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Fast Fun

About 27 years ago, on my fourth birthday, my parents took me to McDonald’s for a birthday party with my friends from the neighborhood.  It’s one of the few birthdays I had as a child that I still have crystal clear memories of.  This particular restaurant, in a small town on Long Island, New York, was split into two sections and partitioned by panes of glass with strategically placed doors to allow for convenient passage while still allowing parents to keep a close eye on their rowdy children.  On one side, customers would order their food and could sit and enjoy their meal in the same manner which we’re used to today.  On the other side, there was a massive indoor playground taking up two-thirds of the area.  Booths and tables hugged the glass wall and a second exit led outside to a fenced in outdoor playscape for warm and sunny days.

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Ronald McDonald made an appearance at my party, as he did for just about every birthday party at that location.  We had a woman, decked out in McDonald’s gear, who painted our faces with glittery paints.  My friends and I went down slides, climbed on every surface possible, spun each other around on the mini merry-go-round, and let our imaginations run wild.  Our food was brought to our tables by employees who also supplied us with an official McDonald’s cake.  I opened my presents, thanked my friends, and we quickly got sugared up and back to playing.  That birthday party is one of my favorite childhood memories.

When I was a child, I loved going out to various fast food restaurants, McDonalds or otherwise.  The food was never the focus though; the goal that my little brother and I always had in mind was finding the best playground and spending as much time as possible playing on it.  Food was simply the last obstacle we had to work through in order to get to that playground.  I can’t count the amount of belly aches I gave myself by cramming food down my throat in a rush to jump into the ball pit, slide down the fireman pole, or climb up the miniature rock wall.  We didn’t love fast food joints for the food, we loved them for the play.

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My son is not quite as lucky as I was when it comes to fast food restaurants and their appeal.  I can count on one hand the amount of fast food establishments we have been in together where he’s been able to hit the playground after our meal.  The majority of restaurants either have no playscape to speak of or have one that is so poorly maintained that I cannot allow him to play on it without fear of him hurting himself or getting sick from the various bodily fluids left behind by gross little kids.  The latter is rarely a problem though, as I can’t remember the last time we’ve been in a place that has had any type of play area, indoor or outdoor.  The closest we’ve gotten in the past year is our local Burger King putting in brightly colored children’s chairs in order to create a sort of lounge area around a television set on the wall.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the decline happened, but I went from seeing brightly colored playscapes all over the place and seeing restaurants compete to have the best one to seeing playgrounds torn down and replaced with additional seating or possibly an outdoor picnic areas.  Instead of slides, fast food is giving us flat screen televisions on every wall so we have something interesting to look at.  No one wants our children to come in, have a meal, and play for a while.  They want our children to outgrow kid-sized meals as quickly as possible so they spend more money.  They want our children to get extras off the value menu to supplement their meal, possibly also adding a milkshake or other dessert.  They want us to sit, stuff our faces, and leave as quickly as possible.  Or, in an extra effort to keep their contact with us to a minimum, they will add an extra drive-thru lane in order to encourage us to go that route and not even set foot inside the doors.

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Fast food isn’t exactly healthy.  Their establishments aren’t known for being warm and comfortable.  We don’t enter a fast food restaurant thinking of having a relaxing night out or bonding with our family.  It’s known for being quick and easy, and there is nothing wrong with that whatsoever.  But what was wrong with having more?  What is the harm in having a special area for children to be children?  With having families anxious to get inside to grab one of the coveted tables near the playscape so they can relax as their kids cut loose?  Were establishments hurting that bad for space that it didn’t make sense to waste it on a slide or two?  Did maintenance on a plastic playground eat away that much of their profits?  Why is it now so rare for me to see these playgrounds?

I find it incredibly sad that the general public would rather have 12 inch flatscreen televisions mounted to the walls as they eat their burger and fries than have a fun area where their children can burn off some of the calories gained from the chicken nuggets and honey mustard dipping sauce.  We’ve taken a lazy activity — ordering and eating fast food — and made it even lazier by subtracting the one thing that would allow our children to get a bit of exercise, and possibly us too if our children are rowdy enough.  We made a two-part experience into a boring trip that is about nothing but the unhealthy food.  I’m grateful that my childhood was filled with playgrounds, but it breaks my heart a bit to know that this particular area of our world is nowhere near the same for my own child.

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About Jamie C. Baker

“Long time no see. I only pray the caliber of your questions has improved.” - Kevin Smith

Posted on January 18, 2013, in Family, Food, Fun!, Kids and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. powerrangersfan1993

    I remember two Burger Kings in my area that I used to go to that had big plays areas. I too noticed over the years fast food places not having play areas anymore.

  2. I can tell you exactly why they are disappearing. Lawsuits. In my industry, a very small industry, where everyone knows everyone, many of the VP’s and officers have worked for various entertainment companies and venues over their lives, have contacts in every company, and are acutely aware of changes in the family entertainment industry, which includes the fun zones that many fast food restaurants had.

