At the Brown, there's always something that works. -- Alan Prendergast
5 p.m.: Funtastic Fun, 3085 South Broadway, Englewood
There's a giant sign hanging amid all the chintz and glitter that festoons Funtastic Fun. It reads: "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."
Funtastic Fun could be the creepiest place on earth. Not just because the clown statues seem to be lifting up their shirts to expose their bare, bulging abdomens to children, and not because there are placards in the bathrooms imploring those same kids, "Please don't eat the toilet mints!" No, Funtastic Fun -- Denver's premier indoor amusement center -- is an eerie reminder of just how much innocence and bliss we've surrendered to reality as adults. Walking into its sprawling confines, you're assaulted by the stomach-churning stench of cotton candy, the clang of game tokens, the throb of a thousand multi-colored lightbulbs. The five flavors of rock candy for sale look as appetizing as crack. What once would have made us salivate Pavlovianly now makes us reach for the Advil.
Although the posted capacity of Funtastic Fun is "835 screaming kids," at the moment there are only about twenty youngsters and half as many grownups here. A few of them are lined up in front of the Ferris wheel -- which rotates through a glass-enclosed extension on the roof -- waiting for an attendant to let them on and then flip the switch. Others spin on the teacup ride, while the rest alternate between a shallow pool of plastic balls and a handful of vintage video games. With the attention span of speed-addled chimps, the toddlers flip back and forth between boredom and euphoria. Their squeals echo through all the empty space.
Funtastic Fun was surely designed for grander things. In a glass display case, newspaper clippings detail the establishment's colorful history: Founded by Denver native Nathan Elinoff in 1982, it was originally called "Physical Whimsical" and was America's first documented children's entertainment center (or CEC, as they're known in the industry). Elinoff soon relocated Physical Whimsical to the doomed Cinderella City mall and changed its name to "Funtastic Nathan's." The move to its current address -- and final name change -- took place when the mall folded, in 1995.
Faced with financial ills and increased competition from McDonald's Playlands (and Nintendo games with lots of guns), in 2000 Elinoff cooked up a bizarre retirement plan: Give away Funtastic Fun, Willy Wonka style, to the winner of an essay contest. The catch? It cost a hundred bucks to enter. Elinoff needed 35,000 contestants to pay off Funtastic Fun's mortgage, but he never came close to reaching his goal. And those few brave, starry-eyed members of the pre-adolescent literati that dared to break the piggy bank and dream of one day owning their very own Neverland? They each received $150 worth of free admission.
There's another, less intellectually taxing way to get into Funtastic Fun for free. Rather than advertise in newspapers or on TV, Elinoff has a program that grants 120 gratis passes to people willing to paste huge Funtastic Fun ads on the side of their cars for a year. Sorry, kids: Big Wheels aren't eligible.
Parents don't seem to mind the modest cost of Funtastic Fun, though. Even the snacks are cheap, a parade of yummy junk food including pizza, popcorn, pretzels and the best crappy nachos in town, served with scalding-hot cheese sauce and a Dixie cup full of jalapeños. But the cafeteria is barren this evening, with piñatas staring down from the wall like evil Chucky dolls. Eventually a family of eight storms in with a unicorn cake, spears it with candles and starts singing "Happy Birthday" to a lucky three-year-old named Cassandra. Funtastic Fun doesn't bill itself as hosting "The World's Most Fantastic Birthday Parties" for nothing.
After an hour, the fun is as exhausted as the kids. It takes an even wearier cynic to point out Funtastic Fun's scorecard of unsettling attractions and anachronisms: the funhouse mirrors with names like "Midget Maker" and "Diet Breaker"; the eco-unfriendly Whac-A-Mole and Swamp Stomp games; a ride called The Whip that dates to the days when that phrase carried much more sinister overtones for kids. Most gruesome of all, there's a room that emits some kind of weird light that causes your shadow to stick to the wall long after you've stepped away from it; it bears a skin-crawling resemblance to the old photos of Hiroshima victims whose silhouettes were frozen against the sides of buildings when the A-bomb dropped.
All of that is balanced by the Bear, though. Like a Sphinx in the middle of the vast room, the Bear abides, stuffed and half-smiling. His massive head touches the ceiling as if in sublime rapport with God. He's the eye of the hurricane, a cuddly ursine Buddha around which whirls all the joy, noise and sugar-buzzed pandemonium of Funtastic Fun.