I’ve found myself here again. I can feel the self-esteem leaving my body, one sad atom at a time. This ride is broken. This souvenir photo looks like a dot matrix printer had a stroke. I think that machine ate a child. I have an unquenchable need for tickets. I have briefly considered bullying someone else’s child for their tickets. We all have. We are ticket animals.
I don’t mind the germs. The world is a dirty place. The government says it’s acceptable to have a certain amount of ground-up bugs in our wine. I’ll drink bugs.
I don’t mind the noise. The bloops. The bleeps. The banging and clattering and laughing and screaming and crying. It sounds like kids are doing hand-to-hand combat with joy itself.
It’s the beer I’m not so fond of. My current choices are Natural Light and some similar contribution to humanity.
It’s the pizza that makes me sad. Tastes like the parents of someone in the corporate office died in a terrible accident involving flavor, and this pizza is their revenge.
It’s the salads that make me realize I don’t care who becomes president because we’re all screwed. The produce looks and tastes like it was grown in the finest Astroturf.
Would you like a soda? Oh, sorry, you don’t drink soda? Here’s your soda.
Chuck E. Cheese is the bane of my parental existence. And yet, here I am. Because I have a five-year-old daughter, and the dime store rides and 1980s technology video games make her jittery with glee. She runs from one semi-entertaining gizmo to the next, as if they are rainbows. This place is magical to her. It’s how I might feel if given a free shopping spree at a cheese shop or Amsterdam.
Chuck E. Cheese is the only game in town for a parent. It’s Disneyland-lite, an everyday amusement park that you don’t have to refinance the house to visit. It’s right down the street. It’s easy. Before we used iPads to raise our children for us, we used Chuck.
I wasn’t the first to bring my daughter here. Her mom broke the seal. And then my daughter started begging to go with alarming regularity. You can tell a child, “No, we only support local, organic, non-GMO restaurants with more educational games, sweetie.” Or you can stop being an ***hole and take her to see a teenager in a mouse costume who looks terrified of being sued if a kid hugs him.
And so you do.
I’m not alone. Some of the most progressive parents I know—people who yell at construction workers building Rite-Aids, and sneeze at the thought of contracting a Starbucks—take their kids to CEC. We all do this cute thing when we see each other in there. We shrug our shoulders and make a gesture that apologizes for our existence.
I understand that the low food quality and 1980s college beer make Chuck E. affordable for families of all socioeconomic woe. I’m a writer. Woe and I go way back. So I’m not going to be too elitist about Chuck’s product. Except to say that it lacks a certain quality called quality.
But why hasn’t some restaurant entrepreneur taken over an abandoned warehouse and built a kid-topia for parents who enjoy real food and drink? There is Station Tavern in South Park, a great place with a modest playground for kiddos. There is Waypoint Public in North Park, with a small, awesome, creative area for the ADHD of your loins. Corvette Diner makes kids smile.
But those are small. They aren’t nearly the sensory assault and smorgasbord of cheap fun that Chuck throws down.
I envision a San Diego in which someone takes Chuck E.’s idea and modernizes it. Make one of those giant jungle mazes where kids crawl through tunnels and slides and stuff. A place where I can eat organic chicken, drink craft beer, and watch my child fun herself into a state of sleep. Have toys that challenge their young brains and creativity, but not too much because math sucks as a toy. Or make it a purely physical place, where kids run and jump and exercise while I exercise my right to an Imperial Stout and pork belly.
Give out prizes that don’t make me wonder about the environmental affects of plastics and the working conditions in far-off toy factories. Give me brown rice and farro. Give me a vegetable that doesn’t have the shelf life of Keith Richards. Give me menu options that don’t make me think, “Well, everyone dies.”
Make a Chuck E. Cheese for craft culture. A Chuck E. Manchego.
The first person to do this will make millions—from me and my daughter alone. There are legions of 30- and 40-somethings who grew up in the food revolution. And now we have kids. We are literally begging for more creative, authentic places to entertain and exhaust those kids.
Gotta go now. Gonna pickpocket this other person’s child. My daughter’s a few tickets short of a plastic spider.