Despite competition from any number of activities at indoor play centers, not to mention online gaming, laser tag remains a favorite leisure time pursuit. The theme of an arena contributes mightily to its success and certainly influences the chances of repeat visitation. For this article, four laser tag facilities around the country described their personal formula and why it works for them.
When Founder and Director Randall Briggs opened his first ShadowLand laser adventure in 1997, there were only 50 to 60 laser tag centers like it in the country. As the activity’s popularity continued to soar, Briggs kept pace and now there are five ShadowLands – three in Maryland and two in Virginia. “I chose the name ShadowLand to represent the large, 6,500-square-foot, multi-level landscape that people play on – the ‘arena,’ ” he said. Themed to be dark, mysterious places where mystical creatures cavort, the nature of all five centers evolves naturally from the features of the game equipment Briggs uses. His go-to is a small company called DarkLight based in the United Kingdom. “The game system I use allows players to earn special powers that enhance the player’s ability to advance their position,” he explained. Some of those powers include invisibility or invulnerability or can be described as Dark Thief, Electroblaster, Nebulizer and Megapower. Players can also be pursued not just by other players but by creatures such as vampires and adverse elements such as viruses and snakes that are all part of the game software. There are even special “cures” that can be employed to ward off these detrimental elements.
Since it has worked so well, Briggs has no plans to change the theming at any of his five centers. In fact, he said it’s been rewarding to see that since he began opening his centers – ShadowLand in Columbia, Md., in 1997 and ShadowLand in Gaithersburg, Md., in 1999, to name two – that his chosen theme has been taken up by a few other successful entertainment undertakings such as Harry Potter in 2001 and Game of Thrones in 2011. Briggs attributed ShadowLand’s steady annual visitation rate to the fact it offers a “real space” experience where everyone is actually together in the same location versus an online or virtual experience. “We can place 40 people in an adventure where every single person in the group shares the exact same experience at the exact same time. No other indoor entertainment center can do that.”
Indoor Extreme Sports offers three laser tag experiences – Blacks Ops, Arena and Zombie – at its facility in Long Island City, N.Y. Each uses the same basic equipment with minor modifications depending on the theme. Blacks Ops Laser Tag was the first to debut and it remains the most popular. “It is our interpretation of the video game Call of Duty which was gaining popularity at the time we came up with the idea,” explained Co-Owner Chris Fermoselle. “What sets us apart from the competition is the realistic equipment we use. It’s actually used for military and law enforcement training – that’s how realistic it is.” Black Ops is a customer favorite because the playing field resembles a run-down city street with actual stores players can run in and out of. There can be up to 24 players on the field at a time.
Indoor Extreme Sports has no plans to change its themes. If anything, it has only expanded upon its original idea. Black Ops was the genesis for later themes like Arena Laser Tag which Fermoselle described as close quarter battle. Aimed at 7-to-12-year-olds, the game is fast-paced, uses a smaller playing field and requires just six players, playing three-on-three.
Meanwhile, Zombie Laser Tag can have up to 10 players, playing five-on-five but in this instance, the field is decked out to look like a real zombie research facility. It features many gory elements and is recommended for players aged 12 and up. These three different laser tag experiences each contribute to Indoor Extreme Sports’ steady visitation rate and in fact, as the year closed out, numbers appeared headed towards a slight increase. Fermoselle attributed the slight upward tick to Indoor Extreme Sports’ habit of adding new and different experiences – such as axe-throwing – to its facility.
An Ancient Egypt theme was already in place at Loveland Laser Tag in Loveland, Colo., when Jeff Willy purchased the business. It was the original owner’s idea to move away from typical space and sci-fi themed laser tag and to install something more adventurous that would appeal to all ages. “I would have done the same thing,” said Willy. “As far as gender demographics, our Ancient Eqypt theme tends to be more inclusive of people’s interests. Space themes tend to skew more towards pre-teen boys and laser tag has evolved a great deal past that nowadays.”
Willy has no plans to change Loveland Laser Tag’s theme as it is definitely working for the center. However, he is always refreshing and updating aspects. Over the summer, a black light artist was brought in to do some repainting. In recent years, elements borrowed from the popular movie Stargate have been creeping in as well. “There’s always been those conspiracy theories the Ancient Egyptians were visited by aliens and the pyramids were built by them. So, we’re having some fun with that.” Visitation numbers remain on a par with last year’s figures and Willy attributed it to increased competition in the market. He calculated there are least seven other laser tag centers within 45 minutes of him not to mention other family-centric activities all vying for the same leisure time dollars.
The Stargate media franchise influenced Arena 51 Laser Tag in Middleburg Heights, Ohio, as well. Reminiscent of an ancient temple, albeit one that is alien-owned and operated, the theme was in place when James Bailey bought the center. It remains popular so Bailey sticks with it while at the same time adding upgrades like neon paint. “We keep remodeling here and there. We’ve been finding lots of unused space under the ramps and things like that. We’ve been slowly opening up places that weren’t in play before. Any space that is negative space, basically we’re trying to make it positive space that players can walk through, just to make the arena bigger,” he said. Younger guests, especially, like the little bunkers, cubbyholes and smaller spaces under ramps they can duck into. At this point, Bailey figures his visitation rate has reached a plateau. “It goes up in the winter and down in the summer. Basically, we’re crazy in the winter and slow in the summer,” he concluded.