Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Indoor Play Places


For those of us who did not grow up in consistently temperate climates, our parents faced a serious conundrum: how to drain us of our boundless energy when the outdoor playgrounds were buried under six feet of snow or consumed by a mighty hurricane? Without the benefit of outside space with major running-around space capacity, it was difficult to sufficiently tire a kid out in time for naptime. What's an exhausted and weather-beaten parent to do?

Luckily, enterprising child-minded 90s entrepreneurs had the answer: indoor play places. In these colorful, kid-friendly enclosed playgrounds, masses of children had the opportunity to run wild to their hearts' collective content. Parents, by lucky virtue of their inability to fit in those constrictive plastic crawl tubes, were mercilessly spared and allowed to sit back and relax from the observation area. Overall, a win-win situation.

All it took was a quick removal of shoes to be stored in the play place cubbies and we were generally good to go. Crawling spaces, climbing ropes, ball pits, and slides awaited us at every visit, turning these indoor play spaces into popular venues for birthday parties and playdates. While their appeal waned in the late 90s and many chains merged and eventually filed for bankruptcy, I'd like to remember them as they were: chaotic, germ-ridden, and filled with screaming children. At least we have our memories.


Discovery Zone



For a brief period in the early-to-mid 90s, DZ play places were a major force, opening centers in cities across the US. These self-proclaimed "indoor fitness centers" for children boasted an array of climbing, swinging, and sliding apparatuses. Perhaps DZ got a bit greedy, as their haste in opening venue after venue left them in a relatively dire financial situation. In 1996, the company filed for bankruptcy, inspiring the more dominant Chuck E. Cheese to quickly gobble up DZ franchises. By the end of the decade, Discovery Zones were but a brief memory to most 90s children.

Despite their short-lived popularity, many of us still remember the colorful commercials and catchy jingles that impelled us to beg our parents for what we considered to be our right to Discovery Zone time. Though the company failed to live up to their self-generated hype over time, for a time their slogan was right on: "Where kids want to be." Or, perhaps more appropriately, "Where fed-up and exhausted parents want to bring them."


Chuck E. Cheese



Among the few free-standing play place chains to cross over to the new millennium, Chuck E. Cheese's aptly cheesy concept has served them well over the years. Despite the undeniably frightening full-size animatronic mouse music show accompanying their signature sit-down pizza meal, Chuck E. Cheese has enjoyed relative success in the children's entertainment industry for over 30 years. Aside from the standard climbing equipment and ball pits, the chain also featured a sizable arcade stocked with standard fare. You've got to commend their multi-faceted approach at entertaining young consumers, but those giant singing mice are essentially unforgivable. They will haunt your dreams.



McDonalds PlayPlace


Some of today's savvier and consumer-minded children may be appalled to know some of us actually held birthday parties at (gasp!) McDonalds, but back in the late 80s and early 90s the novelty of these indoor PlayPlaces made them an attractive venue for children's celebrations. The relative cheapness of McDonalds' PlayPlaces in comparison to stand-alone chains like Chuck E. Cheese lured in budget-conscious parents. We may not have known what was in the Chicken McNuggets (suspiciously not containing all-white meat chicken breasts until a few years ago, leading me to suspect they once potentially contained shoes and tire remnants) but we knew one thing: PlayPlaces are free, Chuck E. Cheese costs money. Done deal.


Leaps and Bounds


McDonalds Corp knew they couldn't give it all away for free though--especially not when they saw their PlayPlace competitors raking in the big bucks from their pay-for-play centers. In 1991, McDonalds opened the pilot "Leaps & Bounds" center in an 11,000 square foot strip mall space Naperville, IL. The experiment was short-lived--the chain merged with the now-defunct Discovery Zone a few years later--but it was fun while it lasted.


Circus Pizza/Showbiz Pizza



These chains were somehow linked to the Chuck E. Cheese empire, though my research skills are a bit too hazy (read:lazy) to tell you exactly how. They featured the same basic Chuck E. Cheese prototype: arcade, ball bit, climbing zone, pizza, freaky animatronic performers. In case your memory needs some dusting off, here's a brief refresher course in the terrifying singing puppets: they were called the Rock-afire Explosion and you can see them in all of their horrific glory in the video above. Watch at your own risk: those things are creepy.


