Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

A distinguished panel of judges surveys Miami's indoor pleasure palaces and raises a profound question: Who needs nature?

Our judges were not particularly thrilled with the Riverboat's game selection, either, with the exception of a Sega Afterburner flight simulator. The Afterburner looks like an oversize gyroscope with a capsule in the middle, into which you strap yourself and attempt to gun down attacking planes as they overtake you on a video monitor. The sound effects roar and boom in your ears as you spin and tilt and do your best Top Gun impersonation. At a cost of four tokens (25 cents each) per minute or two of excitement, the Afterburner is proportionately more expensive than a flight in a real airplane. But who's counting? The critics loved it, and their chaperone had to be pried out of the compartment so someone else's kid could give it a spin.

The food, which both amusement centers push, fared much better in our judges' eyes. They rated the pizza anywhere from good to great. Special raves were reserved for the chocolate chip cookies at Mark Twain's.

Consensus: Strictly for toddlers and preschoolers.

Discovery Zone
15520 NW 77th Court
Miami Lakes
827-5555
Discovery Zone
13700 SW 84th Street
Kendall
383-4321

When told of our impending comparative analysis of indoor playgrounds, Jeff Richman, owner of the two Discovery Zones located in Dade County, laughed. "I can tell you right now," he said, "the kids up through twelve are going to like the Discovery Zone. Older ones will prefer Malibu Grand Prix."

He was right, up to a point. All of our discerning crew enjoyed the Discovery Zone, although two of the four would later shift their allegiances to Malibu.

The first thing our appraisers noticed about the Discovery Zone was its size. Massive and blocky, the building resembles a giant warehouse. Two of our judges compared the faaade to that of a Toys R Us store. "Before you walk inside, it looks kind of boring," confided Nikki, "but once you were inside, it was better."

A sign at the entrance reads, "Maximum occupancy: 1254." Be forewarned: When the place gets busy, it feels like there must be ten times that number in attendance.

Discovery Zone is the only indoor playground that charges admission, but it is also the only one that offers a sprawling modular plastic playground, which, following Nikki's lead, our judges referred to as "the jungle." This area is composed of a dozen or so attractions the size of Mark Twain's or Chuck E. Cheese's ball pits. They are connected by a long network of tubes, chutes, webs, and slides. Each features a different activity designed to put the little ones through a serious workout while they think they're just having fun.

For starters there is the Moonwalk Bounce, made of eight springy red-and-blue cells shaped like rolls of carpet laid side by side, which create a trampoline effect, catapulting kids into the air like popcorn. Although there is no water in the Ball Bath Wade, traversing it is like slogging through knee-deep mud with thousands of brightly colored bubbles. The Mountain Climb is identical to the Ball Bath Wade, but with a tall padded pyramid in the center for kids to scale and leap from, blissfully ignoring the warning sign not to do exactly that. The photographer and reporter New Times sent along to document the judges' experiences and opinions made particular fools of themselves here, floundering and thrashing about helplessly while the kids chortled derisively and pelted them with balls.

The Rollerslide Maze resembles a tilted, rolling conveyor belt without the belt. (Not recommended for sensitive derriäres.) In order to successfully negotiate the Obstacle Course, one must scale a padded 45-degree slope, hand-walk across a jungle gym, swing over a ball pit on a trapeze, run a punching bag gauntlet, and dangle from something Janne dubbed a "zip wire" (as good a name as any), which is an inverted T-bar on a pulley suspended from a downward-sloping cable. Just as you start to feel like Batman or Indiana Jones, the zip wire deadends into a padded wall that you slam into unceremoniously if you don't let go in time.

Discovery Zone also boasts seven individual party rooms, a food court, air hockey, and dozens of video games. There's a scaled-down mini-Zone featuring smaller tubes and a reduced Ball Bath. And for the youngest patrons, the fun house has installed a more traditional playground, complete with a plastic corkscrew slide.

Like all of the indoor amusement parks, Discovery Zone's video games dispense tickets that are redeemable for prizes at a mirrored display counter. The prizes are either incredibly cheap -- cloth rings, rubber erasers, plastic flutes -- or require so many tickets that all the kids who visit the place for a week would have to pool their tickets to have a shot at one. Michael selected a prize that caught his eye in the counter's mirror, but he couldn't locate it inside the display case itself. No matter which gift the bewildered teenage employee pointed to, Michael would shake his head no. The kid behind the counter and the kid in front of the counter passed a good fifteen minutes this way, the weary employee trying toy after toy and Michael declining every one. Finally Michael relented and agreed to a plastic hammer, only to discover he didn't have enough tickets to pay for it. Eventually he settled for a bracelet and a couple of elastic rings.

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