Child’s play

I’ve always been wary of family fun centers. Those big warehouses of coin-gobbling video games and other pay-as-you-go amusements are about as appealing to me as a trip to the dentist.

But I’m not 10, and my opinion is colored by the fact that when I was that age, such kiddy casinos had yet to reach my suburb. So maybe I’m jealous, having had to make my own fun with a stick and ball, a little imagination and a lot of kinetic activity.

Nonetheless, now that at least two such places have opened up in Asheville, I decided – inquiring reporter that I am – to check them out. Chuck E. Cheese’s and Asheville’s Fun Depot both boast a bevy of arcade games (including the timeless carnival staple of skee ball). There’s also plenty of food and drink, though, of course, the fare tends to reflect the targeted demographic. And the two offer kids a chance to win redeemable coupons at games of skill — ‘cuz we all know fun is even more fun with an element of chance thrown in. After that, the two are as different as God and mammon.

On the secular end of the spectrum, the new Chuck E. Cheese’s in east Asheville (near the new Target) beckoned to my kids and me. Chuck E. Cheese, by the way, serves as the mascot of this national chain of strip-mall theme parks. But I’m still not sure whether he’s supposed to be a big mouse or a large rat. Of course, the idea of an anthropomorphic rodent acting as the loving king of child entertainment is hardly new, so I suppose petty arguments over genus are moot. Chuck (or at least an animatronic version of him) stands sentry on a raised stage overseeing his kingdom. He comes to life every few minutes, singing songs and emceeing a montage of kid-friendly music videos sung by a cast of puppet characters. Although my kids are too young to appreciate the buzz, bings and flashes of the arcade games, they were held spellbound by Chuck’s every mechanized move. And then there’s the subtle, carny-style edge to Chuck, making him somewhat more palatable to adults than other cloying creatures of children’s entertainment.

The production numbers are slick, and there are even a few cover tunes thrown in. The Beatles’ Help! and All You Need Is Love are toe-tappers, but I was baffled by the kid-friendly rendition of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. All in all, the place was a smash hit with my kids and a bit of a guilty indulgence for me, since I know that some of the money I spent there goes for residuals to Ritchie Blackmore and company.

Asheville’s Fun Depot, off Sweeten Creek Road in south Asheville, corners the other end of the warehouse amusement market. It is by far the biggest, bluest building in Asheville ever (and that title should remain secure until IKEA decides to locate here, but I digress). For those of you who eschew corporate chains, the Fun Depot may be right up your alley: It was born right here in the mountains. With more than 36,000 square feet of indoor fun (including arcade games, 18 holes of mini-golf, climbing walls, batting cages and laser tag) – plus an outdoor go-cart track for all you NASCAR wannabes – this place is an amusement mecca.

Mecca, however, may not be the most appropriate descriptor: This place is unapologetically Christian. A giant plaque displaying the Ten Commandments welcomes gamers, and quotes from the scriptures are sprinkled on walls and banners throughout the building.

Players on the mini-golf course (aka the 18 Holes of Salvation) are greeted at each hole with a sign displaying various passages from the Good Book. One sign promises: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ the Lord.” (As if having to negotiate windmills and waterfalls isn’t enough pressure.)

I have to admit, it was a bit confusing to be reminded “thou shall not kill” and then watching a gaggle of pre-teens blast away at each other in the laser tag arena. But then, no religion is devoid of contradiction. And since the Fun Depot is closed on Sundays, the Sabbath (at least the Christian Sabbath) is honored.

And from the looks of the blissful smiles lighting up kids’ faces there, I predict that the owners of the Fun Depot will be saving souls (and renting go-carts) until hell freezes over.

[Check out the big mouse (or rat, depending on your perspective) at Chuck E. Cheese’s, 104 River Hills Road in Asheville (299-3750). Looking for a game of laser tag (or 18 Holes of Salvation)? Asheville’s Fun Depot has your number at 7 Roberts Road (277-2FUN).]

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