No, it's not "Chuckie Cheese." This pizza restaurant/play place that somehow got away with the premise of a household pest dancing right next to your food has been going strong for over thirty years now. But like, it has ball pits and pizza, so I kinda get it.
You were handed a plastic baggy full of quarters and sent running into the void. And it was the best ever. Whether you were a classic arcade game kid sweating 'til you got the high score, a fake gun or race car game kid, or a Skee Ball kid (ahem, me), you were covered.
Eventually, you tripped over wild strings of tickets on your way to the counter where you traded 1,500 of them for a slap bracelet and a Tootsie Roll, and you retreated to the back room to down some Coke and pack away a slice of pizza before you got back at it. It was heaven.
Your town (or the next town over) either had a roller rink or an ice rink, and both were acceptable birthday party venues. You skated for an hour or so (in the right direction), which was just enough time to realize it was terribly boring to go in circles. Then, you'd run off for cake, maybe some mozzarella sticks, and, you guessed it, roller rink pizza (previously frozen, delicious) before getting back to skating for another hour (in the opposite direction).
The most radical thing was when one of the boys held hands and skated with one of the girls. Everyone whispered. Middle school drama at its finest.
ShowBiz Pizza Place was the stuff of nightmares, but at least there was pizza, right?! Ha..ha... It was basically Chuck E. Cheese's: ball pits, games, animatronic terrors who sang songs and haunted you at night. ShowBiz's mascot was Billy Bob the hillbilly bear. ...but there was pizza, so it was okay?
Most ShowBiz Pizza Places were rebranded as Chuck E. Cheese's in the early '90s, so if you squeezed in a birthday party there, I hope it was memorable. I'm sure it was, thanks to that horrifying monster.
Laser tag is a great idea. Give kids guns, let them loose in a pitch black room only lit by neon strips on walls and things so you don't run into them and tell them to shoot each other. And we LOVED it!!
There was another aspect to laser tag parties that was pretty unforgettable...oh yeah: pizza. Pizza was a unifying force in the '90s, as it is today and will be forever.
No one realized until way later in life just how disgusting the local bowling alley was, and for that reason, bowling alley parties were the best. You were kinda lame if you used the bumpers, unless the birthday kid also used the bumpers. Then it was okay. The best part of having a bowling alley birthday party was that everyone would sign a real-live bowling pin and you'd get to take it home at the end, like the freaking champion you were.
Also, no bowling alley party was complete without endless pitchers of soda, bowls of Cheez Doodles and cold, bowling alley pizza (OF COURSE).
Ah, McDonald's PlayPlace. A plastic mecca for anyone and everyone under the age of seven. You could go right from chomping on French fries to diving into the ball pit and climbing through tubes that thousands of other children put their grubby little hands all over, then run right back to finger food. It was a magical time. Happy meal, indeed.
If you were lamenting the lack of cheesy, saucy dough at this party, never fear. You could always order a McPizza.
Oh man, mini golf parties seemed so good in theory. It was so exciting to pick your ball color, and then it was less exciting to wait in line for twenty minutes while everyone completed each hole. At least there was usually also an arcade, and if there wasn't, you could always count on the presence of pizza. Good ol' reliable pizza.
The biggest deal in fifth and sixth grades was the hotel slumber party. Some lucky girl's mom would book a room in a nearby hotel, and eight or ten of you would pack your sleeping bags, ready to have the time of your LIFE. Inevitably, some drama arose about who would get to sleep in the beds, but none of that mattered once you saw all of the cable, indoor pool swimming and free ice you could possibly imagine. It was magical.
You ran through the hotel in your pajamas and socks because you owned the place (for that one night). And you KNOW what was always for dinner, too. Let's say it together this time: PIZZA.
Some called this sprawling mess of tubes, ball pits and nets, "Discovery Zone," but insiders called it "DZ." This was the pinnacle of '90s play places, but life at the top doesn't always last very long. By 1996, DZ had filed for bankruptcy, and greedy pizza rat Chuck E. Cheese's started moving in and taking over. But hey, at least there was still pizza, right?
Movie theater birthday parties were a pretty reliable standard. It was an excuse to eat a bunch of junk (including frozen personal PIZZAS!), tortilla chips covered with a delicious mixture of chemicals labeled "Nacho Cheese," and so many Milk Duds your jaw hurt for days.
If you were extra lucky, your theater had a few arcade games, and if you were extra naughty, you took the ticket the birthday kid's mom handed you and snuck into the rated R movie two theaters down.
If you were lucky enough to have a pool, you were the most popular kid in school. If it was an in-ground pool with a diving board as opposed to an above-ground pool, kids basically dropped to the ground and kissed your feet. Pool parties were always rife with stress-inducing water games: Marco Polo, Chicken, Sharks and Minnows, and chlorine-soaked snacks from soggy potato chips to soggy....PIZZA!
And you guys swam all day until your fingers were pruny and you reluctantly trudged into your parents' car totally soaked, sitting on a towel to (unsuccessfully) keep the seat dry.
Bullwinkle's, or "Family Fun Center," was quite the center of family fun. It was similar to Chuck E. Cheese's but had that lovable cartoon moose as its mascot instead! In addition to arcade games, this kid wonderland often had go-karts, bumper boats, mini golf, laser tag...it was like nine birthday parties in one. Of course, if you had your birthday there, all the fun was accompanied by a big old pizza party. Wouldn't be a '90s kid's birthday if it wasn't.
The Rainforest Cafe offered kids an authentic jungle dining experience, complete with giant anthropomorphic frogs, animatronic singing parrots and PIZZA!!! The Rainforest Cafe, or RainCaf, as the insiders call it*, is still going strong, with locations all over the country. Looks like I know where I'll be having my next birthday party...
*There are no insiders, and if there were, they would not call it that.
Being let loose in the mall was every little kid's dream. So a mall birthday was literally a dream come true. Often, you'd be given about $10-$15 bucks and told to spend it on whatever you wanted. Some bought clothes or jewelry, and some went right to the candy store (definitely me). Then, you convened in the food court for cake and the most difficult food decision of your short little life. But not really, because everyone knew the best food court choice was Sbarro for PIZZA!!
So the lesson here is obviously that birthday parties in the '90s were epic and unforgettable, and so is pizza.