Types of Children's 'Entertainment' Centers

It has been over 30+ years since Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre (now Chuck E. Cheese’s) and almost two decades since the first pay-for-play soft-contained-play centers, such as the former Discovery Zones, and the pay-for-play children’s entertainment centers, such as the former Jungle Jim’s Playhouse, first emerged.

There have been a lot of changes to the children’s entertainment center industry since then. As of early 2011, we have identified eight distinctive types of centers that cater to children eight years and younger and nine types of centers targeting children up to around age twelve or older. Many centers use combinations of elements from different centers.

Centers Targeting Children 8 and Younger

Children’s Edutainment (or Play & Discovery) Centers
Children’s edutainment centers, also know as children’s play and discovery centers, have a primary emphasis on hands-on discovery learning through free spontaneous play, but can also incorporate some elements of pure entertainment. These centers offer a broad variety of play and many also have outdoor adventure play gardens. Children’s edutainment centers also include private birthday party rooms, which generate a significant percentage of revenue.  Childcare and primary grade school field trips also generate some revenue.

However, unlike many types of centers that focus solely or primarily on children, children’s edutainment centers also focus on parents, and especially mothers, by offering a pleasant café area with a quality quick-casual style menu.

Children’s edutainment centers charge an admission price for the child and usually also a lesser fee for the parent. Centers typically have 16,000 to 25,000 S.F. of indoor space

Probably the first children’s edutainment center was Wol-Ha in downtown Cancun, Mexico, designed by White Hutchinson and opened in 1994.  Subsequent children’s play and discovery centers designed by White Hutchinson include LouLou Al Dugong’s, Bamboola, Paradise Park, Totter’s Otterville and BellaBoo’s

Movement & Gymnastics
In 1975, Joan Barnes, the originator of the Gymboree children’s exercise program, proved there was a market for young children’s movement classes and mommy-and-me sessions. However, the early business model did not rely on a dedicated business location. Rather, franchisees held classes in church basements and recreation centers, which made for very low overhead. Now Gymboree, Little Gym and other franchises and independents are renting store space to offer preschool children’s movement and developmental gymnastic classes. To help cover the higher fixed overhead, they have broadened their offerings to include additional types of classes, including dance, Karate, cheerleading, children’s yoga, art and sports skills. Some have incorporated baby signing into the class curriculums (young children can learn basic signing before they can learn to talk). All also offer birthday parties at limited times when classes are not being held. Some have a parents’ night out, or what Gymboree calls a parents’ survival night, where parents can drop off their children.

Pay-for-Play Soft-Contained-Play Centers
Pay-for-play soft-contained-play centers are all a variation of the Discovery Zone model from the 1990’s. Their main attraction is a large multi-story soft-contained-play structure. They also usually contain games, a snack or concession stand and birthday party rooms. They charge an admission free for children.Centers are typically in the 10,000 square foot size range.

Open-Play & Play Cafés
Some market savvy at-home moms who recognized a void in the market place from their own personal experience have started versions of centers catering predominately during the weekday to at-home moms with their pre-grade school children rather than to the wider age range of children up to about eight years old that other types of children’s centers target. These more focused facilities have many different names including open-play centers, play cafés or playcafés, parent-and-child cafés, playspaces and family lifestyle clubs. They are appearing in various sizes with different combinations of offerings including large open areas with play and riding toys, sometimes some soft-contained-play equipment, a small inflatable ball pit, pretend play areas, horizontal climbing walls, mommy-and-me type movement sessions, creative play sessions, multiple types of enrichment classes and party rooms. Some are basically a reduced-size children’s edutainment center, with developmentally appropriate children’s play activities. Food and beverage offerings vary from none to snack bars with coffee, sandwiches and wraps to organic food restaurant areas.

These centers range in size from about 2,500 to 10,000 square feet. Many are closed to the general public on weekends when they exclusively offer birthday parties. As of early 2008, we have identified about 40 of this type of center throughout the U.S., as well as variations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. As the most nascent category, these centers have not evolved into any consistent formula of offerings or design.

Inflatable Centers
Although primarily focused on weekend birthday parties (see Birthday Party Centers below), these centers also offer open play when they are not booked for parties.

Ride- or Amusement-Based Pay-for-Play
These centers basically offer children’s rides, games, a concession stand or small restaurant area and birthday parties. The Jeepers! chain with eleven locations throughout the U.S. in the 20,000 to 25,000 square foot size range bills itself as an ‘indoor amusement park.’

