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Making 'Play Centers' Pay Is Not Always Fun


You've got preschoolers, and they're getting restless.

It's raining, so they can't play outside. Your husband's drum set (stereo system, pool table, etc.) occupies 90% of the occupy-able space in your home, so they can't play inside.

You've got trouble, right here in Angel City. Trouble. And that starts with "T" and that rhymes with "P" and that stands for . . . Panic?

Not necessarily.

It could also stand for "play center," or more precisely "children's indoor entertainment centers"--a genre that includes everything from the ubiquitous Chuck E. Cheese's pizza restaurant/play centers to smaller local entries, such as Undersea Express in Fallbrook Mall.

Beyond providing outlets for your energy-imbued offspring, many of these restaurant/retail/ready-for-romping spaces serve as sites for that annual gathering of prancing legs and sticky fingers commonly called . . . the birthday party.

Parents keep creating new potential customers, so such centers are obvious money makers, right? Not in all cases. The last 12 months have not been particularly kind to this industry.

Discovery Zone, a New York-based chain, went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy-court protection and never emerged. And in the competition between two rodents, only one mouse was left standing and it's not the one you might think.

Much of Discovery Zone was taken over by the Chuck E. Cheese's chain, home of the signature mouse mascot. And last Halloween, after making a "sizable investment" in its contender, the Walt Disney Co. pulled the plug on Club Disney, a five-store chain launched in Thousand Oaks.

"It was a huge creative success, but financially, they cost too much to build," said Alan Johnson, a native of Australia who was vice president and general manager of Club Disney. "For the number of people that the building could hold, it didn't make economic sense."

Some local shops took a tumble as well.

But for the centers that remain, there is still money to be made.

"With our demographics [in the U.S.], this kind of concept looks good for the next several years," said Stephen Spence, an analyst with Dallas-based Southwest Securities who tracks CEC Entertainment Inc., the parent of Chuck E. Cheese's. "There is still regional competition in most areas of the country."

Regional and local.

So, in honor of Mother's Day this Sunday, we bring you Valley@Work's second annual look at a few kid-friendly options not too far from home. For less than a fistful of dollars, you can channel that energy, save your sanity and perhaps get a happier child in the bargain.


* Fun Town: 18411 Sherman Way, Reseda, (818) 776-8309.

This is my personal favorite, an "indoor kid-sized play city," and the probable site of my daughter's birthday party for each of the next 40 years.

Launched last July by two moms who thought they could do it better than the competition, the 5,600-square-foot center is fueled entirely by kid-power: no tokens, no electro-energized lasers.

"We don't have any degrees in child care," said Laura Chinaglia, who owns the center with partner Yazmin Castiel. "The only thing I can tell you is that we are mothers. And as mothers, we like to be very careful with what we choose for our children."

The center is set up as a mock city with a supermarket, hospital, barber shop and theater. Kids, sans shoes, are free to explore each section, or ascend the various climbing toys, at their own pace.

With its intentional lack of techno-wizardry, Fun Town appeals more to younger children.

The entry fee is $5 per child (adults admitted free). Fun Town does not serve food, but does provide tables.

* Undersea Express: Fallbrook Mall (next to Target), West Hills, (818) 340-9854.

Hoping to make a big splash in this market are Art and Melinda Noroian, owners of the compact-looking 5,000-square-foot play center with a combined train and nautical theme. Aimed primarily at the under-7 crowd, this center is part retail outlet (selling items with a train theme), part coin-operated rides. Part of the shop has been sectioned off as a birthday party room.

The biggest hit, and the centerpiece of each of the couple's six L.A.-area locations, is a train ride that costs $1.50. Occupying much of the space, the train is one of several pay-per-use rides. Others cost 50 cents for a ride of about one minute.

But the couple now hopes that the party room at the Fallbrook Mall location (the only one of the six with a party room) will start attracting more attention.

With 31 employees and a fleet of trains to keep running, the couple has discovered that there's more involved than fun and games.

"It's not a high-dollar business," said Melinda Noroian. "It's a fun, fun business, but you can't get rich."

* Chuck E. Cheese's: Granada Hills (818) 366-6022; Northridge (818) 993-3446; Sun Valley (818) 768-2104; West Hills (818) 713-9794; Burbank (818) 841-3453.

With Club Disney and Discovery Zone out of the way, CEC Entertainment now stands as the one true national player in this arena, analysts said.

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