In lieu of being able to do anything relatively celebratory for Mateo's third birthday (simply because we were afraid if we invited his daycare class to a party, the only kids he knows where we live, no one would show up and he would be heartbroken), we decided to take him to Chuck E. Cheese the weekend after his birthday.
I haven't been inside a Chuck E. Cheese in, oh, about 25 years? So I had no clue how it worked except that you buy tokens to play games, get tickets for playing games, and can turn in the tickets for junk. I vaguely remember eating when we went, but I'm sure we did, although if we didn't, I can certainly understand why. I think the biggest difference between the CEC ("Chuck E. Cheese") of 25 years ago and the CEC of today is that parents and kids must be stamped with the same number to ensure said child/ren leave with said parents and no creepy creepster walks off with a wandering, googly-eyed kid.
When we arrived, there was a birthday party in full swing at the back of the place. We quickly realized most of the tables were marked "reserved," which is all fine and dandy if you didn't live in a snowy area of the US and had lugged in three big, pouffy jackets, or if you weren't with a child who wasn't potty trained, so you had to lug the dreaded diaper bag full of supplies. As this was not the case with us, we needed to score a table, pronto.
We dropped off our stuff, my husband went to buy tokens, and the boy and I wandered around looking at all the little kid games near our table. There weren't many people around, so once we got our tokens, we were able to enjoy whichever game we wanted to play.
At one point, my husband wanted to go upstairs to play the bigger kid games with our son, so I decided I should stay behind and hang out at our table to ensure we still had it when we wanted it. As I sat at the table, reading NPR posts and looking about, a weird man decided to pick up a picture of our son and Mr. CEC himself that was on our table - one of the games took a picture of whoever was sitting next to CEC and spit it out on ultrasound paper. The picture was on the table, near the wall, and for him to grab it, he had to reach across the table. I looked at him, turned, looked at his wife, who smiled at me like, "Oh, hehehe, my husband lives in man-cave, you must ignore him and his crazy antics," and then grabbed the picture and put it in my purse. Apparently the man thought the picture of his kid mysteriously jumped from the printer and onto our table. Never mind that my kid looks nothing like his kid.
I soon noticed the place filling up with other party-goers and some other CEC crashers with no reservations (like us). The crashers were soon grumbling about all the reserved tables. That was when I realized I had hot property on my hands and needed to either hold an auction for my table space or buy some food before one of the CEC employees politely kicked me out of my spot.
So I got up and ordered food -- food our kid would never eat because he's weird -- and told my husband via text that food was on the way and to come down whenever. He soon appeared with kid in tow and soon our very strangely perfect cheese pizza and french fries appeared; and, as expected, our boy didn't want anything to do with either and so he happily munched on graham bunnies.
We finished up our food, and our son wanted to play more games, so off went my husband and son to do that while I guarded our table more (and ate more french fries). At this time the place was a madhouse. There were kids everywhere doing all sorts of craziness and parents trailing to ensure they didn't end up killing themselves on the rides or wandering off with a creepy.
I decided after a bit (okay, when I was done eating the french fries), that I should go play a few games myself since we had these two little cups full of tokens (still) and probably only another 10 minutes left of our time at CEC. I had become particularly fond of one game earlier, so I headed back there to try my luck. Basically it was a big circle with numbers similar to a roulette wheel (okay, it was a roulette wheel, no one is believing otherwise, CEC). Your job, as the person who wants tickets, is to put in your coin, wait until the machine gives you a number, and then try to land the electronic "ball" on that number on the wheel. To get bonus tickets, you can also land the "ball" in between to slots. To get the "ball" to stop, you simply push a big blue button. Any dummy could do it, and even if you don't succeed on landing on the chosen number OR in between the slots, you still walked off with one ticket. I must confess that I have no idea what you got if you landed on the number the machine picked. I never got that far in the spirit of the game and just wanted the guarantied 5 tickets.
Mateo saw me playing this game, so he wandered over and I let him give it a try. He, being only three, didn't understand the complexity of the game and started smacking the blue button over and over and only won 1 ticket per token. That kid needs to learn a few things.
We decided it was time to leave - our prime real estate was soon going to be yanked from us (we feared) and it was really becoming too much for all of us. We headed over to the ticket feeding machine to turn our tickets into credits so we could then turn the credits into a 1-cent (if that) toy for Mateo. I was patiently waiting in line behind a boy while he fed the machine. Each ticket was greeted with a "chomp chomp" noise. Clever. Then some little stick of a girl cut in line and was in front of me, so I gave up and told my husband to just buy our son something and we'll save the tickets for another trip to CEC. We turned and headed to the counter where kids picked out their cheap toys (anything worth anything was either paid for or cost about 100,000 tickets), which was just as much of a madhouse as the ticket feeding machine, so we decided to just leave and deal with an upset child.
When I turned around, the feeding machine was free! I took my chance, darted the five feet, and started feeding the machine before some tiny kid got in my way. We got a total of 91 credits, which, after much planning, equaled one tootsie roll pop and a squiggly lizard.
So, what did we learn from our trip to CEC? Spending about 20 bucks on food rents a table if you get there early enough. Spending 25 bucks on tokens but only using half gets you a tootsie roll pop and a squiggly lizard that probably cost 2 cents to make. And half the tokens needed for a good time leftover for the next CEC visit, which will happen at 9am, opening time, when no one is there.
And a very happy kid, of course.
Which is all that really matters.