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Kids are losing the Chuck E. Cheese animatronics. They were for the parents, anyway

Munch's Make Believe Band performs in the birthday room at the Chuck E. Cheese in Northridge, Calif. By the end of next year, this animatronic band will be the only one left in the U.S. as the chain remodels in favor of screens and interactive dance floors.
Maggie Shannon for NPR
Munch's Make Believe Band performs in the birthday room at the Chuck E. Cheese in Northridge, Calif. By the end of next year, this animatronic band will be the only one left in the U.S. as the chain remodels in favor of screens and interactive dance floors.

NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — If anyone was going to throw a fit at Chuck E. Cheese on a recent Saturday, it was going to be the adults.

After the "eatertainment" franchise announced it would be getting rid of its signature animatronics at most locations, Kyle Cooper brought his 3-year-old to the chain for the first time. He was hoping to share with her a piece of his childhood.

"I took my daughter specifically to see the animatronics, 'cause that's what I grew up with," he said.

But a lot has changed since the 34-year-old father visited the pizza-arcade establishment as a kid. Digital cards have replaced game tokens. On the wall opposite the animatronics stage, a giant video screen has stolen kids' attention, as has the interactive dance floor in the middle of the carpet. The new screens are part of a remodel modernizing the chain.

By the end of next year, this location northwest of Hollywood, will be the last remaining stronghold of the Chuck E. Cheese animatronics. But even here, Cooper is bummed that the sounds blaring from the new technology are drowning out the old.

Elliot Gonzalez enjoys a ride with Chuck E. Cheese. Digital cards have replaced game tokens at the pizza-arcade chain.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
Elliot Gonzalez enjoys a ride with Chuck E. Cheese. Digital cards have replaced game tokens at the pizza-arcade chain.

"It was exactly how I remembered it, if only I could hear it," he said. "They're just kind of flapping around up there without much sound."

Between all the modern stimuli, it's no longer the focus it was when Tahiti Malone, 50, was a kid. When the animatronics band isn't playing, they're tucked behind a curtain. When they do come out, Malone said, "Nobody's paying attention, nobody's really looking."

The slow-blinking, fuzzy robots on stage — a cast of singing characters known as Munch's Make Believe Band — have been a fixture of the kids play place since Chuck E. Cheese opened in 1977.

But as the company revamps the franchise to appeal to a new digital generation, it says the giant mechanical puppets must go.

Families play games at the Chuck E. Cheese in Northridge, Calif.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
Families play games at the Chuck E. Cheese in Northridge, Calif.

The screen-driven show, which plays sing-and-dance-along birthday tunes and features original characters in digital form, "meets the demands of kids today, who have higher expectations of realism and special effects," a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

About two dozen of the more than 400 Chuck E. Cheeses in the U.S. still host the animatronics band. By December 2024, there will only be one: In Northridge, Munch's Make Believe Bandwill have a permanent residency.

Malone, who was at the restaurant for her grandson's birthday, thinks that without the animatronics elsewhere, a lot of families will be missing out. Having passed down the excitement over the flagship stage act to two younger generations, she's nostalgic for what's become tradition in her family.

Zoe Shelley and Nah'la Fowler show off the tickets they grabbed in the "ticket blaster" machine at Chuck E. Cheese.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
Zoe Shelley and Nah'la Fowler show off the tickets they grabbed in the "ticket blaster" machine at Chuck E. Cheese.

"You gotta leave something behind. Everything does not have to be on a big screen," she said.

Cooper agrees. "There's a charm to the animatronics that you're losing with the screens," he said. "Why do we need to give them more screens, more high-tech stuff when puppets have been around for hundreds of years and have always entertained kids?"

The screens have always been for the kids, the animatronics for the adults

The reality is that, since Chuck E. Cheese's inception, kids have been glued to screens. The animatronics, however, weren't originally meant to be a main draw for youngsters.

The franchise is the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, who co-founded Atari, the video game titan behind early hits like Pongand Centipede. The pizza parlor-arcade concept was a marketing strategy to expand the distribution of Atari games.

"Kids loved to play our games, but there weren't any family friendly locations for kids under 12," Bushnell said. "Bowling alleys were a little bit rough — bars, of course, no."

Families grab lunch at the Chuck E. Cheese. In most locations, adults can also order beer and wine at the chain.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
Families grab lunch at the Chuck E. Cheese. In most locations, adults can also order beer and wine at the chain.

