Best Of :: People & Places
At first glance, there's something vaguely creepy about seeing hundreds of people eating pizza while staring at a guy bathed in colored stage lights as he plays an antique organ the size of a basketball court. It's sort of Chuck E. Cheese's meets The Phantom of the Opera by way of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
But give it a few minutes and the genius of the place catches up with its weirdness. This organ and its players are awesome, so awesome that the show is entertaining to everyone from the 3-year-old smearing pizza on his face to the 90-year-old smearing pizza on his face. Indeed, the Organ Stop and its 1927 Wurlitzer is one of the few places where the term "fun for all ages" actually applies.
That toddler will be jazzed by the funky lights, kid-friendly pizza and the enormous sound; meanwhile, your great-grandfather will just be jazzed by hearing genuine musicianship on one of the Valley's grandest instruments.
In today's fiercely pigeonholed society, it's heartening to see a pizza parlor that successfully caters to so many, ahem, slices of life.
Arizona State University's campus is the most righteous place to blade, but the cops chase hard-core bladers away because they chip a little cement off benches and tables on daredevil slides and jumps. If you're tired of the hassle, the place to go for unlimited blade action is the Wedge.
With quarterpipes, lots of grinding rails, some bowls and a whole mother lode of other sweet stuff designed especially for bladers, the Wedge offers plenty of opportunity to bust out with some kick-ass blading moves. The vibe is less intense than the Valley's two other more skateboard-oriented parks in Phoenix and Chandler, and less intimidating for the preteen set just honing their plates. A few pro skaters practice at the Wedge, adding a layer of luster and inspiration. The park is open every day from dawn to 10 p.m., and it's free.
How would this go over at your household? "Mommy and Daddy are going to go out for a drink. You kids fend for yourselves." Now try this. "Let's go to Gameworks."
With all the latest and greatest in electronic gaming as well as a full bar and restaurant upstairs, Gameworks has everything you need to satisfy the "inner" and "outer" child. Look for the daily specials -- $20 for one hour of unlimited play, or $20 purchases $27.50 worth of eyeball-sucking fun. Feed the beast, unhook the leashes and the kids are off. The upper sanctum is sufficiently insulated from the mayhem a floor below to allow for a relaxing brew and, gasp, conversation! And don't worry about finding the kids. When their card runs out, they'll find you.
Readers' Choice for Best Kids' Fun at a Price: Castles-n-Coasters
Happy Meals do not grow on trees.
Still, that horticultural fact of life comes as news to many of the young city slickers who visit this West Valley agro-attraction.
"Many of these kids don't have a clue," reports Kathleen Duncan, who, with her husband, Arnott, operates the working farm that includes an organically certified pick-it-yourself veggie patch and petting zoo. Prior to visiting her farm, says Duncan, some young'uns don't know the difference between a cow and a pig, assume that produce grows in the grocery store and have yet to make the connection between barnyard fowl running around the property and the fried poultry nuggets they gobble down at McDonald's.
Fun and educational, the farm also features tractor rides, a seasonal cornfield maze, a farm machinery museum and picnic facilities for birthday parties and other group events. Head west on I-10 toward Goodyear and look to your right for the billboard of a giant baby terrorizing some miniature farm folk, one of several fanciful pop-art pieces that dot the Duncans' acreage.
If you like the idea of art, but aren't exactly sure which end to tell your kid is up in a museum or gallery, this program is the one for you. Its six weekly courses in art history -- held this year from September 20 to October 25 -- deliver the fundamentals of major art movements and works. The teachers are the museum's curators, so they're fluent in the subject. They deliver the lessons without peering down their noses. And the aim is pure: to train volunteers to take art into school classrooms. The program excels at teaching people how to look, and how to encourage children to do the same. We know of some schools where Art Masterpiece volunteers provide the only real art education of the school year.
Who knows why windmills and garishly painted plywood castles became the standard props for miniature-golf courses? But this is one Lilliputian links that bucks that trend with an Old West theme that has your balls rolling toward holes named Devil's Arch, Fool's Gold and Gravedigger's Gulch.
Here the greens are billiard-smooth and truly green -- none of that rumpled multicolored indoor/outdoor carpeting you find elsewhere. Instead of being made of cheap plastic, the putters are genuine metal. And the contours and unsloped lips around the holes make the two 18-hole courses challenging enough to make you want to keep score.
Even better, the approach to the courses doesn't lead through a dungeon of pulsating video games. Instead, it takes you past a driving range, where your children can see firsthand the horror that shanked and sliced balls bring to the faces of local duffers.
