The din was terrifying.
Howls of rage and fear-filled wailing filled the air. Lines of men and women with deadened eyes shuffled slowly toward their destination, while children ran screaming in all directions.
"Please, John," I whispered, tugging at my husband's sleeve. "Let's just leave."
"No, babe," he replied grimly. "We've got to do this."
"Lillian," I turned to our three-year-old as a last resort, "Wouldn't you rather go to a movie instead?"
"No!!! Chuck-E-Cheeeeeese!!" she shouted, bouncing up and down.
John gave me a chiding look. "Suck it up, Mommy."
"Well, it's okay for her. Look, she's bouncing her brain against her skull so hard, she's three-quarters unconscious. She probably has no idea where she's at."
"Good idea, huh?"
That's how it was that I was jumping in place like an Easter bunny on crank when we entered the Pizza Place Whose Name Alone Gives Parents Nervous Rashes ("Paradise" to the young, "Chuck-E-Gitmo" to the old).
The way I see it, The Place of Pizza And Parental Pain has one big problem and one big plus going for it, and they are the same thing: it's a place where a kid can be a kid. My daughter can't get enough, but I always need a week's worth of quiet time and a therapy session after getting within five minutes of the place.
My daughter loves the games (Daddy does too - he always wins). And she loves the rides. (Nothing like watching your kid jump in the Clifford the Big Red Dog ride, listening to her complain about how boring it is as the ride does little more than shudder as if Clifford had a gentle but rhythmic death rattle, only to hear her shout, "AGAIN!!!" the minute it stops.) But the thing that fascinates Lill -- and me -- the most is the Giant Gerbil Child Habitat.
You've seen em. They're the brightly colored tubes attached to the ceiling, just like you see in a hamster cage, but for 30-80lb rodents. Only a child or an anorexic gymnast could squirm inside. The only way down is a rainbow-hued, twisting slide that regularly fires small giggling people across the room like an anti-aircraft battery on LSD. Parents roam about underneath, following their children's voices or trying to catch glimpses of them through the plexiglass windows, murmuring in worried voices, "Was that a happy scream or a bad one?"
John and I were doing the same, contemplating one serious flaw in the playland design. How were we going to get our kid out?
"Maybe they pop off one of the end caps and hook up a large, high-pressure water hose," John decided. "Just kinda flush em all out down the slide. Clean the interior at the same time."
I flagged down an employee to ask. The teen in the striped shirt replied: "Dachshunds."
"Trained Dachshunds. The breed was originally developed with short legs and a fearless temperament to hunt badgers in their underground dens. They saw a resurgence in popularity after fast food establishments began installing these child play units. In fact, McDonald's is currently the largest breeder of Dachshunds in the world right now. Yeah. Come closing time, our littlest customers have about ten minutes to evacuate the play equipment, then we send in the dogs. Works every time."
"Oh, my," was all I could think to say.
"Seems harsh, but Congress approved use of Dachshunds to clear play lands after a string of tragedies that left too many children separated from their parents. Take Quiet Jim over there," the teen pointed to a scruffy man dressed in cobbled together aprons and gnawing on a pizza crust. "He went up into the tubes in '84. Refused to come down until September of 1987. By that time, his parents had expatriated to Liechtenstein. He's been here ever since."
Two hours and half a cheap pizza later, we managed a Dachshund-free extraction by ambushing Lill as she came out the slide. John threw his jacket over her and I hauled her kicking and screaming to the exit. Tired and stimulated beyond the upper limits of safe brain chemistry, she tantrumed all the way out, all the way home, and half the day after, but they were happy fits.
Her fourth birthday is a couple months away, and you can bet, when we let her decide where she wants to go, the answer is going to be The Pizza Place Which Shall Not Be Named.
Comments and de-stimulation strategies (for grown-ups) to Alex.Queen@gmail.com.
This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.
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