The holidays can be downright depressing in this cactus garden of a city. But one of our absolute gems is this annual seasonal bash, held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Part of the charm is its location, on Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, which looks the part with its well-groomed greenery. And despite the fact that it's choked with hundreds of children simultaneously trying to frolic in the real snow, get their pics snapped with Santa, make Christmas crafts, and snag the best view of the official tree-lighting, the event goes off like clockwork, year after year. (P.S.: Admission is free, and you don't have to live in Scottsdale to attend.)

Glen Fair Lanes

Remember the good old days, when dads would spend two nights a week bowling with their buddies, clad in Pepto-Bismol-pink bowling shirts embroidered with their names on the front? No, we don't either. But we've seen them on TV, which is why the seriously old-school Glenfair Lanes was a beat-up, patchwork, bowling shoo-in for this category.

The large alley is a throwback, from the '50s script sign to the large wooden bar with a pass-thru window to the lanes. Prices are equally retro, with $1 beers on Thursdays and dollar games from 9 p.m. to close on Sunday through Thursday nights, including neon bowling on Wednesdays. The updated video arcade/billiard room is great for a quick break — or to check on your kids as you pound a couple of those dollar beers.

Reflections Bingo

We went through a phase in which we were bingo-ing like mad, all over town. But after visiting a certain number of high-tech, 21st-century bingo halls (you know the type — replete with clever cafes, electronic number callers, and kid-pleasing video arcades grafted on), we began to yearn for the more intimate bingo parlors of our granny's dotage. We found a simpler bingo experience at this cozy, super-popular west-side locale, where we got a free book of bingo cards, and where we gave our daubers a real workout. Reflections has old-time callers and super prize nights like California Bingo Night, usually featured each month, with a $2,000 bonus game and guaranteed $4,000 checkerboard win. We left with a little less cash than we arrived with, but we'd had so much fun that we still felt like a big winner.

Castles -n- Coasters

If you've ever wanted to feel like the giant in Gulliver's Travels, Castles N' Coasters' mini-golf courses will make you feel super-size. That's because the four courses are decorated with small structures and mini-monuments, from mermaid fountains and mysterious caves to a teeny Taj Mahal and old Western saloon. The price isn't big, either, with an 18-hole game running $7.63 plus tax per person — and the park provides clubs and balls. The only drawback to putting on these kooky courses is that they get pretty packed on weekends, so arrive early if you don't want to wait for folks in front of you to move along.

Tilt Studio

Hadouken! Flying fireballs launched from your fists knock your opponent on his ass. Just another button-smashing affair at GameWorks. Whether you're a fighter, driver, or gun-toting maniac, there's a cabinet here to sate your sadistic desires. GameWorks has great taste in games. Street Fighter IV was not only sitting upstairs in the arcade months before the home console release, it was the Japanese cabinet version. The only thing missing was a Japanese businessman named Kenji who works as an accountant by day and hurricane-kicks your ass at night. Fight!

IKEA
Jackie Mercandetti

Sure, there are places with more stuff, but in our wanderings with offspring, we've run across no place quite as pleasing to both adult and youth palates. Partially, it's the Smaland space itself, which is minimal in the classic Swedish tradition but also exploding with primary colors. Located just inside the Ikea main entrance, the playland features a craft area, a movie area, and a ginormous pit of plastic balls. That's about it. But kids — ours, at least — adore the extras they don't get elsewhere: the high-tech buzzer that Mom and Dad get to let 'em know when the allotted 1.5 hours of play time are up, the kinder-friendly Ikea cafeteria and food, and — most of all — the shopping they get to tag along on 'cause 1.5 hours is never enough time for Mom and Dad at Ikea.

Mom and Dad think Swedish people are really, really, really smart. Tack så mycket!

Tumbleweed Recreation Center

Looking for a unique play experience for your kids? Then head to Playtopia, the newest addition to Tumbleweed Park in Chandler. Based on the region's history, Playtopia is a collection of three themed playgrounds. Your junior 4-Hers will enjoy Farmland, a huge agri-inspired play structure housed under a giant barn roof. Cityland has an urban theme and includes tot-sized streets, buses, fire trucks and playhouses. In Critterland, your kids can romp on a giant Gila monster or dig for dinosaur bones. If you're a traditionalist, don't worry: Playtopia's still got the basics, like swings, slides, picnic ramadas, and BBQs. So it's not the real thing, but it's the closest you'll get without the cow poop, road rash, or venomous biting creatures.

Chaparral Park

Valley dog parks are a grab bag, but Chaparral Park's four-acre off-leash area is a winner every time. Dogs are separated into two enormous play sections — one for "passive" pups and another for "active" ones. What this really means is that the large pit bulls and Dobermans are on one side of a fence, while teeny dachshunds and Chihuahuas are on the other. Extra details — water fountains, a double-gated entry, and shade structures — make the place canine-classy. And amazingly, even in the desert, the grass is always green. The park opens at 5:30 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. If you and your dog need a social hour, this park is one of the best.

Washington Dog Park

It may not be the most chichi dog park in town, but we're still stunned at how far people will drive just to get their pooches to this pretty northwest Phoenix park. Regulars tell us they like how well PetSmart keeps the place up, how many dogs are usually on the scene, and how the nice little amenities (drinking fountains, a separate park for little dogs, an endless supply of tennis balls) kick things up a notch. Best of all, the dog owners are a gracious little community. Even though they all seem to know each other, they are happy to welcome newcomers. While we're not about to call the place a singles hang-out, we will admit to knowing at least one woman who met her husband while watching a friend's pooch. It can happen.

Express Mie Studio

Ever hear yourself say, "I can dance and sweat all night but can't jog for 15 seconds. What's up with that?" This new dance fitness studio for women, tucked behind Trader Joe's in the Tempe Square shopping center, makes that question moot. Now you can have your dance party and burn fat, too. The folks who created this playground for ladies hit all the right notes with class names like "Yoga Booty Ballet," "I-Danced-All-Night Club Moves," "Burlesque Beauty," and "Tutu For You." From a beautiful lounge to the custom fortune cookie each participant receives after class, the entire space feels like a spa. These smart folks clearly want participants to form bonds, have fun, and feel pampered, so the workout seems almost secondary.

Express Mie also rocks the pole-dancing scene with a multiple-pole studio designed just for that "ladies sport" and a smaller intimate studio to host private parties, complete with poles, dress-up clothes, boas and a house-labeled wine. We can't wait to gather up some gal pals, step into some six-inch platforms, enjoy some liquid courage, and wrap ourselves around a pole — giggling like a schoolgirl and burning some calories in the process.

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