But pizza had a wait time, he says. So, kids could kill the minutes feeding coins into the machines.

The parents weren't forgotten. Beer and wine have always been on the menu. The animatronics, according to Bushnell, were also for the adults — or at least their inner child. In the early days, the robotic characters spoke in double-entendres. The whimsical, vaudevillian act could distract the parents while the kids were in the game room.

"I felt that the skits had to be somewhat sophisticated, not so that it would leave the kids behind, but so the jokes would amuse parents," Bushnell said.

A restless innovator, Bushnell left the company in 1984. Still, he welcomes Chuck E. Cheese 2.0.

"I've always wanted my products to be at the edge, a little bit out there, a little bit unexpected. And I think that what they're doing now is keeping that ethos alive," he said.

The animatronics were first designed to amuse the adults while the kids played games, according to Chuck E. Cheese's founder.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
The animatronics were first designed to amuse the adults while the kids played games, according to Chuck E. Cheese's founder.

"You could say big screens are passé but they're really not — not in everyday life. We see them a lot in conferences and that, but great, big wall-mounted screens bigger than life, the animated dance floor where you can chase the fish around and walk on lava — I mean, that's fun."

Some parents who spoke to NPR said the screens provided more entertainment for their younger kids, whereas the giant robots creeped them out or required a gentle introduction.

Kids in the 2 to 4 age range tend to be scared of the animatronic characters, said Elva Colio, a manager at the Northridge location.

The robots have also been prone to malfunctions that can intensify their eeriness. Keeping the animatronics running smoothly — which requires the help of technicians on staff — is an expensive task compared to the screens' upkeep, noted Bushnell.

Mica Advento whacks Minions at Chuck E. Cheese.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
Mica Advento whacks Minions at Chuck E. Cheese.

Gigi Boyaga, 50, whose 8-year-old daughter never got on with the robot characters, is on board with the changes.

"I love it because it's today's world," she said. "My daughter could relate to this."

Kids lead the next era of Chuck E. Cheese

In its nearly half-century history, the franchise has survived bankruptcy, a pandemic, multiple ownership changes, and competition from fellow eatertainment businesses, including defunct copycat ShowBiz Pizza Place.

Virginie Khare, an associate professor of international business and marketing at Eckerd College, says Chuck E. Cheese's strong brand identity, as well as its ability to innovate, has been the key to its success.

"That identity of 'we are entertainment for kids,' " she said, "they've maintained that over the years and that's what keeps them so strong," she said. "The competition is there, but it's more indirect competition. There's no direct brand that goes against them, not even Disney. Disney is not the same type of entertainment."

The walkaround Chuck E. Cheese costumed mascot gives Nia Thomas a high-five.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
The walkaround Chuck E. Cheese costumed mascot gives Nia Thomas a high-five.

To cater to a youthful market, the mousy mascot has gradually aged backwards. Once a cigar-smoking rat with a bowler hat, Chuck E. Cheese is now in his rock star era, a big-eared teen appearing closer in age to the kids who run up and hug the furry walkaround mascot.

When the chain couldn't connect with kids in person during the COVID-19 pandemic, it innovated: Chuck E. Cheese operated a delivery service under Pasqually's Pizza and Wings, borrowing the name of the franchise's own chef character.

Khare, who authored a 2021 study on its crisis management lessons, considers the digital revamp a smart move. While other food industry brands are tapping into nostalgia, that won't work for a franchise — whose target demographic is families with kids 2 to 12 years old — quickly ages out of the brand.

A cast member brings pizza and chicken wings to guests at the Northridge location.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
A cast member brings pizza and chicken wings to guests at the Northridge location.

"Animatronics look a little dated, let's be honest," she said. "I don't think that nostalgia marketing would appeal to the new generation of kids."

At this point, the company has to start embracing Generation Alpha, Khare says.

For them, she says, "it's all about the digital world. Having a connection through the walls or the apps to the digital world is only going to make them more loyal."

As for the parents who hope to keep their youth alive, they'd also do well to take note from the kids to tap into the times, the founder reminds us.

"I like to say: We can't help but get older, but we can choose whether we're gonna grow up or not," Bushnell said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Chuck E. Cheese mascot shows kids how to do the "Yuletide Slide" dance on the interactive dance floor.
/ Maggie Shannon for NPR
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Maggie Shannon for NPR
The Chuck E. Cheese mascot shows kids how to do the "Yuletide Slide" dance on the interactive dance floor.