Pizza & Games
This is the oldest form of children’s entertainment center that dates back to May 1977 when Nolan Bushnel’s Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre combined kiddie rides, redemption games, a robotic animatronic show and pizza. That company has evolved to become Chuck E. Cheese’s with over 540 locations ranging in size from 8,000 to 15,000 S.F.

Children’s Discovery Farms
Farmers have adopted children's edutainment as a new source of income for their farms. Rather than calling their venues children's edutainment or play and discovery centers, the owners call these agritainment facilities children's discovery farms. The difference from edutainment centers is that all the play activities are outdoors and animals are an important part of the mix. Some children’s discovery farms also have spraygrounds. The oldest children's discovery farm is Davis' Farmland in Sterling, Massachusetts that opened in 1993.

Not all children’s centers targeting children eight and younger clearly fall into these eight center categories. Some are combinations of different categories, while others may be predominately one category, but also have elements of one or more other categories.

Centers Targeting Children Up to Around Age Twelve

Tutoring & Academics
Some children have always required tutoring to help them with school. Today’s parents are increasingly concerned that their children succeed in school so top colleges will accept them. Other parents, as part of the trend of our modern culture to pursue self-actualization, want to give their children every opportunity to achieve their full potential. This has lead to the increased demand for centers that tutor and help children advance academically, acquire other life skills and pursue interests, such as in children’s enrichment centers described below.

Birthday Party Centers
Commercial out-of-home birthday parties are a big market. Some family and children’s entertainment centers hold more than 100 parties a week.  Mass produced birthday parties have always been a key component of Chuck E. Cheese’s success. 

What is different with these dedicated birthday party facilities is that rather than offer parties as part of a primary entertainment destination, the facilities are designed predominately for parties and not for walk-in entertainment or open play business. Many of the facilities are located in low-rent, office-warehouse flex-type buildings, rather than in retail locations, and they generally operate only on Friday nights, Saturdays and Sundays when everyone wants to hold birthday parties. Some centers have open-play sessions during limited weekday hours or host private events and corporate team building activities to try to supplement their incomes. Most of the facilities rely on inflatables as a key play component, contributing to a low entry cost, which probably accounts for this industry segment’s recent rapid growth. There are many franchises for these types of centers. Many industry experts question the sustainability of the inflatable center concept. Many of the centers have failed.

Indoor Trampoline Centers/Parks
These new type of jump centers typically range in size from 30,000 to 50,000 SF in size and feature a large or multiple large grids of trampolines (10,000+ SF) with thick layers of padding covering the metal support structure for predominately children’s open jumping sessions. The centers also offer exercise programs and sports such as dodge ball for older children and adults using the trampolines. Check out Randy White’s blog about trampoline centers: Are they a flash in the pan?

Children’s Adventure Centers
This is the newest children’s entertainment center concept partially based on adventure sports concepts. There is a multiplicity of challenging adventure type activities including zip lines, climbing walls, slides, rope bridges.

Children’s Enrichment Classes
These centers generally focus on offering classes in one type of subject, such as art or cooking, and are located in small stores. Their popularity has grown due to the cutback in many school art and extracurricular programs and children’s increasing interest in learning to cook. This interest is fueled by both the new food flavor profiles that children are experiencing in restaurants and the star status of many chefs, especially on the Food Network and other culinary TV shows that many children watch. There are a large number of franchises popping up focused on this enrichment angle for young children.

Children’s Activity Centers
These facilities are focused on teaching children some skill, including gymnastics, swimming, cheerleading, dance, music and martial arts. Often you will find these type classes offered by fitness and recreations centers, but there are just as many dedicated facilities. Some of the activities, such as cheerleading and gymnastics appeal to children older than age twelve.

Children’s Role Play Centers
These are the indoor theme parks of children’s centers. They are scaled down replicas for real cities where children learn about money and work by experiencing a large number of professions. They range in size from around 60,000 square feet to 140,000 square feet.  As of June 2009, there were nine of these centers throughout the world including La Ciudad de los Niños, Wannado City (now closed), seven KidZanias, Microplex, Eday Town and BabyBoss.

Children’s Theme Parks
Without a doubt, LegoLands are the best example of this genre.

LegoLand Discovery Center
Merlin Entertainment Group has opened a new concept, three indoor LegoLand Discovery Centers, each about 30,000 square feet, built on the Lego brand and Lego experiences.

Children’s Museums
Although not falling within the category of ‘entertainment,’ the over 300 children’s museums also compete for a share of the out-of-home children’s location-based leisure market. Most are non-profit, but there are a few for-profit children’s museums.

The children’s entertainment, edutainment and enrichment center industry is continually evolving. As some concepts grow in numbers, variations develop that target even smaller niche markets. Other concepts develop that are hybrid concepts.