    They were an excellent idea and they increased revenue for every location that had them. They were an experiment in the free market, in capitalism, and they worked. They were a HIT, and companies were raking it in. This is why they started appearing everywhere. Fast food companies realized quickly how to increase profit by creating fun zones that created longer stay times which increased per cap revenue, as well as the new market segment of birthday parties. It was a cash cow.

    Then came the lawsuits.

    The ballpit was the first to go. Parents could not be bothered to keep their kids diapers or pants clean. The kids would shit and piss inside the pit, sometimes vomit. The locations had to remove all the balls every day, sanitize all of them, clean the pit, and return the balls. This is an incredible labor cost. If a location has a ballpit today, I wouldn’t let my kid near it. Unless they are cleaning it everyday, it’s a cesspit and your kid not getting sick is a testament to their immune system. The labor involved in cleaning them is too intense, but for some locations, if they charge enough to use a “play area” may recoup enough with a profit to keep the ball pit clean, so it depends on who is running it and how much, if anything, you are paying for it.

    Most Fast Food restaurants however do not charge for these areas, so they rely on the profits from their food to cover the costs of labor and repairs as well as paying off the debt and interest on that debt they took out to build it in the first place. Since they are a fast food restaurant first, and anything else second, including a playground, they can not raise their food prices enough to compensate for the labor costs (and the lawsuits) without being uncompetitive and losing that which they are first. They had to protect their core competency.

    I can tell you from personal experience and observation that most of the lawsuits in the family entertainment industry are frivilous. They are people looking for the “$10K Payday” by filing a claim that their child was hurt when most of the time, it’s simply not true or exaggerated. It often costs more than $10K for the company to even defend itself, so they simply cut checks like a printing press, chugga, chugga, chugga, all year long, flinging settlement checks out to the unscrupulous. In my company, we fight them all the time. Using video cameras, eye witness accounts, timeline recreations, it’s almost a full time job. And when we point out how obviously fraudulent their claim is, they not surprisingly….disappear, taking their lawsuit with them. It costs us a FORTUNE to defend ourselves from these people and we have a team of people to do it.

    Now I am not saying that there are not legitimate injuries, accidents DO happen, and no matter how diligent a company is, play zones, ball pits, trampolines, go-karts, bumper boats, etc… are inherently dangerous. If your kid is not in a bubble in your house, then your kid is in danger. Living is deadly. But real damages by accident are INSIGNIFICANT to the tidal wave of frivilous ones that our industry has to fight off, or cut checks for, every day. What I do I have done for many industries, and I would not have believed how many people sue companies for a living rather than work, but now that I’ve worked in this industry for several years, nothing shocks me. People simply see it as a quick payout from a “big bad corporation”….a reimbursement from the evil 1%. So they have no problem doing it.

    That is why these play areas disappeared. They were money machines. They made revenue rain. Fast food places LOVED them. But the lawsuits…were just too much, they could not defend themselves fast enough, or have someone dedicated staff to prove they were wrong, and they could not afford to keep printing $10K settlement checks….and so…they went away.

    Believe me JB. They were as popular with fast food places as they were with you, it just got too expensive to protect what quickly became a massive legal liability.

    • Is it wrong for me to say screw those little kids and their injuries? 😉 I want my playscapes back!

      • lol. 🙂 I’m tellin’ ya…at least you were young enough to use them. I missed out. They started building those at JUST the age when it would have been a wee bit awkward for me to do it, so I was jealous of the kids a couple years younger than me that got to play in them. They looked like such a blast, ESPECIALLY the ball pit. I secretly hoped someone would create an adult sized one…haha. I’d pay!

        The free market did finally respond because the demand for your playscapes was still there. So you have places like Chuckie Cheese, Johns Pizza, Camelot, and other places, many of which still have play places. The difference is that they charge to use them (or charge enough for other things to cover the cost) and the fee is enough to cover the costs associated with keeping them clean and maintained.

        They are very tricky. Everywhere that one piece connects to another, it is a potential pinch point because the pieces move over time, shift, expand and contract with heat and cold, age, stretch… Every screw or rivet is a potential puncture or tear injury. Every sick kid that passes through the tunnels on their hands and knees, touches the handles, grabs the ropes, grips the rungs, presses against the windows…is leaving behind a bacterial-viral soup for the next kid to come along and lick off. You’d hope most parents would not let their kids use these areas when they are sick, but too many parents do. These same parents aren’t diligent about changing pants or diapers or using sanitizer, etc… so every inch of these things needs to be sanitized constantly. These days they can use bacteria resistant plastic, etc… which helps but they are still very labor intensive.

        I just really really wish that someone would create an adult sized ball bit, slip n slide, jungle gym, bounce house and inflatable slide! I’d be all over it. It would work in Vegas I bet!

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