Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

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

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
3805 W. 20th Avenue
Hialeah
926-0607
Mark Twain's Riverboat Playhouse
8700 SW 137th Avenue
Kendall
382-1000

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."

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.

Parents play free at the Discovery Zone, and may enter the jungle to join their children. Such behavior is self-destructive and potentially suicidal, but a few dedicated (foolhardy) guardians occasionally risk it. There have been no recorded cases of overweight moms or dads getting stuck in the tubes, perhaps because the damn things are so hot your own sweat would lubricate your way out eventually. Crawling through the tubes on hands and knees, traversing the mesh bridges, swinging from the trapeze, zipping down the wire and slamming into the padded wall at the end of the line A only adults with a death wish and/or fully paid insurance premiums should even attempt to keep up with the little ones. Take it from our reporter and photographer, whose arthritic joints have yet to recover from their brief forays into the kids' domain.

Discovery Zone was a monster hit with our expert panel for a variety of reasons. Jacqui and Janne enjoyed riding the wire and the trapeze. Michael preferred sliding into the Ball Wade. All four kids disappeared into the jungle maze seconds after arrival and were content to play there for the better part of an hour before even thinking about the video games. Nikki had one complaint: the junctures in the crawl-through plastic tubes were rough, and hurt her knees.

Consensus: Great for kids under twelve, maybe a little too tame for teens. Just as Jeff Richmond predicted.

Malibu Grand Prix
7775 NW 8th Street
Miami
266-7389

While Discovery Zone's size (employees communicate with one another via radio headsets) makes the biggest first impression, Malibu's noise level also makes quite a mark: 117 video games bleep, blip, squawk, and scream for attention A from the coveted NBA Jam to the Sega Galaxy Force flight simulator (Afterburner with more range of motion).

Our distinguished committee immediately dispersed upon walking through the front door, momentarily panicking their adult overseer. Michael ran for the nearest kung fu video game. Nikki, Jacqui, and Janne fanned out to a passel of different games before regrouping to watch each other shoot down enemy planes in the Galaxy Force. From there Jacqui and Janne opted for air hockey while Nikki climbed into a road racing simulator.

But the kids knew the video games were just a tune-up. At Malibu the real fun awaits out back. The complex boasts nine batting cages and an eighteen-hole miniature golf course, but the company's bread and butter is its fleet of bantam Grand Prix racers. From tiny little kiddie carts and bumper cars to intimidating two-seater Virage vehicles, these sleek machines are what really separate Malibu from the other playgrounds. It takes 39 employees to keep the joint humming inside and out.

Height requirements must be met in order to partake of even the smallest cars. You have to be 38 inches tall to drive a kiddie car, 48 inches to rattle your bones in the bumper cars, 54 inches to steer a go-cart, and you must possess a valid Florida driver's license and be over eighteen to slide behind the wheel of a Virage. Three of our judges qualified for the bumper cars and the fourth, Michael, was more interested in riding Galaxy Force anyway.

It is truly remarkable how swiftly three kids who've gotten along splendidly all afternoon can attack each other so viciously in bumper cars. Janne quickly got the hang of the controls in her car and figured out that by backing off into a neutral corner she could come hurtling with a head of steam and do some serious damage. Nikki, Janne's primary victim, never quite mastered the fine art of steering and spent most of the time (when she wasn't being broadsided) literally spinning her wheels. Jacqui quietly but efficiently picked her spots.

Their brief stint as stunt drivers proved to be the highlight of the entire survey. No video game, ball wade, or maze of chutes and ladders compared. "We should have gone here first," panted Nikki shortly after clambering out of her bumper car. If she harbored any ill will toward her friends for pummeling her vehicle, she wasn't letting on.

"I liked the carts," said Janne. "That one ride that we took [Galaxy Force], the one that spun all the way around, went up and down -- it was pretty cool. I liked that better than any of 'em."

Spoken with all the restraint of a true critic.

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