This Kid Paradise Hasn’t Changed Since the 90s, and It’s Amazing

If you grew up in the 90s, you almost certainly remember having this experience. You piled into the car with your family members and drove across town to a super exciting place.

When you arrived, an adult stamped your hand with a stamp you couldn’t see, for reasons you didn’t understand.

You were then set loose in a paradise of noisy arcade games and fun little rides. There was a strangely compelling, slightly nightmare-inducing animatronic band on a raised stage that would occasionally jump into poorly synchronized songs.

At some point, you sat down at tables that were in the arcade and ate pizza that was extremely thin and dripping with cheese. Maybe Dad got a beer. No one ordered the salad.

At the end of the experience, you traded in the small paper tickets you won from the arcade games—for which your parents paid at least $25–and got $0.04 worth of plastic trinkets, which you cherished.

It was amazing.

Enter the House of Mr Cheese

I’m talking, of course, about Chuck E Cheese, the quintessential 1990s kid venue.

Well, I have great news for you, Millennial parents–Chuck E Cheese is still going strong, and you can now bring your own kids there!

Even better, almost nothing has changed since the 1990s. The campy, often off-brand arcade games are still there. There are still tables right in the arcade.

And the animatronic band is still playing. Yes, they’re now flanked by flatscreen TVs playing slick YouTube videos of popular dance trends. But every 10 minutes or so, like nostalgic clockwork, they creak into life and hammer out a strange ballad about sharing your toys or being nice to your friends.

The band at Chuck E Cheese
The band at Chuck E Cheese

I like to visit the Chuck E Cheese in Dublin, California near where I live in the Bay Area. But this chain is still present across the country.

Food You Ate in 1994

The food hasn’t changed, either. You can still get a greasy yet strangely delicious pizza, or a plate of chicken wings and fries, and not much else. They still serve alcohol. And there’s still a salad bar option that I’ve never seen anyone order.

Chuck E Cheese pizza
Chuck E Cheese pizza

In a world where everything has gone farm to table—where even Burger King had a bioengineered plant-based burger—and where every activity we do with our kids has to serve some higher educational or social purpose, there’s something strangely comforting about Chuck E Cheese.

It’s not trying to be a gourmet foodie destination. There’s no slick coffee bar selling matcha lattes. There are no STEM tie-ins or messages about how video games improve fine motor skills and problem-solving.

It’s just a place where your kids can eat pizza, shoot zombies, and well…be kids. In fact, that sentiment is enshrined in the chain’s motto.

A Parent Paradise, Too

As a parent, you’ll appreciate that Chuck E Cheese’s prices have budged very little since the 90s. A $100 game card buys you 500 plays, which works out to just $0.20 per game.

I paid at least $0.25 to play Street Fighters or Ninja Turtles in the 1990s. If anything, Chuck E Cheese’s game prices appear to have deflated over the last 30 years.

Even the hand stamp “Kid Check” system (which places an invisible UV stamp on each family member to ensure they all come and leave together), which probably felt like overkill in the happy-go-lucky 90s, feels prudent and sensible in our crazy times. As a parent, I appreciate that Chuck E Cheese seems genuinely investing in ensuring some rando doesn’t walk off with my kid.

Overall, visiting Chuck E Cheese feels like taking a step back in time, but in the strangest possible way. We didn’t manage to preserve many other coveted 1990s institutions—grunge music, a pervasive optimism about new technologies, peace between great powers.

But we did keep Chuck E Cheese. Maybe it’s not the cultural institution we would have chosen. But regardless, it’s pretty amazing.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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