These play places varied significantly by region, so I imagine many of you grew up with different chains. Feel free to wax poetic in the comments section about your favorite mangy ball pit or sandbox station. These centers were popping up everywhere in the 90s, sometimes in the least expected places. Here, I'll get things started: my personal favorite was my family's annual stop at Grand Casino Hinckley in Minnesota--it may not sound like much of a place for children, but they had the play place to trump all other small-town isolated casino play places. To this day when I enter a casino, my instinct is not to sit down at the blackjack table but rather to ask the concierge for directions to the on-site enclosed play place. Screw slot machines: I want crawling tubes.

Okay, now it's your turn. Knock yourself out. Not literally, though. We don't have a brain-cushioning ballpit or recycled-tire floor here to break your fall.

51 comments:

Emma said...

Ahh.. I remember often being dumped at a mcds party being entertained by ronald mcdonald and shoving my face full of hamburgers!

Anonymous said...

We didn't get a McD's in our town until I was 12 (I come from a VERY small town) and the closest Chuck E. Cheese was an hour away. I feel like I was seriously deprived of an indoor play place childhood.

Little Mrs Domestic said...

As a parent now.. I so wish that discovery zone was still around!!! I remember I even got to stay the night once for girl scouts.

Melanie's Randomness said...

I used to have a discovery zone by me. It was the coolest place ever. Kids have NO idea how awesome they have it now in Mcdonalds. I remember when it was just a small ball pit...now its a lil city of tunnels!! Lucky them!!!

Simply_Megan said...

Omg I so had a party at Chuck E. Cheese! So much fun. There was this other indoor place near my house called Family FunScape. I don't think it was a chain but it was ten times better than Chuck E. Cheese. It had a huge play obstacle course area, but was attached to a movie theater and also had a carousel, mini golf, bumper cars, and those theaters where you watch a movie like you're on a rollercoaster and the seats move. Unfortunately, it closed down and now all that's left is the movie theater.

Sadako said...

Maybe if we still had DZ we wouldn't have...BUM BUM....CHILDHOOD OBESITY!

Plus they were hella fun.

dcgirl9139 said...

The one near where I live (Toledo, OH) is called Major Magics. It's similar to Chuck E Cheese, except with a large animatronic king. I don't think they have a playplace, just a bunch of games.
I remember when I was of a more appropriate age to play in McDonalds playplaces that they used to have awesome one when I was a kid with fry kids merry-go-rounds. Now they are all the giant slides and things, which seem much more boring.

vanessa steck said...

my favorite was Jeepers, an indoor amusement park with a miniature roller coaster. It remains the only roller coaster I can ride.

Heather Taylor said...

I was so excited when I heard about McDonald's getting the playplace. Unfortunately, the one that got the playplace was in a relatively poor and terrifying neighborhood that my parents very, very seldom took me to and tried to get me out of just as quickly.
I went on a field trip to a McDonald's playplace a few years later (who even remembers the educational purpose backing that up) and one of my classmates, a heavy kid, got stuck in the tubes. Still cracks me up to this day.

Bibliotender said...

My question is: When are they going to make a McPlayplace that doesn't maintain the smell of dirty feet? Or Why can’t they design a room that doesn't resemble a greenhouse, keeping the plastic a few degrees above melting point during the summer?

My favorite aspect of Chuck e Cheese is that they are not interested in making a profit from the games. Each outdated game requires only one token and there are plenty of promotions giving hundreds of the little golden discs for free resulting in plenty of ‘children away from the table’ time. There is enough even for the adults to challenge the kids to a friendly competition or two (I take the side with the broken buttons to make things fair).

RAY J said...

I remember going to Chuck E. Cheese as a kid after getting my report card!

Also, out here we had a HUGE indoor play place called Peanut Butter Playhouse - it was a couple stories high, extending into the lower level of the building... it was almost a mini-maze there were so many different ways you could go in there!

DZ came in soon later, but PB playhouse was the cooler one cuz it was soooo much bigger! Eventually they both shut down, but the newer skating arena opened up Sopora's Play World, which is pretty big, but not quite as big as the one at PB Playhouse...

there's a new one in town called Monkey Joe's, but I haven't checked that one out yet, as I'm too big and don't have any little kids currently to take =)

nikki said...

