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Adult Playlands Let the Young at Heart in on All the Fun

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I am straddling a fat turbo-powered hog, hurtling through the darkened streets of a city in pursuit of cyberpunks who’ve kidnaped the mayor.

I don’t know where I’m going, so I just follow Robocop as he navigates alleys and warehouses at breakneck speed. When the crooks execute a tricky move, I kick in the afterburners, and, hot damn, I’m flying .

Actually, I’m strapped into a seat with handgrips on the armrests, watching the chase unfold on a giant video screen as the mechanized chair lurches and rolls in sync with every swerve of my virtual motorcycle.

And come to think of it, I’m feeling a little queasy.

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But I’m having fun here at Block Party (“Where grown-ups go to kid around”).

How to describe Block Party? Think of it as a theme park, video arcade, jungle gym, miniature Disneyland on steroids, all rolled together.

It’s an indoor playground for boomers with ‘tudes. (Kids and teens may enter only with an adult.) Although the target group is 18 to 34, on any given day it’s not unusual to see middle-aged men at the wheel of the Daytona USA video racing game.

“What we’re finding with the older adults is that it’s a chance to lose their inhibitions,” says Susan Lomax, a spokeswoman.

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This all springs from the fertile imaginations of the people at Blockbuster Entertainment, who opened the nation’s first Block Party here last December; a second one was launched in Indianapolis in January. One day Block Party outlets may be as widely distributed as Blockbuster Video stores.

“We have found there’s really a void for adult entertainment of this type,” says Sharon Blalock, vice president and managing director in charge of the Block Party project.

Each Block Party includes multiple attractions, such as Flippers, a cavernous hall filled with video games, pinball machines, air hockey tables and other diversions, the Go Motion theater (currently featuring “Robocop” and five other simulated adventures), a virtual reality station, and the Power Grid, advertised as “a high-tech, multilevel maze.” A gift store and a restaurant round out the mix.

Visitors buy a “Fun Card,” which has a magnetic strip encoded with the amount of money they’ve paid (up to $20). The card is fed into a slot at each attraction, the cost automatically deducted.

As you walk through the Block Party door you encounter a surrealist streetscape lined with columns, arches and faux brick storefronts accented with riotous color combinations and nice touches like a melting multicolor fire hydrant.

The ambient lighting is kept low to create the feel of a city street at night, although high-intensity lights cut through the gloom.

At the far end of the “street,” a giant cowgirl sits astride a Day-Glo rocket, which periodically lights up and starts bucking like a bronc. The Freudian implications are staggering.

But the visuals don’t tell the whole story. Much attention has been paid to sound, a carefully layered cacophony that throbs with thumpa-thumpa industrial music throughout the former toy store. Then there are the invisible jets and helicopters swooping overhead, the sound of fire engines clanging by and someone shouting, “Taxi!”

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Add the clacking, clicking, whizzing din of the Flippers video arcade and visitors barking to make themselves heard, and it’s little wonder that people are collapsed onto benches with dazed expressions.

But the sensory overload doesn’t faze Jennifer McAuliffe and her friend Susi Willaert, who are lurking in the Power Grid.

The Grid is one of those multistory mazes of tubes and slides used to entice children and their parents to patronize fast-food restaurants--only adult-size.

Just as in the kiddie version, people shed their shoes and crawl around on their hands and knees, most destined for a pit filled with blue, green and white plastic balls.

The difference is that it’s dark inside and the tubes pulsate with music and sound effects. A Block Party “roamer” circulates to make sure everyone’s behaving.

Fresh from an air hockey game, McAuliffe, 19, and Willaert, 18, are threading their way through the plastic ducts with seasoned aplomb. McAuliffe is on her seventh Block Party expedition.

“It’s something to do,” she says. “Here in Albuquerque, if you’re 18 there isn’t much you can do.”

McAuliffe explains that 18- to 20-year-olds are shut out of clubs that serve alcohol so they have to look elsewhere for entertainment.

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Julian Ortega, who has brought his son, Joaquin, and four friends for Joaquin’s 11th birthday, leans on a railing and watches bemusedly as an employee named Matt explains the intricacies of Virtua Alley to the group of boys.

“This is just like real life, except you’re a robot,” Matt says. He adjusts the headsets that provide computer-generated images and sounds on two of the players. He also hands them the electronic “guns” to be used to blast hulking robots and lizard-like creatures as they navigate a virtual underground maze. People may play as partners in this game, but they can’t shoot at each other.

“My older sons come here all the time,” Ortega says, eyeing video monitors that display the virtual marksmanship of each pistol-equipped player. “It’s real good for them to experience stuff like this.”

Enter Gina, Pam and Wendy, a trio of elementary-school speech pathology teachers who don’t want their last names used.

Gina, who’s visited once before, thinks there are too many kids running around. “It would be nice to have restricted hours just for adults,” she says.

Her friend Pam has a different impression.

“I like the fact that there’s not a ton of kids,” she says. “I like playing the videos, and if you go anyplace else, you have to fight the kids.” At most arcades, where kids are video masters, she says, they condescend to adults who don’t catch on quickly enough.

“At least here, I don’t feel quite that bad,” Pam says, looking around. “They’re my peers.”


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