By Emily Harrington
A stage full of gigantic, mechanical animals used to sing and dance at the long-gone Chuck E. Cheese (CEC) in Champaign. CEC was a birthday party staple for my family and friends growing up.
So, when my husband was going out of town for the weekend, I was looking for fun things to keep my son and me occupied. I remembered Bloomington had a CEC — a throwback to our own childhood.
CEC is located in a strip mall at 1701 E. Empire St. in Bloomington. It’s easy to access via I-74’s Downs exit. It’s very shiny and colorful and crowded. We left for Bloomington around 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday and entered CEC at 6:30 p.m. during what could be best described as rush hour. I was completely overwhelmed, and my son was overstimulated by all the noises, lights and kids. There was a lot to take in.
Admission is free, and your family is immediately marked with an invisible stamp that gives you and your children a matching identifier. These will be checked with an ultraviolet light when you leave. It’s a safety measure to make sure the right parents leave with the right children.
We got a booth and tried to figure out our next move. Armed with coupons, we went to the cashier to see what our food and token options were. Just get the pizza, OK? There are salads and wraps and wings, but make it easy on yourself and just get a pizza. It’s their “specialty,” so to speak. Oh, and they sell beer! There are combinations that will save you money; 30 tokens, a large pizza and four drinks are $29.99. The tokens work like this: the more you the buy the better the deal. But if you buy less than $10 worth, they break down to 33 cents each. You don’t need cash for anything, and they take all major credit cards.
We ordered our pizza, got our number (which you set up on your table) and our tokens. Now what? There were kids crying and screaming and stealing! One little girl actually did a run by and swiped the tickets coming out of our machine right from underneath us. It’s a zoo with one big mouse as the main attraction.
My son ran directly for the train which spurted “steam” from the top. It was unlike any coin-operated train I had seen before. There were basketball games, football games, bowling games, skee-ball games and put your token in and see where it lands (waste-of-money) games. Every game was one token. And all games spit out veryyyyy few tickets, or maybe we were just that bad at the games? Seriously — the most we got from a single game was five tickets.
In addition to all the arcade games, there was a McDonald’s PlayPlace-like piece of equipment in the center of CEC. Kids could climb up and through tunnels and slide down. Unfortunately, my son was too small and couldn’t climb up, and I was too big and couldn’t fit to help him up. Ideally, you need to be at least 3 years old to take advantage of this FREE distraction from all the games.
While you are playing, you just have to keep looking at your table to see if the server has put your food down yet or not (there’s not a better system to let you know when it’s ready). Shortly after we ate our decent pizza, a countdown started on a TV at the front of the room. It was announcing the pending arrival of Chuck E. Cheese himself! This apparently happens every hour on the half-hour. I was getting pumped. Five minutes, four minutes, three minutes, two minutes — one minute! Where’s Chuck E.? A cute song came on that same TV, but no Chuck E. A bit later the mouse came out, threw some tickets in the air and immediately skittered back to the kitchen. We literally chased him down to get a picture, in which my son completely freaked out.
That’s it!? No song and dance? Let down. My friend, who came along for moral support, talked to the manager who told her that because it was so busy, Chuck E. had to do double duty cleaning the bathrooms (which needed cleaning, by the way). This is why he was late and why he was so quick to get back to his cleaning duties? This is a joke, right? Boo.
By 7:45 it had thinned out dramatically, and we felt like we were finding our groove despite the preoccupied mouse. We ate some really hard churros and were feeling no pain. Our second round of tokens found us exploring new games and genuinely enjoying ourselves.
At 8:30 Chuck E. made up for his poor performance and put on a full song and dance for the kids complete with throwing free tickets to the crowd. This time around my son was warming up to the mammoth rodent.
We fed our tickets through the ticket machine that printed a receipt for our earnings — 80. The prize desk had a variety of plastic toys and candy varying from a few tickets to thousands. Oh, and you can buy the prizes if you don’t have the tickets to nab them. No thank you. Fun Dip and stickers it is!
We had a full night of food and entertainment for three people for $35. Not bad. On the ride home I heard the words “Chuck E. Cheese” maybe a hundred times. No joke. Which means our quick road trip was a success!
In a few years, maybe he will have a birthday party at CEC just like his mom and dad did decades earlier. Next time, though, that mouse better give us a good show the first time around!
Emily Harrington is a Chambana townie that left her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job to be a 24/7 mom to a dreamy son. Still interested in writing, Emily uses some of naptime to practice her passion and keep her mind right. Emily is a happy wife with a happy life because she fell for a fellow townie. Oh, and let’s not forget her other son, a degenerate canine named Heppenheimer.