Monday, August 09, 2004

As it turns out, kids have birthdays about once a year. That means that there will be one birthday party per kid per year. Now, if your kid has lots of friends, or goes to school, or doesn't live in a vacuum-packed isolation chamber, they will be invited to many other birthday parties. I haven't run the exact numbers, but the end result is that you end up taking your kid to a birthday party approximately every 18 seconds, give or take.

Usually my wife handles this duty because she's the good parent, but sometimes I get to share in the love. From what I can tell the requirements for a birthday party are:

1) The children must be entertained either by keeping a steady stream of trinkets and gifts coming their way, or by somehow overloading their under-developed nervous system, or by flinging them through the air (I'm not making that up, this has occurred at several birthday parties this year).

2) The children must be crammed full of sugar, preferably they will even be topped-off with candy just before the party ends, ensuring that the parents get to enjoy the post-party sugar-crash.

3) Some appropriately demographically-targeted character must be present. Maybe it's an Elmo cake (because Elmo is delicious), or a Barney pinata (which works on at least two levels), or perhaps Batman swoops through the party and slaughters several of the misbehaving children.

Yesterday my daughter and I attended a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's. This party met all the requirements:

1) Sensory overload! The restaurant was brimming with games, flashing lights, music, and electro-shock.

2) Cake and candy. Check, check.

3) Chuck is apparently some kind of rat. He has three friends/coworkers/lovers that are a dog in overalls, some funky bird, a shaggy purple thing, and a guy in a moustache (not the gay-cop moustache, but more of the I'm-a-pizza-making-Italian-stereotype moustache). These characters are completely devoid of even an inkling of personality. Nada.

My daughter's two favorite things there were the giant habitrail and skee ball.The habitrail was odd, it really looked just like a kid-sized version of the structure that you let hamsters play in. It was missing the exercise wheel and the see-through ball, but otherwise it was pretty much designed for giant rodents. Kids would go in and just kind of disappear for a while. God knows what's in there. She came out seemingly unscathed.

She also played tons of skee ball. In skee ball, described here, you roll a little wooden ball up a ramp and score various points depending on where it lands. My daughter really really sucked at this. A high percentage of the balls she launched would either end up in someone else's ramp, or would ricochet off the base of the ramp and hurtle across the arcade. Most of the others would haplessly end up in the "0 points" area. She LOVED it. The machine then squirts out tickets based on how many points were scored. It gives out two pity tickets no matter what. After each of her games, she'd scream, "I GOT TWO TICKETS!" and clutch them tightly.

Tickets could then be redeemed for surprisingly chintzy prizes. I'm not easily surprised, but they did it. The caliber of prizes were along these lines:

- 40 tickets would get you something akin to a sticker
- 80 tickets would get you a small unidentifiable plastic trinket
- 200 tickets would get you 100 tickets

Thankfully the parent throwing the party had given each child a special "100 tickets" ticket which enabled the even the feeblest of children to get some sort of prize. With those 100, plus my daughter's several tickets, plus a few more that I earned with heroic skee ball efforts, we managed to get the world's smallest dispenser of lip gloss. She smeared that glittery crap over her lips every several minutes for the remainder of the day.

Chuck E Cheese's other claims to fame are their pizza, which makes Little Caeser's taste gourmet, and their animatronic characters. My daughter, of course, thought the pizza was the best she had ever eaten. Meanwhile, the animatronic characters, Chuck E and his "friends", are unveiled periodically during the festivities to lurch back and forth and sing some bits of pop fluff.

The best part of the "performance" was that a person in a Chuck E. Cheese rat costume comes out in front of the stage and dances to the song along with two miserable uncostumed employees. These folks were so devoid of enthusiasm that they actually sucked energy out of the room in a near physics-defying disregard for the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy be damned. By the end of the song, children listlessly hugged the floor for warmth while we parents helplessly gawked at these merciless energy-eating "dancers".

We had a fine time, but I still give this party a rating of Please-Let-My-Wife-Do-This-Next-Time.

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