I'm about to age myself here. I never played at a DZ. But I totally worked there for two summers in college! I can't believe working there didn't make me go get my tubes tied. Alas, I have a 3 1/2 year old son now.

Linz031487 said...

I was never a huge fan of the play places when I was little (although I went to a few McDonald's parties), until I went to Leaps and Bounds in Atlanta, GA when i was...8 maybe? I had a blast. Then I begged like crazy to go to our local Chuck E. Cheese when it opened, so my family finally relented, haha--but only once. And I STILL remember the commercial for one called Kid's Place near my grandparents' house in KY, although I never got to go there.

miss jille said...

Little Caesars Pizza had one of these places near me, and my favorite part was the singing Crazy Bread on the wall. It was a lot less terrifying than the animatronic band at Chuck E Cheese!

tvgirl48 said...

I wish the Leaps and Bounds still existed b/c I remember ours (in Cincinnati, Ohio) as being huge and I'd love to go back and see it again. Why did those things fizzle and die anyway?

Anonymous said...

We had a place by us called Jump and Shout. Oh my word, that place was the best! Our church took us a few times, but it ended up closing down just a quickly as it had arrived.

Kristen said...

I loooved Discovery Zone!

We didn't get a McDonald's playland until I was 12 - the exact year McD considered kids too old to play in their playplace.

I've only been to Showbiz Pizza once (and have never been to Chuck E Cheese) for the simple reasons that (a) the pizza was terrible (b) the animatronic creatures scared the bejeezus out of me and (c) all they had was a ball pit that was filled with violent boys.

The City Museum here in St. Louis has taken the playplaces to a whole new level - it's a multi-storied system of tunnels, slides, climbing apparatus, etc... and adults can climb around too!

Angela_Baker said...

I grew up in New Hampshire, and we had Joker's, the poor child's Chuck E. Cheese. I always had my birthday at Joker's because they had an awesome all-black slide and you felt like an astronaut in space when you went down it. :)

Kelly Jane said...

Circus Pizza was always my fave. Though Chuck E. Cheese ran a close second.

Also--not trying to be too picky, but Grand Casino Hinckley is in Minnesota. :-)

Children of the 90s said...

@Kelly Jane Oh you are totally right, I'll have to change that. I don't think I've been there since I was about 7 years old, and of course, I only saw it from inside the playplace!

alwaysasilverliningblog said...

In south Florida, we had a place called "Mark Twain's Riverboat Playhouse". It had the games, the awesome pizza, and the terrifying animatronic band of humanized "animals". This gem of a place also had an animatronic Mark Twain who stared at everyone and occasionally spoke and moved.. I loved it!

....Until a discovery zone opened up in that same mall which was cleaner, bigger, un-creepy, and had laser tag. DZ was my go-to place from then on... =D

CVH said...

Hi in canada at leasst where I live. we had a place called adventure city, I rember it being two storys high i do believe. it was a big maze and at the end was the arcade XD. Also beside it was a place called darkzone it was a massive lasertag facility, This was before paint-ball became the norm. I think we had a Discovery zone but i hardly went to it. allas the discovery zone is torn down now. the adventure city is a a dollerrama store, and darkzone is a coffee shop

Anonymous said...

What about Jungle Jim's Playland? That's the main one I remember. I only went once because I think it was too expensive.

Indoor Play Systems said...

Wow! This is a very nice place. My son will love this place. I remember there is one place he really enjoyed a lot and he met so many friends too, if I am not mistaken it's another kiddie playground within our community.

Anonymous said...

There was a Leaps and Bounds in the Houston area. I went to it once and as a kid. I remember thinking it was kind of strange, the idea of a McDonalds PlayPlace writ large. Parents didn't like it too much because it made it a lot harder to keep track of your kid as they moved throughout the playground. That being said, in theory, it was a great business idea.

Anonymous said...

OMG! How the years have gone by since I have entered a play place. There was a HUGE place down the street from me called Jump Yard (Charlotte, NC). It was the greatest indoor place place ever! It had 6 enormous levels of tunnels, ball pits, large rooms filled with big bouncing balls, etc. All of those were built into 2 large structures of tunnels and whatnot. I can remember the 4th level with the big bouncing balls and honestly just how much fun I had as a child. I can remember playing tag there, and just how many hours I spent crawling and running through those mazes of tunnels.

