Well, in the interest of fairnessand with the understanding that there are legions of parents desperate for a way to get the family out of the house on a winter weekend afternoonI decided to lean on the entertainment side of "arts and entertainment."
In short, I decided to escape to Xscape.
A first impression of the place depends on which way you enter. Come in from the Lafayette Square Mall east parking lot and you'll see a movie-theater-like entry with a touch of "what's behind those doors" excitement. Come in through the mall entrance and it looks like a big game room with bumper cars.
Either way, the first surprise might be how many families there are and how few roving gangs. Ask yourself: Would the Sharks and the Jets hang out at Doc's if it cost $8.49 a head to get in?
Yes, there's a cover charge. Just getting in the door will cost you $8.49 per adult, with $6.99 for seniors and $4.99 for kids 2-12. It's not a bad price, considering the fee includes the buffet, dessert and beverages. And the food is surprisingly acceptableI've eaten a lot worse for the price. Pizza was a notch better than CiCi's, with decent enough attempts at pies beyond pepperoni and sausage. Pastas and sauces, tacos, burritos, chicken pot pie (kind of like the version you'd make using a recipe on the side of a Bisquick box). Plus a salad bar. And an unlimited beverage station, which significantly cuts back on the number of whining kids and wallet-challenged parents.
The dessert bar, which the staff obviously has a greater challenge keeping clean, includes cookies, a variety of pies, pudding, fruit, and an ice cream sundae bar. If you are so inclinedand not carb-countingyou could take the kids for lunch, entertain them on the rides and with the games, catch a movie (more on that later) and then have dinner.
The cover charge doesn't include most of the attractions and games, of course, so you'll need to put money on an Xscape card. More than just a pre-paid charge card, it's actually part of a cutting-edge system that not only keeps track of how much money you have left, but also how many points you've acquired from the games. I was baffled by it at first, wondering how my card could keep track of my points while it's in my pocket. But it works.
The side effect: You won't see kids approaching the redemption counter with piles of tickets and cups of tokens. Instead, your account is credited with whatever points you win.
Either way, of course, you end up with junk prizes, but you already knew that.
Xscape has plenty of the same kind of games you'd find at Jillian'sincluding a pair of addictive Deal or No Deal stations. There's also a short row of duckpin bowling alleys ($3 a game, make sure you don't accidentally make it a "Turkey Shoot" game if you really want to just play the traditional nine frames), as well as the aforementioned Bumper Cars ($3the downside being a smallish playing field, the upside being the freedom to have head-on collisions) and a Laser Tag arena ($5somewhat disappointing because, despite the warnings about strobes and smoke, none were present in the actual battleground when we played).
Additional rides include spinning Teacups ($3), a strap-yourself-in five-minute 4D Theatre ($5- - the 4th D being wind effects and shaking seats), and Go Karts ($5featuring the longest lines and a basic oval track). The nine-hole Ghoulie Golf ($3) features a horror theme and a reasonably simple course of curves and obstacles. Nobody complained when we played through twice to make it an 18-hole game.
In all, Xscape offers a fairly positive experience. And the $22 I put on my card (abetted by a $5 bonus offered at that level) lasted for a good three hours, which included a meal and some time for my son in the no-extra-charge Pirates of the Caribbean bounce house and back-yard-basic Pirates Adventure jungle gym.
My biggest beefand it's a big oneis the handling of the Drive-In Theatre, a dining room/movie theater where families can find a table and park themselves to watch a feature film. All well and good, except that, on the Sunday afternoon of our visit, the film was "The Dark Knight."
Now, I fully believe that it's up to parents and guardians to decide when their kids are ready for certain films. But the wide-open, no signage front offered kids of all ages the opportunity to see the exposed muscle and bone of Two Face and the Joker's knife-blade-in-the-mobster's-mouth maneuver.
If Xscape wants to present itself as family-friendly, more care should be taken on film selections. And if Xscape wants to continue showing violent PG-13 movies, it should do it so that guests aren't exposed unless they choose to be exposed.
If you're not eating in the theater, there are plenty of alternatives. There's a Disney feel to the bright Toonville dining room"Cars" was on the big screen on our visit. There's also a sports bar with plenty of monitors to watch a game-and a limited but, for some no doubt, very welcome bar (prices range from $3 drafts to $5 margaritas).
Of course, my experience with Xscape isn't as important as a child's. So I asked my 7-year-old to write up his assessment. Here's what he had to say:
"Xscape is a wonderful place you can eat pizza and pasta and you can drink your favorite drinks. There are tons of arcade games and you can watch movies. On one game you can get 400 tickets. There's this card you get that transfers the tickets that you get from the game. You should try playing laser tag. I wish I was 16."
For the record, I told him he had to be 16 to ride the Go Karts. At 36-inch tall, he could have driven with me, but I didn't want to drop $10 on the ride. Also, FYI, he cashed in his points for six rubber balls and a package of Fun Dip. And he wants to go back ASAP.
Oh, and one other thing: Would it kill the powers that be at Xscape to include a pinball machine or two?