I have a son who turned six a few weeks ago, and we needed to do something to acknowledge the milestone, even though turning six doesn't really mean anything. I have long been an advocate for the abolition of BIG BIRTHDAY, but kids have a knack for teaming up with the Birthday Industrial Complex to wear you down. One second, you're saying there will not be a party, and then your kid cries, and then you tell the kid, "Okay, we can do a little thing with two or three friends." And then your wife says, "But we have to invite the neighbors!" And then the kid tells eight other moron kids about his party even though they weren't invited, and suddenly you're fucked. That is how I ended up at Chuck E. Cheese's at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, surrounded by enough flashing lights to fill a Tokyo porn district.
Chuck E. Cheese's is a birthday mill. In theory, you can walk in during business hours and just, like, hang there. But no sane person does this. You go for a birthday party, and then you go home and take a bath in Purell. I fully expected to hate the entire Chuck E. Cheese's experience ... HOWEVER, the place does have its charms, especially for spastic six-year-olds. Here now is a full breakdown of the experience. Everything here will be rated on a scale of one to five barf stains (five being the best, even if that doesn't make sense when it comes to barf stains):
RESERVATIONS – One Barf Stain
I did not make the reservations for my son's party. That task fell to my wife, who had to call three times to get confirmation. Each call took 10 minutes or more, and 10 minutes in phone time is eight hours in real time. Every time she hung up the phone, she made that face you make when you've been on the phone forever with an idiot on the other end of the line: the eye-roll/hanging-tongue combination. When you are a parent, you make that face a lot. My face will likely freeze that way.
SECURITY – Two Barf Stains
Walking through Chuck E. Cheese's security is basically like being processed into a futuristic prison. You check in, and then you hold out your arm so that the dude can stamp the inside of your wrist with an invisible ink code. You cannot leave Chuck E. Cheese's without an adult to guide you back through the checkpoint. I assume these measures were put in place because, long ago, some poor kid waltzed out of the joint, got thrown into a windowless van, and was never seen again.
THE GIANT TUNNEL MAZE – Three Barf Stains
They always make your kid take off his shoes AND his socks for this, which is remarkably unsanitary. There could be syringes up there, for all I know. My 2-year-old put his little socks and shoes in the cubby, clambered up through a series of padded platforms, crawled into the series of tunnels hanging from the ceiling, and then I lost sight of him for a solid five minutes. He may as well have gone to the fucking moon. I scoured every last possible vantage point to get a glimpse of him, but there was nothing. Don Lemon told me he teleported to a new dimension. It was not a relaxing experience. But it didn't cost me any tokens, so that was cool.
THE GAMES – Five Barf Stains
If you airlifted the entire game floor of a Chuck E. Cheese's to your basement, you would cream your fucking jeans. They have everything, man: air hockey, race-car simulators, first-person shooters, Skee Ball, and POP A SHOT. I could play Pop A Shot for eight hours straight. After my kid's birthday party, I checked online to see how much a legit arcade Pop A Shot machine would cost, not the cheap-ass shit with a plastic sheet for the ball to roll back to you. Prices started at four grand. Holy goddamn.
Of course, the kids ignored the cool games to play all of the completely stupid ones. My youngest kid found a little water-shooter game where you shoot ducks through a tunnel. He played it for an hour straight. Other little kids wanted to play, and I said to my son, "Dude, you gotta give other kids a turn," and then he screamed NO! And then I wrested him away from the gun. Children have such strong grips. I would have had an easier time pulling apart a hydrogen atom.
The kids weren't interested in playing the games so much as they were searching for the easiest way to amass tickets for prizes. Speaking of which …
THE TICKET SYSTEM – One Barf Stain
It takes a very long time for the average American to grow up and realize that playing games for tickets is a ripoff, and the ticket counter is filled with Harbin outlet-quality lead-paint-toy merchandise. Yes, you can "win" an iPod if you have four billion tickets, and indeed children believe that number of tickets is attainable because they suck at guesstimating how many tickets they actually possess. But even the mid-level prizes—items that requires thousands of tickets—are shit you could get for 10 bucks at Al's Toy Barn.
