By Michael E. Miller
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The playground. You remember it, don't you? Swing set. Jungle gym. Slide. Dirt. Asphalt basketball court with a weather-beaten hoop, chain net rusted and broken. Shattered bottles everywhere. Maybe a tennis court or a baseball diamond nearby.
Sorry, old sport. These are the Nineties. The playground, as you knew it, is gone.
Gone indoors. Located in a strip shopping center. Airconditioned. Dehumidified. You have to pay to get in. Employees with headsets monitor your activities. Take off your shoes if you want to play. Forgot to wear socks? Two bucks, they'll sell you a pair.
Indoor playgrounds are one of the growth industries of this decade. From the turn-of-the-century paddlewheel motif of Mark Twain's Riverboat Playhouse to the immense, futuristic warehouses known as Discovery Zones, they're popping up everywhere.
And they're all different, angling for a niche by tinkering with a formula that includes skeeball (miniature bowling lanes that end in a target, sort of a cross between bowling and darts), video games, food, clowns, robotic animal shows, and "fun zones" where kids crawl through tubes, swing from trapezes, and slide down corkscrew chutes into padded cages with rope walls stocked knee-high with soft plastic balls.
Visually, vibrant primary colors are the order of the day. The noise quotient, largely a product of squealing kids and exploding video games, approaches that of a Vegas casino on a Friday night.
In a continuing effort to keep our readers apprised of the latest developments in popular culture, New Times recently sent a panel of experts into the field to rate the fun factories. Our elite team of pint-size playground pundits included five-year-old Michael, eight-year-old Nikki, eleven-year-old Jacqui, and twelve-year-old Janne.
Chuck E. Cheese's and Mark Twain's have a lot in common. Both are geared toward patrons under the age of six, emphasize freshly made pizza, cater to birthday parties (especially on weekends), and feature a show built around mechanical animals performing musical tunes. They also offer skeeball, pinball, an array of video games, and a small play zone the main attraction of which is a ball pit (picture an above-ground swimming pool approximately ten feet square, filled to a level of about two feet with thousands of soft, multicolored plastic spheres slightly larger than baseballs). Kids are encouraged to dive into, wade through, throw, or immerse themselves in the balls with impunity. No one taller than 48 inches is permitted into this area.
The middle of the week is slow at both enterprises unless they're hosting a day-care center field trip or a birthday bash, but both are transformed into zoos on the weekends, when they host nonstop parties. Chuck E. Cheese's is the cleaner, more colorful, and modern-looking of the two, and kids really seem to get a kick out of the techno-creature show, which features the Right Honorable Mr. Cheese, a tall, pink-and-gray rat. An employee in a rat costume makes appearances at parties and leads the kids around the room in a conga line.
Mark Twain's is, to be kind, more conceptual. The Riverboat Playhouse seeks to re-create a nostalgic slice of Americana lifted from Samuel Clemens's tales of Huck Finn and life on the Mississippi. The anachronistic appeal of such a bygone epoch would seem to be limited, especially in the MTV era. The fact that the Discovery Zone, which is bigger-faster-newer-cleaner-trendier than Mark Twain's, opened just a few doors to the north in the same Kendale Lakes Mall doesn't help. Our illustrious panelists cared little for the riverboat decor (assuming they even noticed it before they headed for the ball pit and the video games). They had especially harsh words for the "animatronics" show.
"Borrring!" chimed Jacqui, Janne, and Nikki in unison.
To be fair, the picky threesome was significantly older than Mark Twain's target market segment. But they found nothing positive to say about the production, staged in a dark theater walled off from the main play area. (The venue-within-a-venue doubles as Uncle Funny's Comedy Club on Friday and Saturday nights.)
A Dixieland band composed of five automated musicians with dog heads and paws but otherwise human proportions occupies the center stage. The dogmen's arms and mouths move mechanically and out of sync with a tape playing covers of moldy oldies such as "Joy to the World" and "Spinning Wheel" that not one of our four critics recognized. To the left of the main stage is a smaller platform resembling the front porch of a Southern mansion. A mechanized Mark Twain sits there on his chair, glaring out at the audience. Periodically his head moves and he engages in canned repartee with the dogfolk, one of whom sounds a little like Louis Armstrong. A shaggy, vaguely canine-looking creature reposes at Twain's feet.
While our children's panel found the show to be merely lame, our adult chaperone thought the animated Sam Clemens downright scary. To the grownup he resembled a demented drunk more than an accomplished author, not that there's usually much difference between the two. "It looks so fake," summed up Jacqui in an opinion quickly seconded by Nikki and Janne. "After fifteen minutes, they play it over again and it gets really annoying."