Chuck E. Cheese: Where a parent can (finally) be a parent
(This story first appeared last week on sister website, Fast Casual.)
Chuck E. Cheese — to me — is synonymous with "Showbiz Pizza, where a kid can be kid." It was the special place that my sister, dad and I visited on weekends and holds some of my dearest childhood memories.
We scarfed down the not-so-great pizza ("Whatever, Dad — this is delicious."), danced and sang with the "creepy robot band" and dove blindly into the ball pit — back before anyone thought to worry about germs and hidden needles.
It was an innocent time, and Chuck E. Cheese was a haven for all things kids.
Looking back on the experience though now, through my "mommy" eyes, I can see that while we were having a blast back then, our parents were probably a bit stressed. After all, the place was dark, loud and chaotic and packed with tall games and kiddie rides that made it nearly impossible for parents to easily keep track of us.
There probably wasn't much relaxing in that. And certainly no beer or wine back then. Plus, Mom and Dad even had to help us count out our reams of tickets, often numbering 500 and more.
Fast-forward a few decades, and my experience with Chuck E. Cheese is quite different today. I'm now bringing my own son, Lincoln, to this magical place, and thanks to the chain's recent redesign, we both like it.
Cherryh's son, Lincoln Butler, 7 (left) with her nephew,
Elliot Everett, 11, living it up at Chuck E. Cheese
"Millennial parents came here as a kid, so it's nostalgic for them," Christelle Dupont, PR manager for Chuck E. Cheese, told me Thursday night over a Cheetos-topped mac ‘n cheese pizza. (Don't judge me; it was worth every calorie.)
Christelle and I met during the chain's grand reopening party celebrating the new look at my hometown Chuck E. Cheese in Kansas City. "Many (parents) haven't been in since they were kids and are now coming back with their own families. We wanted to give them a pleasant surprise. It was long overdue."
Although it's still kid paradise, packed with games and rides, everything is a bit calmer. The games are smaller and quieter, the lighting is brighter, and everything feels more relaxed.
Make no mistake, it's still loud. If it were too quiet, it wouldn't be fun, but the open layout eases parents' minds about where "that crazy kid" is at any given moment.
In fact, I can actually sit in a booth, eat a salad (and pizza, too, let's be honest) and sip on cheap wine. Bet my parents would have loved that option.
My view isn't obstructed. I can keep an eye on the kiddos while also relaxing, as opposed to chasing them around praying I don't lose sight of them. The place also has this nifty system of stamping kids and parents with the same blacklight-enabled numbers on their hands, which employees must ensure match before letting anyone leave the building.
It feels like a safe place for my family, and that's saying a lot these days.
Some of the older games have been replaced with modern video games, but a few old-school favorites remain. Ski ball, for example, gave me a chance to show Lincoln that I still have mad gaming skills.
The rides are still there, too, but they are off in their own little area set up for toddlers, so parents of smaller kids don't have to worry about my 7-year-old running over their babies.
The remodel also features modern seating, kiosk ordering, a programmable "tap-to-play" Play Pass game card system and a light-up dance floor where hourly live shows and birthday shows will take place.
That floor, by the way, replaced the animatronic characters, known to me and my sister as the "creepy robot band."
"With all the graphics, video games and technology we have today, that was a bit outdated, but many of the locations still have them. They're iconic and beloved by the parents who remember them as kids," Dupont said.
The menu grows up
The menu is also a lot different, thanks to Chef Gregory Casale, who joined the company two years ago to overhaul the featured food items.
Over the past three years, he's introduced a thin-and-crispy crust, along with what he calls the "mom-focused " Cali Alfredo pizza, a stuffed-crust pizza and has upgraded the quality traditional wings. The menu also boasts craft beer and wine.
"I also introduced an LTO program that allows us to be much more free with new items and gives us more culinary credibility with relatively low risk," said the former fine dining chef. "I would say I had two goals."
The first was a to bring an internal awareness to culinary matters that would lead to better execution of product. The second was to show the guest through LTOs and new menu items that culinary was important to Chuck E. Cheese.
"The menu had been stagnant for years," Casale said. "‘I believe that the increased activity alone has brought a new culinary culture to our kitchens and has begun to show our guest that we can be a pizza concept that is culinary-ly relevant."
This millennial mom certainly agrees.
Feature photo: Provided
Photos in story: Cherryh Cansler
Before joining Networld Media Group as director of Editorial, where she oversees Networld Media Group's nine B2B publications, Cherryh Cansler served as Content Specialist at Barkley ad agency in Kansas City. Throughout her 17-year career as a journalist, she's written about a variety of topics, ranging from the restaurant industry and technology to health and fitness. Her byline has appeared in a number of newspapers, magazines and websites, including Forbes, The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine. She also serves as the managing editor for FastCasual.com.www