This is the unedited version of the article published in the July/August 1997 issue of FEC Management magazine

After School Daze

by Randy White

Only a decade ago, Discovery Zone and Jungle Jim's Playground signaled the advent of pay-for-play children's entertainment centers (CECs). That was then.

Even since, CECs have undergone rapid evolution. Discovery Zone, with the backing of Blockbuster Video and Wall Street, expanded when it acquired McDonald's Leaps & Bounds soft contained play centers, but is now in Federal Bankruptcy Court. Many independent wannabes followed Discovery Zone's lead, with at least two-thirds following it the whole way to their deathbeds.

Jungle Jim's Playground has grown to a chain of ten successful centers - with new ones continuing to open - but as a more upscale concept called Jeepers. So where are the true children's entertainment centers? Well, they've taken another tact: education. And guess what: Kids love it. For their next trick they'll finish their broccoli. Or maybe not.

The CEC pioneers followed two basic formulas. Discovery Zone's was based on soft contained play and birthday parties. This formula had one primary root cause to its failure. Alone as an anchor, soft contained play equipment and its physical, gross motor activities are too limiting in its appeal to children. Children need a variety of different type play and not all children are attracted to physical play activities. As a result soft contained play fails to generate the frequency of repeat business needed to sustain a community based FEC concept.

Jungle Jim's Playground's formula has evolved to be Jeepers with a variety of a half dozen or so children's rides combined with a large selection of token operated games, mostly redemption, some soft contained play equipment, birthday parties and a significant food presence. It has proved to be a viable concept, especially for middle class and more blue collar demographic segments of the population.

Over the past several years, a new generation CEC formula has emerged that appeals to the more upscale socio-economic segment of the population. This formula also addresses two short comings of the other two type CECs--the need to generate greater weekday business and to be parent friendly. This CEC concept is being referred to as children's edutainment centers.

Children's edutainment centers are based on offering children 9 years and younger a diverse variety of hands-on and interactive, open-ended spontaneous play activities combined with live entertainment, some games, birthday parties and a comfortable, parent-friendly cafe and seating areas. Unlike the earlier forms of CECs that are totally indoors and based on technology and mechanical equipment, edutainment centers also contain outdoor naturalized play areas for children in the form of adventure play gardens. Preschool and grade school field trips, mothers' clubs and play groups, summer and holiday camps and tuition-based workshops generate substantial amounts of weekday business for edutainment centers.

They are called edutainment centers, because as children engage in the various spontaneous free play activities, they naturally learn about themselves, the world they live in and how to become part of society, hence a combination of education and entertainment In fact, edutainment centers are based on the developmentally appropriate practice of using unstructured learning through open-ended play that is the foundation for high quality preschool and early grade schools. The centers are marketed to parents as educational for their children and to children as just fun.

Bamboola™, which opened in June in San Jose, California, represents the state of the art in children's edutainment centers and will be the model for the continued growth of this market segment.

Bamboola is owned by Joe Shank, Jim Theiring and Mike Zamba, the owners and operators of the very successful Almaden Valley Athletic Club (AVAC). AVAC, started by the owners in 1976, is considered the foremost athletic club in the South Bay area and features weight training, a cardiovascular conditioning center, aerobics, aquatics, water fitness classes, tennis, a restaurant and message therapy on six acres. One of AVAC's most popular offerings is summer children's learn-to-swim classes. For years, Joe, Jim and Mike have wanted to expand their children's offerings at AVAC, but were unable to do so due to lack of space. So when a supermarket directly across the street from the club went vacant in late 1994, the AVAC owners grabbed the opportunity to lease it for development as a children's center.

They hired the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group (WHLLG) of Kansas City, Missouri to be the center's consultants, designers and producers. The first thing WHLLG did was conduct a market study. The study found that the market area population's socio-economics, with its high education levels and incomes, was ideally suited to a children's edutainment center rather than the more traditional indoor FEC the owners originally envisioned. WHLLG recommended that some outdoor areas would be essential to the center's success, so a plan was developed to carve 3,500 square feet out of the parking lot directly in front of the building to serve as the children's outdoor adventure play garden. WHLLG then developed the storyline for the center about two Ahlone Indian children (Alone Indians were a unique tribe of Indians native to the South Bay area) and a sea turtle as the main characters. The sea turtle, to be named soon in a contest, is Bamboola's costume character. Since most of the storyline takes place on the Pacific island named Bamboola, the outdoor adventure play garden was developed to be in a tropical setting with palm trees. Palm trees were also added throughout the parking lot to further extend the theming outside of the building. The inside of the center is totally themed using bamboo and the debris that washed onto Bamboola's beaches from the islands of Useitup and Throwitout and was preventing the sea turtles from laying their nests.

