Playgrounds are assumed to be an important resource for physical activity. This study investigates seasonal utilization, user preferences, and perceptions of safety and upkeep of public playgrounds in New York City. A cross-sectional survey was conducted from May 2010 to January 2011 across 10 playgrounds in low/middle income neighborhoods in each of the five boroughs in New York City. A total of 1,396 adults accompanying children were surveyed. Outcomes included playground as main place of outdoor play, and perceptions of playground upkeep and safety. Covariates included socio-demographics and other characteristics of playground users. Multivariable logistic regression with playground/season fixed effects were used. Utilization varied substantially across the four seasons. Blacks had higher odds of reporting the playground as the main place of outdoor play (AOR 1.78, 95 % CI 1.13–2.80, p < .05). High income users had lower odds of reporting the playground as the main place of outdoor play ($60–$80,000: AOR 0.47, 95 % CI 0.29–0.76, p < .01, $80,000+: AOR 0.47, 95 % CI 0.28–0.79, p < .01). Racial differences in perceived upkeep and safety were not significant once playground/season fixed effects were included, highlighting the importance of neighborhood conditions. Women were more likely to report feeling unsafe within playgrounds (AOR 1.51, 95 % CI 1.12–2.02, p < .01). While some playground utilization is driven by individual characteristics, perceptions of public resources influences utilization and cannot be separated from neighborhood conditions. Increasing access to opportunities for physical activity for children requires new strategies beyond playground improvements.