According to my memory, my six-year-old self thought Chuck E. Cheese’s was a magical place. There was one located in a strip mall not too far from both my paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes, and though it must have closed down when I was only five or six, I can vaguely remember how the pizza parlor /video arcade / animatronic vaudeville theater was laid out. Walking in, you were greeted by the alluring cacophony of hundreds of coin-operated video games being played in unison, the buzzing whir of Skee-Ball machines dispensing tickets in recognition of games well played, and the metallic rainfall of tokens pouring from the money-token exchange machine. The dimly lit restaurant was offset by the dazzling rainbow of flashing lights coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once. In the back, a theater where (robotic) comedians and musicians entertained the enthusiastic crowds. Up front, a gift shop of sorts where one could trade in their winnings for plastic spider rings or jelly bracelets. Chuck E. Cheese’s was a six-year-old’s Caesar’s Palace.
When Chuck E. Cheese’s closed down, I embraced Showbiz Pizza. In my memory, the latter was not quite the enterprise that was the former, though they offered the same general fare, both off-stage and on. I could swear that I celebrated several years’ worth of birthdays in a row at these two establishments, though more realistically, it was probably only two or three birthdays. Regardless, I know that at some point in my young mind these businesses were the indispensable standards of birthday entertainment and could not easily be displaced.
Flash forward 20+ years. Today I took my own sons to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Skewed memories aside, times have certainly changed. When you walk in, the first thing they do is put an ultraviolet stamp with a unique code on each person in your group. Then, when you leave, they have to shine an ultraviolet light on all the people in your group and check the stamps to make sure you’re not walking out with someone else’s kid (or spouse?). The restaurant is also more compact than I seem to remember, with the stage show being visible from almost anywhere in the restaurant rather than off in its own separate area like it was in my youth. That doesn’t matter much, I suppose, but somehow that separation added to the grandeur of Chuck E. Cheese’s in my younger years; it was such a sprawling mecca of entertainment. In comparison, it now seems rather dinky. It’s also a rip-off if you don’t have a coupon. A large, moderate-quality pizza with two toppings would cost you $19 if you just walked in and ordered one. Fortunately, Melanie and I were able to get a large “super combo” pizza with four drinks (we only needed three!) and 40 tokens for about the same price. They weren’t such a rip-off when I was a kid. In fact, I don’t remember ever paying for anything as a child. Somehow I just had tokens and pizza at my disposal.
Getting back to today, Edison was a bit leery of the place at first, especially of the animatronic stage show. When Melanie took Peter up for a closer look, Eddie hung back and would not get closer, even when I offered to hold him. He was also initially unsure about most of the rides and games, which left me feeling like the whole visit was destined to be pointless. But, all in due time, Edison warmed up and started trying new things. His three favorite things ended up being a horse-riding game, a game where sharks pop out and you have to bonk them on the head (think Whac-a-Mole), and a trolley (re: train) ride. I think he enjoyed inserting the tokens almost as much as he enjoyed playing the games sometimes, but he was certainly having fun. He even worked up the courage to climb up all four levels necessary to reach a large, twisting tunnel slide, which he thoroughly enjoyed. By the time we were leaving, he was sad to go.
I was bummed that they didn’t have the coin-operated miniature Ferris wheel that I remember as a child. I can imagine Edison being scared of it, at least at first, but Peter might have enjoyed it. For my own sake, it would have been fun to see an arcade classic, like Pac-Man, Mario Bros., or Donkey Kong. I didn’t expect it, but there’s nothing even remotely similar to those games nowadays. Every video game is either a driving game or a shooting game. You can’t even find a pinball machine. Personally, I think Q*Bert was as three-dimensional as we ever needed to get.