Built at a cost of $3.1 million and billed as the island of play, adventure & fun, Bamboola does not rely on any one event as an anchor. Its appeal is the synergistic mix of 26 different events and activities WHLLG designed for the 28,000 square foot center. Soft contained play is one of these, but it only occupies four percent (4%) of the total floor area.

Bamboola contains a number of FEC industry firsts in addition to being the world's first indoor-outdoor children's edutainment center:

  • 1st children's interactive cooking area where children actually prepare food which they then eat,
  • 1st rock and boulder climbing that is age appropriate for younger children,
  • 1st children's acoustic experience room (racket room),
  • 1st grandmother's pretend dress-up attic,
  • 1st indoor interactive water tables, and
  • 1st outdoor adventure play garden with sand play and a dinosaur dig.

Other events include a pretend supermarket, house and fast food restaurant; five art studios; a construction area; a dedicated infant and toddler play area; a performance area that features Stuffee, a large educational doll with anatomically correct, removable parts insides; a maze; a tree house; do-it-yourself face painting; a reading-library area; redemption games and six birthday party huts.

Located in the middle of Bamboola is The Yummy In Your Tummy Cafe which features pizza, gourmet foods and Starbucks coffees. A large, raised cafe seating area was designed where parents can eat, socialize and observe their children while they play throughout the center. A second parent seating area is located outside in the adventure play garden. Another parent friendly feature of Bamboola is the family restroom, a private restroom with parent and child-sized fixtures where a parent can take one or more of their children.

Special attention was paid to acoustics at Bamboola from the very first stages of design. Randy White, CEO of WHLLG says "Poor acoustics is epidemic in most FECs we have visited. Sustained sound levels typically exceed 80 decibels, the noise level in a factory, and the environments are so reverberant that guests cannot conduct a conversation without practically shouting. Research has established that noisy environments create physiological stress in both children and adults. This is definitely counter productive to creating a positive guest experience and repeat business."

"Acoustics is not a design consideration that can be dealt with after the fact any more than plumbing. Most acoustic problems are caused by a facility's very design. If acoustic considerations are made integral to every design decision, a pleasant acoustic environment can be created with minimal addition expense. Bamboola demonstrates that this is an achievable goal for FECs."

The owners of Bamboola recognized that the themed physical facility, the hardware, is only one part of the formula for a successful center. Once the center opens, the software side, the operations become paramount to creating delighted repeat guests. To assure a quality guest experience, Bamboola's owners also retained WHLLG to conduct the FEC industry's first comprehensive customer service and play leadership training program for its entire staff. WHLLG's training program for Bamboola covered five full days and include the subject matter of not only dealing with adults as customers, but also play leadership -- how to relate and interact with children.

Vicki Stoecklin, WHLLG's Child Development and Education Specialist, says, "Our research shows that FECs can't succeed unless their staff members know how to interact with and delight both children and parents. In fact, how the FEC staff interacts with children is often what decides whether children and their parents will want to come back, and how often. And, because staff members want to do a good job, being equipped to please guests has a direct relationship to their job satisfaction and employee turnover."

"FEC owners often assume that any staff member with a little baby-sitting experience and a positive attitude is prepared to work with child guests. But it takes skill and training to give children an exceptional experience, one that keeps them coming back. Typical customer service training helps the staff please adult customers. Children, however, have unique needs and behaviors, and treating them like small adults simply won't work. Children often need a staff member to facilitate their play and their interactions with other children if they are to enjoy themselves in sustained play. How the staff facilitates child's play makes all the difference. For example, a staff person may be perfectly trained to handle an adult making a purchase, but may have no idea what to do differently if the purchaser is a child."

"For FEC staff members to please children and parents, they need a comprehensive understanding of four key areas," Stoecklin says. "These four are:

  • children's growth and development and the importance of play;
  • adapting to children's individual needs;
  • how the environment affects children's behavior; and
  • how to interact with children and facilitate their play and transactions."

To assure that Bamboola has substantial weekday school field trips, WHLLG also developed both preschool and grade school field trip programs and teacher's curriculum guides. Stoecklin says "For field trip programs to be successful, they need to meet the needs of the school's educational program, teachers and the children. This not only requires developmentally appropriate educational content, but also well planned procedures for working with a large group of children and support materials for teachers."

Four different field trip programs have been developed for both preschool and grade school children. WHLLG has created curriculum guides that will be sent to teachers in advance of the field trips that contain both pre-trip and post-trip activities that children can do to support the field trip educational topic and additional educational resources the teachers can use. The guides also brief the teachers on exactly what will take place at the center and procedures that they and the children will need to follow to assure a successful field trip experience.

Bamboola is open every day of the week at 10 AM and closes at 10 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, 9 PM on weekdays and 8 PM on Sundays. Admission is $8.95 for children 3-12, $3.95 for children from 12 to 35 months, and $1.95 for adults. The center will utilize a coded wrist band security system for all guests. Adults will not be admitted without children, and all children must be accompanied by an adult.