By Hilary Danailova
Laser tag can make people hungry. When families spend the morning chasing each other through the flashing lights of the laser arena at Whirlydome, a family entertainment center in Orlando, Fla., they work up an appetite for pizza, burgers and wings, said Manager Nikita Patel.
But as at laser tag facilities everywhere, patrons are eager to grab a quick bite and get back to the fun. That’s why pizza, burgers, wings, sandwiches and pretzels are on the menu at most family entertainment centers: The fast, inexpensive, no-fuss menu items allow people to take a break without spending a lot of time and money.
“It’s quick,” said Patel, explaining why Whirlydome designed a menu of straightforward American pub fare, with craft beer to wash it down. “You get your food, and you don’t have to sit there for a long time eating it; you want to get back to the games.”
Food, in other words, is not the emphasis in a play space where kids are running around through a laser-tag maze. “People aren’t really here to sit down and have a meal,” added Robin Wilcox, co-owner of the family business Lazer Kraze Family Fun Center, which has locations in Mason and Columbus, Ohio and in Erlanger, Ky., and is planning a fourth. The Lazer Kraze menus, Wilcox explained, respond to the need for fast, efficient family fare: pizza made on-site, chips, cheese sticks, pretzels. “Mostly we’re serving kids,” said Wilcox. “They’re here to grab a snack and go back to having fun.”
Making that happen depends on a menu that is broadly appealing and easy to understand – no challenging choices or endless list of options to mull. At Whirlydome, Philly cheese steaks, Cuban sandwiches, nachos, and sliders are no-brainers for people spending the day playing laser tag or bumper cars. “It’s not too adventurous, you know what you’re getting,” said Patel, who added that “street” tacos and nachos are the most popular items at the moment. “There’s something on the menu that everybody’s going to like.”
For many family entertainment centers, expanding the menu with more gourmet options isn’t worth the added expense and logistical difficulty, especially when patrons gravitate toward the same few items. At various times in its 12-year history, Wilcox said, Lazer Kraze has tried adding items like cookies, since they could be baked in the same oven used for pizza, but found sales were flat. A chicken pizza topping was nixed due to the difficulty of keeping fresh meat in stock. “Our kitchens are small, so we don’t have a lot of space to move,” explained Wilcox, who limits pizza toppings to things like pepperoni that don’t have to be chopped and prepped. “We just found expanding our menu to be more work than it was worth.”
At Triple Play Family Fun Park in Hayden, Idaho, Marketing and Sales Director Jennifer Ross said the menu was recently streamlined to make ordering faster and more efficient for patrons eager to get back to laser tag and the indoor water park. “We felt there were too many options, and people would just stand there and couldn’t decide,” said Ross. Triple Play still has a comparatively large menu: in addition to pizza, burgers, and pretzels, there’s a gluten-free menu with flat bread sandwiches and gluten-free nachos. Healthy eaters can choose from salads, chicken wraps, pastas, and chicken strips prepared grilled instead of fried; patrons can also order side salads in lieu of fries and onion rings, Ross said.
However, as many have noted, healthy options are far less popular than fried and cheese-laden classics at laser tag arenas. Families out to have fun aren’t in the mood to count calories, which is why at Triple Play, a 16-year-old facility with about 250,000 annual visitors, the most popular items are chicken strips, pizza and burgers, with French fries and pretzels rounding out the best-sellers. “You go to a theme park, you want a burger – they kind of go hand in hand,” Ross said.
And while the menu was downsized, with the slow-selling fish and chips removed, Triple Play expanded the facility itself with a 9,000-square-foot addition last year that includes the new laser tag arena, a remodeled bumper car area, and plans for an overhauled arcade and party area. A new, three-story rope climbing course has proved especially popular with young adults, many of whom are newcomers to Triple Play – and who stay for the other attractions.
At WonderWorks, an Orlando-based family entertainment center with five locations, the meal is the attraction after dark. The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show, a family-oriented event, sells out nearly every night, according to Erica Lewis, corporate sales and marketing coordinator for the chain. While the regular café menu is the same across all five locations – including Myrtle Beach, Panama City Beach, Syracuse, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – the original Orlando location is the only one to boast the all-you-can-eat dinner show that features unlimited pizza, salad, beer, wine, soda and a recently upgraded dessert buffet. “I think that’s a big reason why people come,” said Lewis of the show – whose menu, if fairly basic, offers a complete dinner and a nice evening out for $29.99 ($19.99 for kids) plus tax.
During the day, however, WonderWorks puts the emphasis on hands-on science exhibits, a ropes course, a 6-D motion ride, a recently added forensic science exhibit, and of course, laser tag. “We’re a family attraction – it’s for all ages, but it’s mostly families who do multiple things in one day,” said Lewis. To satisfy hunger and keep the menu simple, WonderWorks offers the classics: chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, pretzels, nachos, popcorn, fries and a chicken pita.
While most places keep the menu simple, some – including The Funplex in Mt. Laurel, N. J. – are upgrading and expanding menu options to attract wider audiences. Ayana Davis, a manager at The Funplex, said the attraction has added more sophisticated fare in a bid to become known as a destination for all ages, not just the kids’ birthday parties for which they are famous. The colossal facility, which entertained more than 32,000 children last year just for birthday parties, attracts well over 100,000 visitors annually, Davis said, and will open a new outdoor water park by Memorial Day weekend this year.
To keep up with demand, The Funplex has added items to the catering menu. They include Italian entrees – pastas, lasagnas, penne vodka, meatballs, chicken parmigiana – as well as coconut shrimp, a hummus trio, an onion ring tower, fried green beans and cheese steak egg rolls, the current top seller on the new menu, Davis said. “We’re trying to make it a range for everyone,” she added.
But even with all those options, Davis said wings are still the unqualified favorite among patrons at The Funplex. Customers snap up the breaded, mild, hot, chipotle and barbecue varieties, satisfying an urge that won’t be fulfilled by pasta or hummus. That’s because even picky eaters love chicken – and as Davis put it: “It’s really hard to mess up on wings.”