VACAVILLE, Calif. — The 25 contestants were poised and ready to go when one wondered aloud: "Do you think it's better to take the stations in order or just as they come?"
"I'm going to get through however I can," confided another.
When the starting signal sounded, the racers stampeded through the gates. At first, all was confusion, with dozens of feet pounding the pavement in a dead run. Then the sound of the hoofing receded into the zig-zagging corridors of the gigantic, wooden-fence maze.
Twenty minutes and 35 seconds later, the competition was over: Todd Greenley, 16, of Petaluma, had won. Raising his arms in triumph, Greenley, who has been unable to walk for most of life because of cerebral palsy, attributed his success to a motor-driven wheelchair that had helped him negotiate the maze's tricky turns.
"It goes super fast," he explained before collecting a mug, T-shirt and other assorted booty.
Thus ended another weekly competition at the Wooz, a new kind of amusement park imported from Japan. Its main attraction is an acre-wide labyrinth of green walls; customers pay $5 apiece to run through it like rats in a laboratory.
But somewhere en route to California, an interesting change occurred. In Japan, where such mazes have been popular for several years, people view them primarily as personal, mental challenges. In the hands of Americans, the labyrinth phenomenon has become a competitive sport.
The Wooz (an acronym for Wild and Original Object with Zoom), it seems, has become yet another wonder showing the deep differences between the Japanese and Americans, whether at work or play.
"People come in here and race each other," said Larry Friday, the maze's marketing manager. "You'd expect that on a ball field, but it really surprised me here."
John Ho, the facility's program planner, said: "Americans are more aggressive. They move faster. They're more competitive. They really get serious when they run through the maze."
To accommodate its customers, the Wooz now conducts weekly, monthly and annual competitions, some offering major prizes. Those completing the basic maze course in under 40 minutes are routinely offered free admission to a second puzzle. Armed with time cards, runners enthusiastically record the speed of their passages by punching one time clock when they start and another when they finish. In between, they try to wend their way to four separate stations where they mark their cards with rubber stamps to prove they have completed the course.
Labyrinths, of course, are not new. They have been part of history since the Greeks. Their myths hold that the first labyrinth was built by Daedalus, a famous architect and inventor, to confine the Minotaur, a ferocious monster, half man and half beast. Heroic Theseus traced his way through the maze, killed the monster and found his way out by following a skein of thread he had unwound as he entered.
During the reign of England's King Henry VIII (1509-47), courtiers and families are said to have frolicked in the maze at Hampton Court near London. It was formed by yew trees placed in a tall hedge. The maze, one of about 60 in England today, remains a popular tourist attraction, navigated by more than 250,000 visitors each year.
The Japanese maze craze, which at its height featured more than 200 commercial puzzles, began in 1984 when leisure-time companies discovered customers would pay handsomely for the experience of walking through man-made labyrinths. Sun Creative System Inc., based in Nagoya, decided to introduce the concept to Americans by opening the Wooz in 1988.
Built at a cost of $13 million on 12 acres off Interstate 80 between Sacramento and San Francisco, the labyrinth is one of only a handful in America; its operators say it is one of the largest.
When the maze opened almost two years ago, its operators had no idea what to expect. Familiar only with the Japanese penchant for solving difficult mental puzzles, they kept the early configurations simple to avoid confounding Americans.
"We want to learn how Americans think," the company's president, Tetsushi Hirakawa, was quoted as saying.
In retrospect, marketing manager Friday now says, they needn't have worried. Since it opened, he said, more than 300,000 customers have visited the Wooz.
Its configurations, changed monthly according to computer-designed patterns, now are as difficult as those in Japan. On an average summer Saturday, the maze attracts as many as 1,500 customers, Friday said, adding: "Sometimes I'm amazed. I can't believe that people just keep coming."
They do so, he theorized, partly because they're manifesting a deep-rooted human need to solve problems: "For most of us, the day-to-day problems aren't solvable in a day. This is a problem that is solvable in an hour or two--you can come here and feel like you've finished something."