Adventures at Chuck E. Cheese’s

If you don’t have young children or grandchildren, you may not have experienced Chuck E. Cheese’s. I had lived 64-plus years without venturing into a Chuck E. Cheese’s, but on a recent Saturday my life changed forever.

How to describe Chuck E. Cheese’s? Words seem so inadequate. Combine the charm of McDonald’s, the noise level of a bombing raid over Baghdad, the elegant cuisine of a Tombstone frozen pizza and add about 300 kids, whose diets consist primarily of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and that will give you some idea.

At a kid’s birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s, you can experience the franchise in all of its unmitigated glory. There is, of course, that most important play area, consisting of everything from Skee-ball to a plastic tube strung overhead where kids in their stocking feet can crawl for what seems like days to get from one side to the other. The charm of the tube is that once your kid disappears into the gaping plastic maw, it’s anyone’s guess whether he or she will emerge standing next to you or at a gas station in Utah.

As part of the birthday party package, kids are each given a small bucket of tokens used to play the arcade games. It is not unusual to find a half-full bucket of tokens abandoned by some youngster in the throes of nature’s call or who got suddenly yanked away to the birthday party (which is, after all, the reason why the kid is supposed to be there in the first place). The strange part of the birthday party experience is that the birthday kid and his or her guests spend about five minutes together in the two-plus hours of the Chuck E. Cheese’s party.

Here’s basically how it works: The kids straggle in with one of their parents (usually the one that has drawn the short straw). When they arrive in the party area, the kids are given their bucket of tokens, never to be seen again until about an hour or so later, when they are paged over a loudspeaker system that little Cyril’s party is about to be celebrated. The paging almost never works, the parent inevitably having to drag the kid away from one of the neat arcade games like the Bozo the Clown NASCAR Race.

Chuck E. Cheese’s is known for its pizza, which has a distinct cardboard texture and tastes as if it were sweetened by the same guy who does Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. The kid will usually eat about a half slice in an apparent attempt to appease the parent, and wash it down with a high-sugar-content purple drink. While the birthday cake is being presented, Chuck E. Cheese, who resembles Ronald McDonald on speed, makes a brief appearance, hugging every kid in plain sight.

Then the sugar begins to kick in, and the kids are all revved up to go back to the arcade games. But first, they must watch the nimble waitress lead them in dance and song. (The fathers pay more attention to this part of the experience than the kids.) Finally, all sing "Happy Birthday" as quickly as possible, cram a piece of cake in their mouth and run back to the arcade games.

You might legitimately ask, What is it that the adults do while the kids are playing their games? This adult spent two hours in a fruitless high-speed chase to keep up with his grandson. During that time, I retrieved a Skee-ball that he inadvertently threw 3 feet to the left of the alley, narrowly missing some kids playing the basketball-hoops toss. I also spent some of that time trying to figure out what happened to my grandson’s shoes, not knowing that he had placed them in a rack situated just for that purpose.

I also was in charge of keeping track of the coupons he won at the end of each game. (You need about 3,000 such coupons for a plastic key chain. In order to win the Bose radio, you have to actively play in the arcade twice a week for the rest of your natural life). And I tried mightily not to get distracted by the pretty young mothers flitting around the place. Since the average game takes about a minute and a half, you must focus your attention or risk losing your kid in the crowd. Thus, one look at the blonde across the way and he might be at the other end of the arcade.

Chuck E. Cheese’s is actually a training ground for kids to frequent places such as Dave and Buster’s, sports bars on Eagles Sundays and the slot machines at the casinos when they grow to adulthood. It is a way to increase the threshold for pain and the tolerance for a high-decibel count, a gateway to survival at a Metallica concert.

Don’t go for the pizza.

Editor’s note: Tom Cardella will read several of his columns at the new Borders Book Store and Caf�, Broad and Chestnut streets, April 10 at 6 p.m.