years old,” he said. “I have a 15-year-old … If they’re there, they’re gonna climb on it.”

The added safety stems primarily from higher quality wood.

Backyard Adventures uses California redwood and imported cedar on all of its products. Specialty retailers also typically use more durable parts, be it reinforced steel swing chains or bigger beams for added stability.

“I’m a 230-pound man,” Kinsella said. “On the more expensive sets, I can climb up there, the whole family can climb up there and feel comfortable.”

Benefit No. 2, he says, is resale value. While sellers probably wouldn’t get much in return for a used model previously purchased at a big retailer, Kinsella’s higher quality sets, he says, can fetch up to 50 percent of the purchase price even after years of punishment from children big and small.

Kinsella said he doesn’t plan on getting into the resale business — it’s up to the owners to find a buyer through advertising — but he does help with moving and reassembling the monstrosities when resale transactions take place.

Aesthetic appeal is another selling point. CedarWorks recently launched its Serendipity product line. The new models have all the bells and whistles of their other sets, but with a little added pizzazz. The designer jungle gyms have more decorative features such as arches and use more recycled materials.

Though certainly not for everyone, some of the biggest models are sure to amaze. Kinsella said the Backyard Adventures parent company once sold a $45,000 set to a buyer in Colorado.

“It was just bridge to another model to another model,” he said. “Different levels, everything times three, basically.”

But CedarWorks’ big sale might top them all. Viewable on the companies’ Web site, www.cedarworks.com, by following the “Top 20” link, Brown says it amazed even him.

The jungle gym, installed at a family’s vacation spot compound, is perhaps more of a small village than a toy. Forts connect to other forts via bridges, connect to other forts via crawl tubes, connect to still other forts via monkey bars. There are 10 forts in all.

“You can imagine as a president I can probably have any play set I want,” he said. “But even I can’t imagine it.”

Be sure to shop around

The following retailers carry limited quantities of wooden play sets. Call ahead to check availability. As one retailer warned, they fly off the shelves in the summer.

Menards,
In-store price: $499-$2,739
Installation: No

Sam’s Club
In-store Price: $1,199
Installation: No
Available online at www.samsclub.com

Toys “R” Us
In-store Price: $299-$1,999
Installation: No
Available online at www.toysrus.com


Wal-Mart
In-store Price: $299-$599
Installation: No
Available online at www.walmart.com

The following specialty retailers sell and deliver high-end wooden play sets:

Backyard Adventures
Showroom: Backyard Adventures of Illinois, Bloomington, (309) 663-8700
Installation: Yes, to an area bordered by Litchfield, Danville, Chicago’s suburbs and Iowa.
Price: $2,000 and up
Visit www.backyardadventures.com for details.

CedarWorks
No showrooms.
Installation: Yes. Call (800) 462-3327 to find a local contractor.
Price: $2,000 and up
Available online at www.cedarworks.com

Creative Playthings
Showroom: Watson’s of Missouri, 2620 Muegge Road, St. Charles, Mo., (636) 940-1118
Installation: Yes.
Price: $999 and up
Available online at www.creativeplaythings.com

Rainbow Play Systems
Showrooms:
Rainbow Play Systems of Central Illinois, 2322 W. Willow Knolls Road, Peoria, (309) 690-3333
Rainbow Recreation of South Central Illinois (Max Landscaping), 11052 E Highway 33, Effingham, 868-2636
Installation: Yes. Calling (800) 724-6269 will redirect you to the location that serves your area
Price: $1,699 and up
Available online at www.rainbowplay.com

Brian Eason can be reached at (217) 788-1531.