Ah, how the mighty have fallen.
For the first few years of my children’s lives, I was scrupulous (and, truth be told, a little self-righteous) about restricting their access to media of all kinds — iPhone, Netflix, TV, you name it, my twins didn’t get their chubby little hands on it.
I’m not sure exactly when my resistance broke down. It might have been when Frozen first appeared in theaters and it became clear that there was virtually no way to escape its clutches. Or maybe it was our first cross-country flight with mobile children, when the iPad suddenly seemed like salvation.
Regardless, resistance is clearly futile these days, which is how I found myself willingly heading to one of Portland’s throwback arcades recently, my son and two of his buddies in tow. Prices vary around town, but we paid $4 admission per person at the Avalon Theatre & Wunderland on Southeast Belmont. (It’s the same price whether you’re just watching or actively playing, so you might as well roll up your sleeves and join the fun.) Once you’re in, you’ll need some money to play the games.
Pro Tip: Raid your coin jar at home and bring in all the nickels you can find — or else buy a plastic baggie of nickels, in $2, $5 or $10 sizes. And if you’ve got a neighborhood arcade that you’ll want to visit regularly, sign up for their loyalty program. Wunderland sends out free admission and free nickels coupons to its members several times a year.
Fair warning: This isn’t a great outing for kids (or parents) with sensory issues. It’s loud in there, with flashing lights and noises coming from every direction. Still, the place was packed, with kids as young as 2 years old getting boosted up by their parents to join in the fun.
You’ll find games ranging from arcade classics like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to steering wheel/car navigation machines that require little drivers to stay on course, to super-fun and interactive skee-ball and basketball installations. My son and his friends instantly took over the most bloodthirsty option available (sigh), happily decapitating zombies on screen as I stood nearby muttering loudly about the need for better gun control in the U.S.
Some of the machines are best avoided, like the giant “claw,” which sucks up 40 cents per try for your kid to manipulate the gears in an attempt to snatch up a garishly colored stuffed animal. I managed to pry the boys away from the Star Wars-themed game when we discovered that they could “win” tickets on some of the machines to be redeemed for prizes when we left. (And when I say “win”, I mean that we spent about $15 to $20 to amass roughly 1,000 tickets, which to their disappointment was not enough to earn them an entry-level Nerf gun, of which they planned to share custody.) Turn your tickets in to claim playground-ready balls, off-brand Rubik’s cubes and slap bracelets, among other trinkets.
We didn’t try it, but the arcade was also equipped with an “interactive motion” ride, where 3-D glasses wearing spectators are equipped with yet more guns to nab bad guys — steer clear here if you’re prone to nausea on roller coasters. Other arcades boast laser-tag arenas (best for ages 7 and up) and movie theaters with various animated films in heavy rotation.
After about an hour and a half of this, my head was spinning, and I insisted on some fresh air and a bike ride to the park as an antidote. Still, the boys were beyond thrilled with the experience (my son is already planning his return trip) and I had significantly more fun than I might have expected. Next time, maybe I’ll even manage to get past level one on Ms. Pac-Man.
Avalon Theatre & Wunderland, 3451 SE Belmont St., 503-238-1617.
Sunday to Friday, noon-midnight. Saturday, 11 am-midnight.
Get There: TriMet bus number 15 (between NW 23rd and Gateway) has frequent service and stops virtually outside the Avalon Wunderland arcade’s front door on Southeast Belmont Street. If you’re coming from the westside, take the MAX Blue or Red line to Pioneer Square, and transfer there to the 15 bus.
Game On! Our picks for the best arcades in the PDX metro area.
Ground Kontrol: Get your ’80s on at one of Portland’s OG arcades, with pinball machines galore, plus Dance Dance Revolution and beer for grown-ups. 511 NW Couch.
SuperPlay: A mecca in the burbs, with a big assortment of newer games, plus a giant laser tag arena and bowling to boot. 9300 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Beaverton.
Pietro’s Pizza: One of our favorite places for a kid’s birthday party, with better-than-average take-home prizes, and mini-golf at the Beaverton location. 10300 SE Main Street, Milwaukie, plus locations in Beaverton, Salem and Hood River.