From reading parenting blogs, there appears to be a trifecta of parental hate: Calliou, glitter (the herpes of craft supplies), and Chuck E. Cheese. So when Sprout was invited to his first proper kid birthday party at Chuck E Cheese, I was intrigued. I loved the place as a kid, but I was a kid then, so what did I know? I found that while it wasn’t as bad as everyone says it is, it was rather mediocre – somewhat fun, no more and no less.
Although Sprout hid behind my legs when we first arrived, processing all of the action, he moved on to the toddler rides soon enough. Much like the their bigger cousins at Disney World, he showed much more interest than enjoyment. His little face showed rapt attention, his eyes concentrated and mouth neutral. It wasn’t that he disliked the rides – when we lifted him off one, he’d tap the seat and look at us, asking to put him on again. Instead, he was focused on absorbing and making sense of the experience. He requested going on the tiny carousel and the creepy clock swing so many times that we had to take a break for our own sanity. I have no idea how on earth they could be fun, but I am clearly not the target audience’s age.
Of course, the other essential part of the Chuck E Cheese experience is the games. Which – and I know this makes me sound hopelessly old, boring and nostalgic – were really disappointing. A few classics were present: driving games, basketball, and my old favorite, skeeball. They had a baby basketball game, which after the Thanksgiving playground incident, I knew Sprout would enjoy. As we handed him balls, he gently placed them in the basket. It was absolutely adorable.
But most of the games weren’t worth wasting free tokens on. A few were cutesy one-shots, where you had 1 level that took 30 seconds and couldn’t progress to the next level without putting in more money. No marathon sessions of side-scrollers like the old days. But even worse, the large majority of “games” were kiddy slot machines. They just dispensed tickets instead of money. They required little to no skill, offered a single chance, and promised big prizes with low odds of winning. Instead of a place where you could play with your friends to accomplish a goal (even if it was an inconsequential one), these games have turned arcades into casinos! I don’t want Sprout feeding my money into these machines, I don’t want him to be isolated, I don’t want the plastic crap the tickets pay for, and I definitely don’t want him gambling. I was very glad he was too little to pay notice to these games – I’ll take the baby rides any day.
About halfway through the party, the staff members pulled us together for pizza and the Chuck E. Cheese show. The pizza reminded me of the “good pizza” in the elementary school cafeteria. The birthday cake itself (not from Chuck E. Cheese), was simple – sandy tan frosting – but toy tractors on top turned it into a perfect tiny construction site. The rock-star themed show consisted of a costumed staff member “jamming out” with the birthday kid. The birthday boy – who had just turned two – had no clue about the symbolism but had a grand time anyway. He loved the inflatable guitar and crown, even though he had difficulty understanding, much less following, the instructions of the Chuck E. Cheese staff member. Under her beaming smile, you could tell she was the tiniest bit exasperated with trying to get a two-year-old to play along with a party template designed for an older child.
Standing around the pizza table was the first time all of the adults attending the party were in the same place. Before that, we were following our kids around the ride/game area, ensuring they didn’t put anything weird in their mouths or push other kids. Now, we were so physically close that normal social graces would require us to converse. But anything with multiple toddlers doesn’t fall within the bounds of normal social graces. Instead, we ignored each other, focusing on our kids eating without causing a disaster area. I kind of wanted to talk to people, but didn’t even know where to start. The only person we knew was the birthday kid’s dad, which Chris met at a Halloween party at our town’s community center. Instead, Chris and I talked to each other and watched Sprout eat his pizza cheese-first.
In the end, we cashed in our few tickets for stickers and headed home, having survived our first trip to Chuck E. Cheese as a family.