I Have Seen the Gates of Hell

Yesterday, Trombone and I attended a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

I wish to insert here that the birthday party was fun and I appreciate the invitation / pizza / cake / goody bag. I paid nothing for the experience, so I can’t even imagine how people who pay to play must feel. This is in no way a criticism of any particular parent’s desire to host a birthday party at any particular establishment. I ain’t judging.

Going in, I thought Chuck’s was an indoor playcentre. I like indoor playcentres. My experience with them is that a) they are a great way to tire out your children on a rainy / cold day and b) Wash your hands thoroughly afterward. I read on the website that Chuck’s sells beer, even. I could think of worse things than sipping a cold beer while my child plays in a playcentre with his much cherished preschool friends.

However, as you probably all know, Chuck E. Cheese, the establishment, is not a playcentre. It is Baby Vegas. It is Playland (cheap crap disguised as ‘prizes!’), plus Air Miles (you need 8,000,000 points to fly to Calgary!), times hell (read on!)

We were greeted by the friend’s mother, who handed us a container of 50 tokens. “The tokens get you tickets and the tickets get you prizes! Go play!” she said, gesturing to a room full of arcade and midway games, all blinking and squawking at us.

Every game cost one token and you could win anywhere from one to six tickets. We played some basketball (3 tickets) and some whack-a-shark (5 tickets) and some hit-an-egg-off-a-spoon-with-a-controller-doohickey (1 ticket). Then it was time for birthday party pizza.

The children gathered, as instructed, but couldn’t eat their pizza. They were vibrating with ticket lust. They needed to get back out there and get more tickets. More tickets! MORE TICKETS!

Meanwhile, on top of the background noise, which was not insignificant, given the three concurrent birthday parties, there were several large TV screens that were playing videos of mascots singing and dancing along to Greatest Hits like “Word Up” by Cameo.

Also, there was a giant, robot Chuck E. Cheese on a stage who sang and danced along with the singing, dancing mascot videos.

Also, there was a giant “live” mascot Chuck E. Cheese who was roaming the room like a drunk bride at her wedding reception, high-fiving and hugging everyone who came near him.

It was horrifying.

After cake and pinata-opening (yield: 4,000 more tickets and a shit-tonne of candy), Trombone discovered the climbing structure. The climbing structure doesn’t require any tokens. He went in once. He went in twice. I jingled our cup of approximately 30 remaining tokens. He went in again. He made two friends; boys about his age who like to climb things. He went in a fourth time and didn’t come back for half an hour.

I should have given our tokens to a small child or adult or homeless person and curled up in the corner for a nap, but I didn’t. I played more games, to see how many tokens I could spend / tickets I could get. Answer: a lot. And: not very many.

I saved Trombone three tokens and convinced him to come out of the climbing structure. He was a wreck. You know when a kid is tired to start with, doesn’t eat much, has a bunch of sugar, and is in an environment that beeps and buzzes and blinks and there are people running everywhere, so his brain goes into hyper-alert crisis mode but then it realizes it should be saving energy to eat more candy so it shuts down entirely? That was my son.

“Go and get your shoes on,” I said. “Then we’ll spend your last three tokens and go.”

He wandered away from me and I waited for a few minutes before going after him. He was on a merry-go-round. Just sitting there. No shoes.

“OK, which game,” I said, holding him firmly by the shoulder. “Bowling? Water-shooting? Last three tokens!”

The birthday host popped up from behind me. “Oh we have LOTS MORE tokens! Here, here’s a handful!”

I just wanted to leave the casino and get back to my hotel room so I could watch CNN in my underwear. Metaphorically speaking.

“Oh, no no no. Thanks,” I said. Trombone was so stoned he didn’t even notice I turned down more tokens. We played our last three tokens and took our handful of tickets to the ticket machines.

There were four ticket machines, all of which were occupied by people who had three, or four, or five hundred tickets. You feed the tickets into a slot and the machine tallies them for you. The family in front of us had six hundred tickets. It took them fifteen minutes to feed them into the machine.

When it was finally our turn, we fed our tickets. It took two minutes. The machine spat a receipt at us; a small slip of paper with “95” printed on it.

“OK!” I said brightly, steering Trombone by the shoulders, “Let’s cash in those 95 tickets!”

The prize counter was a mob scene. A glass case was filled with cheap trinkets for various small values: 15 tickets. 40 tickets. 100 tickets. The exciting prizes were tacked to the wall. Chuck E. Cheese goody bag: 300 tickets. Spiderman bouncy ball: 400 tickets. Toy Story Operation game that I saw at London Drugs for $18.99: 6,000 tickets. SIX THOUSAND. You heard me.

15 minutes later, the family of three leaning on the glass had settled on a bunch of candy, a slinky toy and some rubber cockroaches for their 600 tickets.

20 minutes later, the boys in front of us settled on a bunch of candy, a rubber bracelet, and some rubber manta rays the size of a thumbnail, for their 400 tickets.

The woman with the three year old girl CUT IN FRONT OF ME for some Tinkerbell playing cards. Cost: 150 tickets.

“Trombone!” I said, “It’s our turn!”

Trombone was afflicted, then, with classic lineup anxiety. We had waited so long and discussed every item and its value for SO LONG that did he want the rubber ring? The candy. No the ring. No the candy.

Trombone’s classmate’s mom said, “Do you want some of our tickets?”

“No, thank you,” I said, through gritted teeth. “I think that would just make it harder.”

Trombone picked candy. For 95 tickets he got one roll of Rockets, a tiny box of strawberry Nerds, and some taffy. About fifty cents worth of candy.

“That was soooooo funnnnn,” he slurred as I dragged him to the exit.
“Yeah?” I said, “was it?”
“Omigosh yes. Soooo fun. We have to come back here. We have to bring Fresco.”


Chuck E. Cheese has a “child safe” program in place. When you enter, they stamp you and your child with matching stamps that only show up under UV light. When you leave, they scan your stamps to make sure they match.

The girl at the door scanned my hand. No stamp.
“Huh,” she said. “Maybe it washed off?”
“Yeah, I went to the bathroom,” I said. “A couple of times.”

She scanned Trombone’s hand.

“Well his is there,” she said. “Sweetie,” she said to Trombone, “Can you tell me who this is?”

Trombone stared past me, at the giant dancing mouse.

“Hmmmm?” he said. “Who?”

She pointed right at me.

“That lady. Who is she?”

After a nerve wracking, five second pause during which I considered that I might never get to leave this place, but on the bright side I would get to have a beer after all, Trombone’s face registered brain activity again. He looked at me.

“Oh that? That’s my mom.”

“OK, have a nice day,” she said, and let us go.

Some cost-effective yet still game-like alternatives to a trip to Chuck E. Cheese:

– Throw a handful of change down a storm sewer and then tell your child to fish it out with a paperclip attached to a twig. Whatever he fishes out, spend on candy at the corner store.

– Take your child to a dollar store and set a timer. Tell him to grab as much as he can in five minutes. Pay. Leave.

– Donate twenty dollars to charity and buy a frozen pizza for dinner.

– Paint your face like a mouse’s face and sing Cameo’s “Word Up” while dancing jerkily, like a robot. Don’t blink. Never blink.

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