Fancy water parks are fun, but can be pricey. We'd rather head to Chandler's aquatic facilities, which offer similar features at a pittance. You'll find thrilling slides, high dives and lap pools for all ages, spraying toys and smaller slides for younger swimmers, beach chairs, shade and grass and even affordable snacks for everyone.
The admission prices are 50 cents for kids and $1.50 for those 18 and older; during certain times, admission costs drop further: $1 for a whole family, 25 cents for seniors and zip during free swim times.
Call before you drag out the swim fins. All pools don't operate on the same "season" and are only open certain weekends throughout September and May. Coming in May 2001: a cool new pool at Arizona Avenue and Ocotillo Road featuring a "Water Vortex" that spins and sprays kids, and a "Current River" for lazy floating.
Readers' Choice for Best Free Kids' Fun: Encanto Park
You know how it goes at baseball games: A chip shot off the bat. A beer-soaked scramble in crowded stands. And the biggest dog comes up with the ball.
But during autumn Fall Ball, kids can hunt and gather all the stitched orbs they want. The stands are rarely more than half full. Most of the crowd seems to be slow-moving retirees or the players' families and friends. Errant balls are sometimes so abundant that we've seen bigger kids sharing their many with smaller kids who have none.
And when the youngsters aren't hunting balls, they can watch the best in up-and-coming baseball talent from major league farm teams. Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra are just two of the players who've stopped here on their way to the majors, not to mention last year's best-named gamer Milton Bradley. The league has six teams, playing at five Cactus League stadiums. The season runs from October 3 through November 19.
Last year, the award in this category went to the city of Tempe's official Web site, which offers wide views of Mill Avenue -- about the only street in the Valley where one regularly witnesses both foot and vehicular traffic.
This year, one Mill Avenue worker bee whose office affords an unobstructed view of the intersection at Fifth Street and Mill Avenue has one-upped 'em with a camera closely focused -- 24/7, updated every 30 seconds -- on a bench just outside Cold Stone Creamery ice cream and sweet shop.
Chow down, Tempe! You're on candied camera!
Poor Dave wasn't very Smiley the day we tuned in to the New Guys morning show and heard him turn on the waterworks while reading a "Dear Dave" e-mail his girlfriend sent him. Not since the Hindenburg crash has such tear-drenched humanity dripped out over the airwaves. On hand to catch his deposits of grief was the nauseatingly reassuring Love Doctor, a Tuesday morning regular who told him it takes a strong man to cry on radio where no one can see you.
It did make the morning drive more riveting than the hackneyed "wacky" fare that he and his partner Greg Simms usually dream up (like polling listeners for "kissable news anchors," for instance), but frankly we're too cynical about radio in the year 2000 to think Smiley's weeping was anything but crocodilian in nature, especially since he snapped back into his "professional" voice so quickly you'd think Don Pardo just walked into the room.
Maybe a marketing group told him the only way to beat Dave Pratt and Howard Stern in the morning ratings was to get disaffected female listeners by becoming a sensitive weeping jock. Or maybe someone just shoved the latest Arbitron numbers under his nose and let the teardrops fall.
Novelty birthday pastry has come a long way since the days of a cupcake decorated to look like a clown's head. If you doubt it, check out the computer-cake technology that now allows you to serve an iced facial replica of the birthday boy or girl.
Every bakery department in the Fred Meyer chain is now equipped with a computer program capable of reproducing your favorite photo in edible ink on completely digestible rice paper, which is then placed atop a decorated cake of your personal choosing. They can even blow up one of those wallet-size school mug shots of your child and transform it into cake covering.
And if Donner Pass-style dining on a photo of your kid's face doesn't excite you, there are always those Polaroids you've got hidden in your underwear drawer. Your crumby creation is limited only by the twistedness of your own imagination.
For one week each year, the already sex-soaked cable network MTV becomes MT&A, letting it all hang out for Spring Break, shot at some exotic location and featuring nubile college students humping and grinding and sometimes frolicking in nothing but shaving cream.
Suddenly, this year's fun in the Mexican sun was interrupted by an abstinence-only public service announcement approved by the Arizona Legislature, produced by the state Department of Health Services and funded with our tax dollars.
The ad featured head shots of a half-dozen Jennifer Aniston look-alikes, taking turns delivering the following lines:
"To all you guys out there who see me as just another sex story to brag about to your friends: reality check. You know that thing between your legs? That is not what makes you a man. Not now. Not ever. But don't worry. There's a solution for guys like you. It's called a blow-up doll. Personally, I'd rather keep my self-respect than sleep with you."
The commercial ended and the screen filled again with writhing, near-naked coeds in Cancún. Earth to Arizona Legislature: "Come again?"