Note: This post is rated PG-13 for mature themes and mild strong language.
Family friends invited us to attend a birthday party last Saturday for their five-year-old, held at the Chuck E. Cheese in Rohnert Park, about an hour away. This tied in nicely with other plans (buying a Christmas tree in nearby Sebastopol), but I frankly wasn’t looking forward to the party venue. In fact, I braced myself for what I imagined would be very unpleasant: dozens of video games, lots of noise, a pandemonium of kids running around everywhere. But nothing could have prepared me for the actual reality of the place. Join me, if you dare, for a virtual tour of this most grotesque of all child-oriented establishments.
As soon as we walked in the door I was stunned by the loud, chaotic, phantasmagoric environment—like Vegas without the class. Chuck E. Cheese was jam-packed, like a warehouse floor, littered with unattractive attractions: big sit-in video games; a Habitrail-like tunnel system scaled for humans but otherwise identical to what hamsters use; ride-on apparatuses like the horse rides you used to see, but featuring ATVs and such, many of them inoperative; old carnival-style games where you throw balls at stuff; tables tucked here and there adorned with glistening, plastic-looking pizzas; the food counter selling things like the “Family Saver” package (16” pizza, four 64-ounce sodas, and 100 game tokens for $50); a stage with giant uncanny animatronic rodents dressed like tasteless people; and big plasma screens playing a horrible kids’ show featuring Chucky and some little child-actor bastards.
No discrete sound could be made out over the generalized din. We had to stand in a line while some 14-year-old branded our wrists, and our kids’ too, with invisible ink to try to prevent child abduction. While in line I looked over at this very strange video game. It was like one of those sit-in car games, except that there was no means by which the player provided input into the machine. It was, in fact, an entirely passive activity: a roller coaster simulation, with a chair that vibrated to simulate a rickety old wooden track. The fat kid passively receiving this entertainment wore a strange expression, like she was receiving some vague, novel pleasure, and due to the vibration all three of her chins were jiggling.
We eventually got past security, and after trying in vain to clean our hands (the hand sanitizer dispenser was empty or broken) we found our group, deposited our gift, and received a bucket of tokens. I grimly set to work running down the clock while pretending, for Alexa’s sake, to be enjoying myself. She found most of the games stressful, except for this one where you press a button that causes a boxing-gloved mechanical fist to punch at miniature ducks as they are dragged by on a conveyor belt. Based on how many ducks you punch in 20 seconds, you get some number of paper tickets that spew forth from the machine. Other activities also offered the reward of tickets, generally in inverse proportion to their enjoyability (the simplest being the functional equivalent of a slot machine).
Next I tried a car-racing game. The steering wheel was screwed up (which I knew because I was unable to successfully select my car type, car color, music, etc.—you know, the consumer-pleasure aspect of the game). Through my somewhat crash-free driving I earned extended play, which was a small pleasure (diminished by my hunch that the game was tweaked to provide this sense of ersatz achievement). Alexa also tried the car game, plowing into a lot of walls and other cars and concluding plaintively, “I’m a really bad driver.” She wouldn’t play it again, thus more duck-punching.
Eventually we were summoned to our group’s table, where lunch was served to the kids while the adults stood around watching. Oddly, my normally voracious kids didn’t want seconds of pizza. They were much engrossed in the awful video on the plasma screen. When it became clear to me that the assembled kids weren’t going to finish the pizza I sneaked a slice, just to further flesh out my giant hatred of Chuck E. Cheese. Sure enough, this was strictly airport food: the kind of grim product that goes directly from the freezer to the microwave. The crust was flaccid, the cheese eerily un-cheesy, the tomato sauce corn-syrupy.
Our table was a long narrow one, set parallel to four more just like it, at each of which a birthday party was in full swing. Each table had an emcee whose job was to jar the kids out of their confused, overwhelmed stupor and galvanize them into prescribed party behavior, which included call-and-response chanting (“Chuck-EEE, Chuck-EEE!”), yelling, clapping, and table-slapping. All five tables were being marched through the same party script. It dawned on me that I was observing an honest-to-god birthday-processing factory: celebration as assembly line.
I couldn’t tell if our activity was supposed to sync up with the action on the plasma screens, or whether the parties at each table were supposed to be synched up with one another (or perhaps competing?), or whether it was just a coincidence how close they all were to being in phase. The effect was like turning on two stereos to the same song but a half-second or so out of sync, so there’s this terrible gut-churning aural dissonance. My kids, completely nonplussed, wore blank expressions.
Perhaps most disconcerting was the queer jittery energy of the emcee at the party one table over. She was about the only non-overweight person in the whole place—far from it, in fact. Her frail hands twitching like little birds, she kept nervously tugging on her belt to keep her pants from sliding down her hips. Her attempts at interaction with the kids had a desperate, too-fast quality, like a record played at the wrong speed. This jumpy, manic behavior made me wonder: did the Chuck E. Cheese job drive her into this state, or was it pre-existing and in fact what qualified her for the position? And were the kids as creeped out by it as I was?
I was startled from this lugubrious reverie by the sudden stirring of the animatronic rodents on the stage. They started up a robotic sequence of minor movements, largely out of sync with the music they had started ostensibly playing (music that I was just barely able to detect, through fierce concentration). Oddly, the emcees didn’t stop their shtick when the rodent band played; they just went right on with it: “I say HAP-py, you say BIRTH-day!” over and over because the pithed kids just weren’t getting it.