My oldest kid kept trying this prize wheel with a spinning light. If you hit the button at the exact right time, you won 500 tickets. She hit the THREE TICKETS section of the wheel five times in a row, because the game was rigged. THE HOUSE WINS EVERY TIME. Eventually, I tried my luck at it. I blew through six tokens before walking away in anger. Little gambling addicts are cultivated at Chuck E. Cheese's every day, people. Open your eyes.
I also tried the machine where you drop a token in and the little rake pushed it forward, so that the pile of coins inside the machine hopefully drops down into the chute. This never happens.
THE TICKET-MUNCHER – One Barf Stain
In theory, the Ticket-Muncher should be awesome. You got all these tickets in your hand, so you feed them into the machine like you would a Coinstar, and then you get your handy receipt to bring up to the counter. But this all depends on a) the machines working (this is not always the case), and b) capable adults using them. Kids suck at the Ticket-Muncher. They jam wads of tickets in. They tear off tickets one at a time to feed them in. They get five million receipts instead of just one big one at the end. I need a receipt-muncher to tabulate the receipts from the ticket-muncher. I must have stood in line for 20 goddamn minutes waiting to use the thing. And of course, some mom in front of me had the four billion tickets needed to secure an iPad. Where did she get so many tickets? Did she solve the wheel? I hate that lady.
THE PRICE – Five Barf Stains
I assume prices may vary depending upon location, but the party for our kid was $13 a head. For that, you got pizza, cake, lemonade, AND a little cup full of tokens. That's not bad! Five different kids asked me to hold their coin cup while they climbed around in the maze. I should have labeled the cups differently. I bet each coin was coated in measles.
THE PIZZA – Three Barf Stains
It was time to sit for our little party, and the kids gathered at one of the four long rows of tables meant to house eight birthday parties at once. The staff brought out pizzas that were clearly just frozen pizzas they had jammed in the oven. And you know what? It was pretty good pizza! I think I ate a whole pizza while refilling drinks and making sure every kid wiped the tomato sauce off his or her mouth. A bunch of kids would take, like, two bites of pizza and then leave the rest of the slice. Part of me died inside. Who does that with pizza? That's deviant behavior.
THE CAKE – One Barf Stain
It crumbles right to shit. We should have made our own. Why do kids try to wear the cake instead of just eating it?
THE SHOW – Two Barf Stains
During pizza time, there's a big countdown clock and a computerized voice telling you that Chuck E. Cheese himself will be coming out shortly. ALMOST TIME, KIDS! I must have heard that for 10 straight minutes. Eventually, the giant rat came out (he does it on the hour, every hour), danced around, posed for photos, and scared half the children to death. It's a big rat. Shouldn't he be part of a union protest or something? I am scared of theme-park mascots. Anyone could be under there: a hobo, a murderer, a rapist. I need more transparency with Chuck. There was also an animatronic girl rat over to the right of the stage that danced and talked. I don't know why Chuck gets a real mascot and Girl Chuck is just a freaky sex doll.
And yes, the singalong songs are still in my head. Everybody's doing the Chuckie! CHUCKIE CHUCKIE!
THE TICKET BLASTER – Five Barf Stains
If you are the birthday boy or girl, you get to stand in the Ticket Blaster for a minute. This is a little hurricane case that blows a whirlwind of tickets all around you. My two oldest kids stepped into the thing with safety goggles on (they were mandatory, lest a flying ticket slice your eyeball), and the fucker started up. It was like putting a grown adult in the middle of a cash storm. The children were fucking ELATED. Somehow, my son grabbed the special 1,000-ticket mega-ticket (still fairly useless), and both kids acted as if they had looted the Bellagio. I think it was the first time they got along in five years. They'd never been so excited. Then they used the mega-ticket to get a knockoff Nerf gun. We lost all the darts that same day.
THE POST-PARTY MELTDOWN — Zero Barf Stains
Hey, that was a fun time, kids! You got lots of games and food and presents! You must be ready to just chill now, right … OH MY GOD WHO ARE THESE DEMON BEASTS?!
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter@drewmagary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also order Drew's book, Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.
Image by Sam Woolley.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter.