Took my daughter to Chuck E Cheese today for a friend's party, her first trip.
Holy crap, that is not like the place I remember.
Growing up in Charlotte, there was one Chuck E Cheese on Independence Blvd, right where Albemarle Road ends into it. (Or did, since Independence is now a freeway and it's an exit ramp where that shopping center and a rather cool-looking old Eckerd Drugs art deco building used to be.) We didn't go often, but it was an experience. They had a huge room for parties, three or four different themed video game rooms, tunnels under the stage to play in, and a separate, better-lit dining room adjacent to a section near the door with more kiddie games and the skeet ball. I went to a few birthday parties there, a couple my own. (I cannot think of Chuck E Cheese to this day without thinking of Zap from GIJoe, which is the only present I can remember for 100% certain getting at such a party.)
Most importantly, there were at least 100 video games. I'm not romanticizing the past here. The place was awesome.
Maybe it was too costly a model, since it closed down sometime around '84 or so. There was a Showbiz Pizza on the other side of town, which we only got to once or twice. (Charlotte is a massively spread-out city, which at the time had no quick routes from one end of the city to the other.) At some point, Showbiz bought out Chuck E Cheese, and changed the restaurants to Chuck E Cheese.
The last time I'd eaten at one before today was in the late 80s, shortly after moving to Virginia. The restaurant was much smaller, but essentially the same, though with only one or two rooms of video games. We all remembered mainly that the food was awful. Sure, they'd never had great food, but it was so bad that this even stood out to kids. The pizza was like a cracker with garlic and tomato spread on it, then low-quality cheese substitute dropped on it.
Still, I was unprepared for the crap zone I saw today.
The pizza actually was a bit better. It was edible. That's the one thing I'll give them credit for. It was pricey and not at all worth the cost, though.
The place was crowded, dirty, and full of crappy rides for very small kids. There were four video games total, two of them inferior versions of Mario Kart and Guitar Hero. Lots of games that would give tickets, most of which were the type of stupid game where you aim where your token will go and get tickets according to how many of the last players' tokens you make fall. Now, I didn't expect a cornucopia of 1980s games, but, dang, I figured they'd at least have one Super Mario Brothers or Galaga--something to occupy patrons over the age of 5 or 6. Nada.
The party area had a stage with animatronics, which looked like they were falling apart. They didn't actually do anything the entire time. Instead, there were two screens showing a DVD loop of various stuff. I know it was a DVD, because, at one point, someone apparently accidentally stopped the DVD player and it displayed "DVD Input" for a few minutes.
The "show" consisted of a guy in a threadbare Chuck costume walking around onstage and pretending to be saying some lines being piped in over the loudspeaker.
The pizzas weren't cut properly, and the employees told us they did not have knives. At least not real ones. We had to use disposable plastic knives to cut the pizza. And for cutting the cake, well, we had the option of using the same plastic knives or allowing an employee to take it in the back and cut it, with the warning that they'd probably mess it up.
The bathroom was a freakin' deathtrap. I took Chux Jr into a stall with a very short toilet (she's not old enough to use a public bathroom alone yet, and Mrs Chux was busy with Chux III). Trouble was, it was designed for a kid who's so small that s/he wouldn't be in there without a parent, but tiny. I actually bumped her in the face trying to get her up. While washing our hands, they announced the current parties going on... through a loudspeaker set to 11, about two feet from our heads. And then the cover from a light crashed down, less than five feet away from us. I told an employee when we got out, and he got on his radio to tell someone the light cover had fallen "again." Yeesh.
In the end, we were stuck with lots of tickets. About 210. Even my four-year-old daughter couldn't find any crap for that amount. One crayon--not a small box, but one crayon--was 50 tickets. That part I always knew was a ripoff, but they at least used to have some small stuff for kids to spend tickets on. I guess the tradeoff of "a winner every game" is that it's next to impossible to save enough tickets to get even a Tootsie Roll. (Really. We couldn't "afford" a Tootsie Roll!)
They had to stamp everyone on entry, even the 3-week-old baby, and we couldn't leave without verifying the numbers. Really, if their stupid stamp wore out, were they going to try to stop me from leaving with a little girl who's calling me Daddy? I know they're trying to protect kids from kidnappers, but that's overboard. Maybe not TSA overboard, but definitely a bit much.
Weirdest of all, I thought: the place served beer. They didn't even say what brand (I'm assuming Miller Lite or Bud Light or some other American "brew" that should only be used to clean with), but their menu listed it, and a lot of folks had them. They can't accommodate the parents enough to stick one stinking game that might entertain someone old enough to spell their own name, but they can serve up alcohol in a place designed for and teeming with kids?
Yeah, I know it seems like I'm just griping for no reason, but, really, I know for a fact the place used to be fairly nice--at least awesome for kids, and done well enough to be tolerated by parents. Is that model so cost-ineffective that future generations will be stuck with this sort of crap forever. I'm not so much waxing nostalgic for the old Chuck E Cheese as I am for the concept of a fun, kid-oriented pizza place that doesn't blow goats.