Then Chucky himself appeared amid much fanfare. I think this was supposed to be a really big deal—Chucky himself! But who the hell is Chucky anyway? What did he ever do for anybody? I can understand why a child would be excited to get to meet Mickey Mouse at Disneyland; after all, Mickey is a historical figure, a character on whom actual creative minds, including Walt Disney himself, lavished some real energy. Disney characters loom large in kids’ lives through cartoons and books—but what the hell is Chucky? Just a brand, a glorified logo designed to hawk pizza franchises. Chucky’s cheap, barebones look and generic persona struck me as downright cynical on the part of his profit-focused creators.
My first impulse, given my altered state and dark brooding, was to go right over and punch Chucky in the stomach. Of course I didn’t; I wouldn’t want to scare the kids, and besides, this costume was probably worn by a very bitter and angry person, no doubt a real scrapper who could and would kick my ass. When this poorly disguised human hugged our group’s birthday boy, and gave him a quick hair-ruffle, my instinct was to intervene, though in reality Chucky had done nothing inappropriate—I was responding to my own paranoid delusion.
A cake was produced, the candles lit, we sang the birthday song (our voices lost in the generalized cacophony) and our birthday boy managed, though with some difficulty, to blow out his candles. (I imagine that, like me, he was feeling kind of breathless.) We ate some cake, and then went back to the gaming. Erin and I were doing the man-to-man defense: I stuck to Alexa like glue, and Erin shadowed Lindsay. In all the nightmarish confusion Lindsay found a vulnerability in Erin’s parenting policy and levered in there, somehow negotiating to consume both of her goody-bag lollipops, which on top of all the punch and lemonade and a cake drove her into a state of buzzing, bouncing-molecule pinball behavior (which would go on to last, amazingly, all the way until bedtime four hours later). Alexa was easy enough to manage, thankfully; as long as she was punching ducks and earning tickets she was happy.
Inevitably, Alexa needed to use the restroom so I escorted her to the ladies’ room and waited outside. Seconds later she came back out, wide-eyed, and said, “It’s disgusting in there!” Before I could protest, she swung wide the door to show me. A large puddle was slowly emerging from beneath a stall, and long strips of toilet paper were strewn all over the floor. I quickly took Alexa into the men’s room, which was fine, and waited outside her stall. When we came out of the men’s room a supervisor was arguing with a young female employee right outside the ladies’ room. “You go in there and clean it up!” he said. “But I already told you,” she wailed, “I’m supposed to be at my table—my party’s supposed to be starting right now!” To which the supervisor boomed, “I don’t care! Get in there and clean!” Alexa and I rabbited.
After what seemed like an eternity of duck-punching and other games, it was finally time to leave. But not so fast: no way were we getting out of there without first redeeming our kids’ tickets, which had blossomed into a giant stack that created the illusion of great wealth. Of the three ticket machines, one was broken, and the other two were being dominated by Chucky Cheese regulars, who had accumulated entire forests worth of tickets and were liable to get repetitive stress injuries from feeding the machine. Erin waited with our kids while I went back to the car-racing game to try to settle my nerves.
When I returned to the ticket line, my kids had managed to settle up and were stoked to have been rewarded with a receipt for 81 points. We took this to the merchandise counter, which was eerily similar to the cashier’s station in a Vegas casino except for its huge display of worthless prizes. Alexa exchanged her receipt—the earnings from more than two hours worth of effort—for a tiny toy microphone (just a shell, no electronics or anything) for herself and a plastic lizard about 1½ inches long for her sister. Of course my kids found these toys enchanting enough to fight over, and it’s a good thing, too, because something cool like a crayon-shaped pillow would have cost like 4,000 points.
At last we were done, and together with our millions of new germs and all their latent pestilence we headed for the exit, where our wrists were scrutinized under a special flashlight by the fourteen-year-old security director who struggled to check in an incoming party while controlling our egress. He managed to stop me in my frantic bid for the exit, but sly Lindsay slipped right past him. Security indeed.
But then we were out of there and I felt like kissing the ground of the parking lot. But our energy had been exhausted, so when we got to the Christmas tree farm, just after sunset, we glommed on to almost the first tree we saw, and I sawed through its trunk like a man possessed. The whole operation took less than ten minutes and we were back on our way.
I was uncharacteristically short-tempered with the kids throughout the long drive home as they fought over their toys, fought over the right to sing uninterrupted, fought over space, and generally exhibited the standard behaviors of sugar poisoning. I was so thrown off by the harrowing Chucky Cheese ordeal, I just couldn’t relax, not even when we got home. It wasn’t until half an hour into a kid-free Christmas party, when I had the host make me a strong vodka martini, that I was finally able to relax. (I’ll surely end up in Hell for leaving my sugar-frenzied kids with a sitter that night.)
The next night, after lights-out, as I lay on my back in my kids’ room trying to think up a bedtime story, Alexa said to me, “Daddy? I really liked Chucky Cheese, and I want to go back their soon, to the very one we went to yesterday. And this time I want to stay longer and get more stuff.” Dang … so they actually liked it. Does this mean, though, that I would ever hold one of my kids’ birthday parties at Chucky Cheese? Hell no. I'd rather take them on a tour of a slaughterhouse to see how sausage is made.