Racing the rat
If you’ve been around Theme Park Tourist long enough, the stories in our LEGEND LIBRARY tend to have a certain cadence to them, and understanding the ebbs and flows of the industry become second nature. For example, the ‘90s were a time when – thanks to the 1989 opening of the Disney-MGM Studios and the subsequent debut of Universal Studios Florida in 1990 – ”studio” themed parks became the flavor of the week. Warner Bros., MGM, and Paramount each set out to plant their flag in “studio parks” of their own, beginning a new era of rapid expansion, licensing deals, and parks changing hands.
Believe it or not, it happened about that way for family entertainment centers, too. Despite Chuck E. Cheese’s rough patch in the ‘80s, by the dawn of the 1990s, everyone was eager to get into the business. Across the country, a “rat race” began, with innovative family entertainment centers (sometimes licensing IP tie-ins) opening, gobbling one another up and rebranding in an effort to match Chuck E. Cheese’s success.
One of the largest, Discovery Zone, entered the scene in 1990, emphasizing multi-story play structures, slides into ball pits, foam climbing blocks, and giant obstacle courses. Within four years, Discovery Zone had over 300 locations (thanks to the acquisition of McDonald’s short-lived entry into the play-place market, Leaps and Bounds, and aggressive ownership by Viacom… technically, Discovery Zone and the Paramount Parks were both subsets of Viacom’s Blockbuster Video!).
As quickly as it had permeated the United States, Discovery Zone disappeared. In 1996, it declared bankruptcy, closing half of its 300 stores overnight (with Chuck E. Cheese purchasing 13 of them), and shuttering the other half by 2001.
Maybe you visited a Bullwinkle’s location (themed to the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show and set in a rustic Dudley Do-Right Canadian cabin setting, complete with its own robotic show, arcade games, party room, laser tag and more). Once widespread, the three remaining Bullwinkle’s (all in the Pacific Northwest) have shed much of their ‘90s kitsch and even overt cartoon references in favor of bowling alleys and ropes courses.
From Boomers! to Sky Zone, America's Incredible Pizza Company to Scence 75, dozens of chains of themed family entertainment centers followed Chuck E. Cheese’s lead. Nolan Bushnell had founded an entirely new enterprise and spurred an era of expansion and retraction within it. In fact, the rapid expansion of the family entertainment was part of its undoing. With the bar raising ever-higher, cities became flooded with animatronic shows, play-places, and arcades, then layered on bowling, laser tag, go-karts, batting cages, bumper boats, mini-golf… and soon, cannibalized each other out of existence.
Still, one of the latest entries in the ‘90s entertainment center market is still remembered as the most legendary. In 1996, Disney Regional Entertainment was created with the simple goal of exporting Disney-style experiences to cities around the country and globe. It wasn’t a bad idea. After all, the ‘90s had turned the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood into attractions in their own right in cities across North America. In fact, then-chairman of Disney, Michael Eisner, brought in Art Levitt (a former Disney Cast Member with a few years at Hard Rock under his belt) to head up the new Disney Regional Entertainment.
But given that Bushnell had essentially cited Disney as the inspiration for Chuck E. Cheese’s, it made sense that Disney could use the Regional Entertainment division to reclaim the idea as their own, leveraging their IP (including that of the in-progress Disney Renaissance) to create an industry-dominating family entertainment center of their own. Club Disney opened its first location in Thousand Oaks, California in February, 1997. Unlike Chuck E. Cheese's, Club Disney was a pay-one-price attraction with an entry fee (also offering Annual Passes), creating an exclusive setting and experience.
Inside, guests found play-places, Disney karaoke, animation classes, a computer lab called ‘The Mousepad,’ the Applaudeville Theater, arcade games, dance stages, and more. Subsequent installations (in West Covina, California; Chandler, Arizona; Lone Tree, Colorado; and finally Glendale, Arizona) would feature uniquely-themed play structures and one-off attractions like a Tarzan-themed zipline and “Herc’s Gym” themed to Hercules.
Club Disney's also promoted themselves as field trip destinations during the week, offering "educational" classes (met with some controversy given they were clearly a ploy for business). Locations even offered recurring educational classes parents could sign up for, like “Poohrobics” – a parent/child stretching and exercise class.