It's heartbreaking now because my 3 year old nephew is at that age where he loves to run around and I decided to take him there last week and apparantley it has been closed for over 8 years...I feel like I should open one if I ever run into money.

Piece of advice for anyone hwo has one near them, enjoy it while you can. It honestly is such an amazing experience so do yourself or you children a favor and let them experience it.

Vani B. said...

If DZ still existed, it probably wouldn't be as awesome as I remember it. I had my eighth birthday party over there and remember playing Laser Tag at the new venue with my best friend, which was actually in mid-1996. I heard a different story about its demise, though... apparently some kid cracked his head open or something and his parents sued the hell out of DZ. The following week after Laser Tag, DZ had shut down.

411314 said...

My babysitter used to take me to a McDonald's that had one of these. There was a series of tubes leading through two slightly spherical areas (with triangle ridges sticking out) which had windows enabling you to look down at the room before continuing through the tubes to a slide. There was also a ball pit and an area off to the side with three small TVs on which you could play video games while sitting in a chair shaped like a McDonald's character (Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures and some Looney Tunes game where you controlled the Tasmanian Devli are the games I remember being there). That was also the McD's where my family and I went to "parts trading night" to assemble the entire Inspector Gadget toy.

Miclusi said...

I actually lived in Naperville in the mid nineties and got to experience that amazing Leaps & Bounds at the mall there. The jungle gym trumped all other. I loved it so much. But not as much as I loved Discovery Zone. Discovery Zone always had the most epic promotions going on, and It had a jungle gym that was only slightly smaller than Leaps & Bounds'. One time they had a promotion for The Might Morphin Power Rangers movie, and they gave out these wristbands that were supposed to imitate the wristbands they used as two-way communicators in the movie. My mom still probably has that wristband packed away amongst my old toys from the 90's. Ahhh good times!!! When my family moved to Minneapolis in 97, Discovery Zone had shut down most of their play places. I remember going to one shortly after we moved here, and it was a sad sad sight. I did go to Circus Pizza a few times here in minneapolis, though. I remember they always smelled like burnt pizza though. Chucke Cheese was always the worst, though. I don't care how long it's been open, that place always had the jankiest jungle gym, and boring off-brand arcade games. Gosh it all seems just like yesterday when I was playing with my power rangers wristband at a birthday party in 95.

kati brown said...

I was looking for the leaps and bounds commercial from the 90's. This one will not load up. My husband was the kid in the commercial and we are trying to find the video as him mom lost it. Can anyone help?? Thanks!

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Brittney Bagley said...

Same here! I wish I could bring my son to discovery zone. I found a dz shirt a few years ago from when I was younger!

shon polack said...

I like this play center because I know indoor play places are the best source for all kids to get entertainment and fun. I have also kid and he likes to play with games, climbing ball pits and slides etc and I had a great experience of visiting at different play centers in search of fun, laugh and excitement for my kid and I had visited many play centers but I like shiny star play centre after my all visits due to its lovely entertaining environment. Every visitor can celebrate all types of Birthday parties here. Their play centre’s team provides extra fun and unique party arrangements which I really liked. I can’t forget this wonderful visit.

Charlotte NC said...

Have you ever gone to Sky High Charlotte? Sky High is really fun for kids of all ages.. we go there often.

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Christine Bukowski said...

Who remembers CaesarLand? :)

truaus said...

I remember that place . are u from Michigan. What was the name of that place..trying to take my kids there

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Little Ceasors Pizzaria

Aurora Shines said...

Yes!! Been searching for that! Me and my sister were really young but we have vogue memories and were trying to piece it together! Thanks for mentioning it!!

Unknown said...

This was my favorite birthday party invite. Little caesars palace

Shevawn Stanley said...

This was my favorite birthday party invite. Little caesars palace

Henry said...

Wonderful place,..
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Jimmie Parker said...

It was called ceaser land...and yes it was awssssssome

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amanda rodriguez said...

I loved that place especially in the late 80s early 90s! So awesome!

Lisa said...

Does anyone from CT remember a place called Banjo's or something like it with a banjo-playing dog? I found this thread trying to figure it out. My parents have a picture of this character with the name of the place captioned as Banjo's, but we can't figure out if it was really Jasper Jowls at Chuck E Cheese (and mis-captioned), or if this Banjo's place existed and just isn't on the 2017 internet!

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