The play’s the thing

I was a bit surprised when I read in the Citizen-Times that the Merrimon Avenue McDonald’s was slated to be knocked down and re-created. The story noted that while the new McDonald’s would sport fancy countertops and even a fireplace, the beloved Playland would be gone for good.

I broke the news to my two boys, ages 5 and 3, over dinner. Since moving to north Asheville nearly three years ago, we’ve been frequent flyers there. Sure, as parents, we’re aware of the bad press McDonald’s receives about its unhealthy food and questionable marketing practices toward children. Like good, enlightened Asheville citizens, we’ve seen Super Size Me. But we, ourselves, were raised in the McDonald’s era. In fact, my mother may still have a set of McDonald’s glasses in her cupboard, featuring the smiling faces of Grimace and the Hamburgler.

I fondly remember my third-grade birthday party; to my surprise, my mother hosted it at McDonald’s. My closest friends and I piled into the family car — some on the seats and some in the “way back.” (Seat belts weren’t even an option then.) We wore our McDonald’s crowns proudly, and I enjoyed my very first McDonald’s hamburger. Up till then, I’d been a Filet-O-Fish fan. I even remember the yellow plastic watches we received as our “free gifts.” We all wore them to school the next day to mark our participation in McBirthday.

Years later, as a parent, I was quite pleased to discover that an indoor McDonald’s Playland lay within striking range of our Asheville home. Where else can you bring kids who need to burn off some energy on a cold or rainy day? True, there’s The Health Adventure; before we’d even moved into our Asheville home, we’d visited it and purchased season passes. But if we actually tallied up our visits to the two attractions since then, I’d have to admit that McDonald’s would win hands down.

My kids have loved the indoor Playland. They never seemed to notice the odd 1970s paintings on the wall or the even stranger music track pumped in. As parents, we turned a blind eye to the wear and tear in Playland, not letting ourselves imagine what might have gone down in those play tubes. Over time, the kids moved from enjoying the small slide and steps to exploring the large slide and moving propellers. They didn’t seem to care that one of the propellers was broken; instead, they pretended they were flying a spaceship as the broken metal end went round and round. Meanwhile, I was busy breaking the Playland rules, dragging a chair onto the padded rubber floor to watch. And when Grandma and Grandpa were visiting the kids from New York and it rained, I brought them along too.

While working as a therapist in Asheville, I was helping a small child address the loss of her father from her life. I asked her to draw a picture of her and her dad doing something fun together. I wasn’t surprised when she reached for the yellow crayon and sketched out the big Golden Arches. She accurately recorded the red building and told me about him watching and playing with her there. I loved that picture so much that I hung it on my wall until I left the agency.

Other parents have shared their own stories while discussing Playland’s downfall. One recounted how her child had left his pacifier at the base of the Ronald McDonald statue, so that he could give it to a child in need. A teacher at the preschool directly behind the McDonald’s said that several of the children had burst into tears while gathered at the fence, watching as bulldozers gutted the building.

These kids have been particularly affected by the loss of Playland, having walked down to the McDonald’s for lunch once a month. Our children attend this school, and we’ve joined these happy 3-year-olds as they sat at the long party table enjoying their nuggets, the community and their play in the tubes.

Speaking of the party table, how many Asheville parents have hurried over to McDonald’s at the crack of dawn to reserve it for afternoon festivities?

A north Asheville icon is gone. But many children and parents driving by the new, upscale model will remember their visits to Playland. And despite our feelings about McDonald’s or fast food in general, these Golden Arches will continue to touch us, our children and our community.

[Wendy Billingsley lives in north Asheville. She and her boys are now frequent flyers at the Playland on Tunnel Road.]

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