Club Disney wasn’t the hit Disney had hoped, as evidenced in the definitive telling of the story by our longtime friends at Defunctland. All five locations closed on November 1, 1999 – the first failure of Disney Regional Entertainment (followed soon after by the abandonment of the Declassified Disaster: DisneyQuest that took the “family entertainment center” concept to the next level, and the eventual end of its last project, the ESPN Zone bar and grill).
Modern mouse (2012 - present)
In 2012, Chuck E. was redesigned once more, even swapping species into a sleeker, cooler mouse dropping the ‘90s skateboard and knee pads in favor of an electric guitar (and new voiceover and original songs by Jaret Reddick of the band Bowling for Soup). Frankly, it was a redesign that was way overdue by 2012 and at least visually elevated Chuck into the realms of modern animated characters (even if he's still never had a film or television show of his own).
In any case, it didn’t help much, as revenue continued to decline, leading to the 2014 acquisition of the chain by Apollo Global Management – a private equity firm specializing in “leveraged buyouts” of distressed brands for quick rehabilitation and resale. Under Apollo, Chuck E. Cheese’s parent company – CEC Entertainment, Inc. – purchased one of its remaining widespread competitors, Peter Piper Pizza, with 129 locations (maintaining the separate brand).
But nothing good can last forever… And even if the kitschy, cartoon styling of Chuck E. Cheese’s had been a de facto style icon of the ‘90s, nostalgia wasn’t fueling many visits. In 2017, CEC Entertainment, Inc. announced their intentions to modernize their properties by stripping away dated styling (in favor of an upscale, “muted” decor). Test stores started to recieve radical redesigns, transforming into the sleeker, more modern Chuck E. Cheese Pizzeria & Games – a 21st century rebranding with a 21st century mouse.
And in the name of progress, modern Chuck E. Cheese's have made some edits to their offerings, too. For example, to replace those iconic tokens with reloadable, scannable “Play Pass” cards, and to phase out those clunky robotic shows in favor of high-energy dance floors with digital characters on screens.
CEC Entertainment Inc. CEO Tom Leverton explained the end of the robotic dinner show in 2017 to NPR’s Morning Edition by saying, “A child today has such high expectations for entertainment that the animatronics, even at their absolute best, can’t live up to those expectations.” He added to CBS News, "The kids stopped looking at the animatronics years and years ago, and they would wait for the live Chuck E. to come out."
We’ll have to take his word for it.
Even as the family entertainment center industry receded, shrinking back down after an era of massive overexpansion, the chain that started it all was the obvious victor. More than 500 Chuck E. Cheese locations operate in the United States alone (with nearly a hundred more between Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Middle East).
And sure, Chuck E. Cheese’s has had its fair share of odd pop culture publicity… think, sledgehammering character heads, the death of ball pits, parent-on-parent brawls, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and most recently, a surprisingly morbid backstory for Chuck himself... But through it all, it’s remained a nostalgic icon for kids of the latter third of the 20th century.
Chuck E. Cheese’s didn’t just create, then dominate the “family entertainment center” market – its influence spread into the next generation of hands-on attractions, like LEGOLAND Discovery Centers located in upscale shopping town centers across the country; its influence can be felt in science centers, children's museums, trampoline parks, VR attractions, and even theme parks.
It’s no surprise that – even as kid-focused family entertainment centers contracted in the ‘90s – a new generation of entertainment was born. The same kids that once leapt face-first into ball pits and wasted their parents money on Skee-ball can now relive the magic as adults at Dave & Buster’s, “barcades,” and dozens of local entertainment businesses that trade on nostalgia for those who’ve outgrown sky tubes and costumed mascots. That also arguably led to the '90s invention of so-called “urban entertainment centers” like Universal CityWalk and Downtown Disney’s West Side – larger-than-life playgrounds for adults.
But perhaps most important of all, for generations, Chuck E. Cheese’s was pure, hometown magic – a shining, glittering, Las Vegas of kid-friendly entertainment just minutes from home. Imagine! Animatronic shows, games, playgrounds, prizes, and pizza in a glowing paradise “where a kid can be a kid.”
Walt Disney was fond of saying, “I only hope we never lose sight of one thing: that it was all started by a mouse.” But for a generation of today’s Imagineering fans, a lifelong interest in play, imagination, and themed entertainment may have actually been started by a cigar-smoking, tuxedo-wearing coyote-rat-mouse named Charles Entertainment Cheese.