The colorful tubes curlicue to the roof – green and black, red and orange, purple and orange – six stories above the ground floor to a bank of windows.
If you climbed up to the tippy-top, you could see the roller coasters of Carowinds whooshing by on one side, and, even more heart-stopping, the traffic of I-77 careening on the other.
This is the indoor playground at the Happy Zone, the heart of Plaza Fiesta, a shopping mall reborn as a destination for the growing Hispanic population of the Carolinas in 2008, but transformed into a mecca for moms who want to wear their kids out – for very little money, and with minimal involvement.
On this day, the sun is not shining. (No surprise there.) The raindrops are sprinkling. And it’s nearly lunchtime.
The kids – squealing, screaming, echoing the word “Mommy” throughout the hall, over and over (and over) – think they’re having fun.
But those tubes, really, for many of them, are a colorful prison of sorts.
They are, after all, surrounded by a green cage that extends well above their heads.
There’s a guard at the exit.
See the ID bracelets? That means those kids can’t get out unless mom comes to the rescue.
It’s OK if the mom in you smiles just a little when you think about it.
McDonald’s on steroids
All thoughts of sneaky, hands-off parenting aside, that cage and those bracelets really are a big draw for Plaza Fiesta’s Happy Zone. When families check in at the arcade, the children and the responsible adults are fitted with paper wristbands marked with numbers.
A kid can’t leave the indoor playground unless an adult with the matching number comes to retrieve him or her. That’s what the guard is for.
But why would the kids want to leave? It’s like the McDonald’s Play Place on steroids.
Stacy Holloway of Matthews is here with six kids today – her two, a niece and a nephew, plus two that she’s babysitting. She met up with Kristen Reed of Charlotte and her two kids. And they packed a cooler for lunch.
Holloway said she likes Plaza Fiesta because it’s safe and cheap. For $5, your kid gets an hour and 45 minutes of jumping, climbing and sliding. (The sessions start at 10 a.m. each day, and there’s a 15-minute break between each one.)
They get seriously worn out.
“We’ve been doing the pool so much, they’re kind of fried out on it,” she said.
The first time she came, she lost her son. He was 3 1/2 years old. She was even with him inside the cage (a place only for the bravest of parents).
“He got away, went down a slide, and I couldn’t find him for 15 minutes,” she said. “It was really busy that day.”
Does she worry about the safety?
Well, she’s sitting outside the cage today. So, no.
“The wristband works,” Reed said.
Neither Holloway nor Reed realized Plaza Fiesta once was envisioned as a mall for Hispanic shoppers.
And, outside of the name, a few Mexican and Central American restaurants, and bilingual signage, there’s little clue of that mission.
Fun, food, shopping
That’s the plan, said Louretta Wall, who signed on as the property manager about a year ago. Wall has spent her time marketing Plaza Fiesta as entertainment for kids and families. She updated the playground, replaced the sagging four-foot fence surrounding it with a seven-foot one, and added hand sanitizer stations everywhere.
“I’m trying to present it more as a multicultural facility,” she said, “with a lot of fun entertainment.”
She’s a grandmother of three – her grandkids think she’s The Best Grandmother in the World – so she knows what young kids like.
This summer, she has brought in the popular Mr. Nigel and Friends musical act regularly. She had trick-or-treating at Halloween and Santa Claus at Christmas. There was a back-to-school fashion show in early August.
Though the mall was built to look like a town square you might wander into in Mexico, with fake cobblestones and stucco, Plaza Fiesta’s biggest stores don’t cater to a Hispanic clientele. The anchors continue to be Hamrick’s department store and a Bass shoe outlet, holdovers from the building’s CrossRoads Mall days.
Besides authentic Mexican food, you can eat Chinese, traditional Southern food, or Subway sandwiches.
Both Reed and Holloway lamented that the mall doesn’t have more mass-appeal shops, and Wall said she’s trying to address that, but the moms are content to sit and chat and watch their kids play.
Burn off energy
Summer camps and day care groups love Plaza Fiesta outings. They travel in longs rows, kids all wearing the same color T-shirt. Wall has added picnic tables under an outdoor canopy to accommodate their sack lunch sessions.
But most of the patrons are moms and kids – of all ages.
Mary Kestiens of Matthews has three kids ages 5, 7 and 8 – all boys.
“They love it,” she said. “And I love it – it’s a great way (for them) to burn off energy.”
They come every three months or so, all year round. It used to cost $3 for three hours, but she thinks $5 for half that is still a bargain.
Today, Kestiens brought a first-timer with her – Janna Tate, and her three children, ages 5, 8 and 11.
Tate loves that the indoor playground is safe enough for her littlest one but doesn’t dumb down to her oldest.
“It’s hard to find something that an 11-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl would find fun,” she said.
Kestiens said you can get a similar experience at other places nearby – Sky High Sports or Monkey Joe’s, for instance – but not at this price.
Not too much before lunch, a couple of Tate’s and Kestiens’ kids run up to the green fence. They’re thirsty. The moms stick their drink straws through the mesh holes so they can take a few gulps.
Can a morning be easier than that?
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