From laser tag rooms that recreate a Martian landscape to jungle-themed birthday party rooms, family entertainment center (FEC) operators can leverage the power of theming to catch the public’s attention.
“It’s all about putting your FEC above the competition,” says Pat Ciniello, owner of the HeadPinz Entertainment Center, with three locations in southwest Florida. “If you’re going to succeed as an FEC, you have to do something fresh and dynamic—and theming makes this possible.”
Tighter margins may mean FEC owners have to integrate theming on a budget. Fortunately, there are many ways for FECs to pack the power of creative placemaking into their facilities at an affordable price.
The Strategy of FEC Theming
Dynamic Designs of Birmingham, Michigan, spent the past three decades developing themed environments at more than 1,000 FECs around the world.
“We know how to get the results they’re looking for at prices that make sense for them,” says Douglas Wilkerson, Dynamic Designs’ principal.
Wilkerson closely works with FEC clients to flesh out their theming ideas. His secret to success? “I try to find a storyline that will mesh with their setting and attractions,” he says. Depending on the FEC’s physical space, attractions, games, and amenities, the storyline can be anything from a “Jurassic Park”-style dinosaur vibe to a sci-fi space adventure. “The important thing is to find a story that ties everything together, that inspires an overall theme that unifies everything in the FEC and connects that story to the customer,” he said.
The importance of storylines has resonated with Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim Group, which operates 36 Magic Planet FECs in eight countries.
“In 2016, we undertook a redesign of Magic Planet with Thinkwell Group,” says Andrew Such, Majid Al Futtaim’s director of operations for leisure and entertainment. “Working with the Thinkwell team, we were able to create a fantastic story for the latest Magic Planets under the theme of ‘Mining for Magic,’” Such explains.
To support the story’s key theming, rockwork and gems were included in the design. In addition, the three characters of Max, Zack, and Zia help bring the transformation story to life through shows and appearances.
Balancing the Story with the Budget
Once the storyline has been determined, Dynamic Designs works up an interior (and, if need be, exterior) design concept that translates the theme into tangible action. In doing so, Wilkerson strives to find economical ways of executing it. His suggestion: Don’t feel like you have to theme absolutely everything to create a themed environment.
“It’s all about picking your opportunities,” Wilkerson says. “For instance, a strongly themed lobby can set the stage for the story throughout the FEC because the lobby is what makes a first impression on your guests. You can also communicate your theming through painted murals, matching carpets, and furniture/appointments that align with your storyline.”
Examples of Effective Theming
The HeadPinz Entertainment Center is an excellent example of Dynamic Designs’ approach to theming on a budget. Owners Pat and Lisa Ciniello started out operating bowling centers and wanted to take the sport to the next level by combining it with FEC-style entertainment. But they weren’t satisfied with just building a bowling alley complex stocked with video games; the Ciniellos wanted something special.
Working with Wilkerson and his team in 2014, they developed the HeadPinz Entertainment Center concept—one built around four 1908-era bowling alleys, complete with actual costumed “pinboys” hand-setting the pins—that created a unique interactive experience. At the same time, the 50,000-square-foot facility added a VIP lounge with ultramodern bowling alleys in tuxedo-themed colors, plus a full range of modern FEC games and attractions.
Not every aspect of HeadPinz is as completely themed as its Pinboyz 1908-era bowling alleys—but this is the point. By combining deeply themed areas with a complementary overall setting, HeadPinz has achieved theming on a budget.
“If you don’t constantly reinvent your facility, you risk becoming obsolete and boring to your customers,” says Pat Ciniello.
Lefty’s Alley & Eats of Lewes, Delaware, is another instance of a bowling complex expanding into a themed, hip FEC with Dynamic Designs’ help. The center opened in 2017 to critical acclaim.
“It elevates the vision of a bowling and gaming arena by offering state-of-the-art bowling, a laser tag arena, an enormous arcade, and wide-screen TVs,” wrote Delaware Today magazine.
Creating this integrated concept took nearly a year of brainstorming with Dynamic Designs, says owner DJ Hill. “While we had an overall floor plan of the 35,000-square-foot facility, we waited on any interior design elements, branding and logo concepts, and even the name until we were sure who we wanted to be,” he says. “We wanted our identity to flow through to every aspect of our operation.”
In this case, the Lefty’s Alley & Eats story and mission statement is all about creating “lasting memories of fun and social engagement through interactive entertainment and quality food and beverage for all ages,” says Hill. “From there, our team brainstormed through several branding exercises to clearly define who we are and what emotions and feelings we wanted our guests to experience. We asked questions like: ‘If we were a dog, what breed would we be? If we were a band, what type of band would we be? If we were a color, what color?’; and so on.”
“Knowing your identity in business makes marketing infinitely easier and ultimately assures stronger bonds with your consumer,” Hill shares
Sometimes theming can be effectively employed in a specific area of an FEC, such as the tropically themed Rainforest Room at the Mulligan Family Fun Center (MFFC) in Torrance, California. Measuring about 1,800 square feet with room for 80 guests, the Rainforest Room “is our primary birthday party room but is also used for corporate groups, team parties, and internal uses such as employee meetings and training exercises,” says Kevin Altobelli, MFFC’s general manager. “There is a waterfall, as well as rainforest sound effects as background/ambiance noise when the room’s professional AV functions are not in use.”
This themed space was added in 1995 (two years after the MFFC opened) to provide a dedicated party room at the FEC. “Our late owner, Georgia Claessens, loved the theming of the Rainforest Café and wanted to create her own scaled-down version for Mulligan,” Altobelli says. “Although the room is over 20 years old, guests still love the theme, and it is still the No. 1 requested space for parties and events.”
James Careless is a Canada-based writer who covers the attractions industry for Funworld.