Does anybody out there remember Chuck E. Cheese’s? You know, the place “where a kid can be a kid” and parents can order pitchers of beer and get plowed while their kids play in the pit of plastic balls? For many, myself included, visiting Chuck E. Cheese’s was in the top tier of great things to do as a kid. Chances are if you lived near a major city in the ’80s you went to the family-themed restaurant at least once. Well, as fate would have it, I found myself back at one of my childhood landmarks this week. My how the times have changed.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this bastion of childhood bliss, let me give you a brief history. The first Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant opened in 1977 in San Jose, Calif. Fast-forward 25 years later and Chuck E. Cheese’s now has 350 locations in the United States as was honored by Forbes magazine on their list of the “Top 200 Small Companies.” Chuck E. Cheese’s is a culmination of everything kids love – games, pizza and shady, middle-aged men in animal costumes (sounds like the perfect day job for crotch-rocker Pete Townshend).
In a sense, Chuck E. Cheese’s taught me many vital life lessons. Long before I had a weekly allowance, I saved up paper tickets from the various game machines (Skeeball was my weapon of choice) in hopes that one day I might earn myself a stuffed Garfield toy. I quickly found out after spending three hours rolling balls into several holes with varying point assignments I would be rewarded with two things, a bouncy ball and a sore arm. For $10 in tokens I got a 10-cent piece of rubber. It was a hard lesson in economics for a six-year-old. I think that was the precise moment in my young life when the word “cheap” entered my vocabulary (it remains one of my all-time favorite words).
Now let’s return to the present day. Before I go in depth on my heart-breaking story of the week, I’d like to give you more background information on myself that is pertinent to these events. I’ve always held a tight grip on my younger years. In high school I was voted “kid at heart” by my senior class and I still have dozens of toys from my pre-pubescent stage. That’s why returning to Chuck E. Cheese’s after a 12-year absence was so difficult for me.
A good friend of mine, let’s just call him Jam Master Blay for the sake of anonymity, informed me last week that Chuck E. Cheese’s (formerly known as Showbiz Pizza in some areas) currently had a coupon that offered 100 free tokens with the purchase of a large pizza. I quickly calculated that the tokens amounted to $25 worth (thanks Dad for buying the “Human Calculator” program for me off TV in 2nd grade). So for one $15 large pizza I would receive $25 in tokens, my human calculator was telling me one thing: This was a deal of extraordinary magnitude. After searching the company website, I learned they gave away free tokens for grades, and nowhere online did I finding any legal text omitting college grades. So for my four B’s I got 8 more tokens and was now up to 108 total. So I called up my colleague Wonder Luke and invited him for a trip down memory lane (located at 2655 Oak Valley Dr.).
The so-called “leader in family-fun dining” was not what I remembered.
As we entered the restaurant, the bright colors and flashing lights overwhelmed us. The place looked like Moulin Rouge for toddlers. My first reaction was to find the nearest air hockey table, but a quick survey of the area found nothing of the sort. There were plenty of kid friendly games, but where were the classics like Tron and Joust?
Then reality hit me in one swift stroke. The place is designed for five-year-olds! Right as we stepped onto the vibrant carpet we got dirty looks from the parents and employees. This was no place for 22-year-old nostalgic college boys. We were the unfortunate victims of niche marketing.
The last time I was in a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant was for my 10th birthday party and I still remember getting all the way through “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game” with my three closest 4th-grade buddies. This time around the mechanical animals weren’t singing the birthday song, there was not a “Ninja Turtles” game anywhere in the building and Vanilla Ice wasn’t playing loudly over the cheap, in house speakers.
Let’s be honest. The pizza at Chuck E. Cheese’s is not good. It wasn’t good back when I sported a pair of white Reebox Pumps and in the new millennium the quality of their crust and cheese has yet to improve. The free tokens were hardly worth wasting $15 on an overpriced large pizza.
I left the “family-fun” restaurant in disgust, my equally dismayed friend followed right behind me. We ended up eating at Macaroni Grill that afternoon and I didn’t get 100 tokens with my sugo bianco, but at least the food was good.