My son is 12, and he's ready to put aside childish things. Swing sets and sandboxes don't cut it anymore. Chuck E. Cheese doesn't cut it anymore. On the verge of adolescence, he needs cooler places to play.
The good news is that Madison has such places. The even better news is that they're fun for adults, too. My son isn't the only one who's tired of swing sets and sandboxes. I've logged a fair number of playground hours myself over the past few years, and I'm ready for something a little edgy. Dangerous, even.
That's how I found myself beset by enemies on all sides, defending against laser fire.
680 Grand Canyon Dr. #1, 608-833-8880
A place where you get to run around in the dark shooting opponents with laser guns? Welcome to paradise, a.k.a. Ultrazone.
Okay, you aren't supposed to run. And Ultrazone prefers the term "tagging" to "shooting." But even sensible rules can't spoil the fun in this futuristic fantasyland.
From the moment we walked into the dimly lit "briefing room," we felt like we were in another world. A game-master gave a lively intro and divided the players into three teams. Then we strapped on our awesome laser gear and entered a multilevel maze with glowing lights and mirrors. You get points by shooting - sorry, tagging - opposing players. When you nail them, their suits make a satisfying blurp and their lasers are disabled for a few seconds. (The blurp isn't so satisfying when it happens to you.) You also get points by destroying an opposing team's base. That involves firing laser volleys into a pulsing object that "explodes" with a wonderful, horrible noise.
After the game, we waited in the entryway for the results. We got a printout with our personal stats: how many players we tagged, how we ranked in the group. The printouts identified us by the names on our laser suits, and my moniker did wonders for my self-esteem. From now on, you can call me Cobra.
5501 West Beltline Highway, 608-271-1411
Miniature golf has become a hard sell for my 12-year-old, who's been putting through four-foot-tall windmills since kindergarten. But Vitense isn't any old miniature golf place. It has two extravagant outdoor courses and a newer indoor course with a Madison theme. That's 54 holes in all, with enough bridges, ladders and moving parts to challenge even Tiger Woods.
Come for the golf, but stay for Vitense's other attractions. Behind the outdoor courses we found enough activities to keep us busy for hours: batting cages, a climbing wall, trampolines and a diabolical contraption called Water Wars. Here, you buy a bucket of water balloons, step into an aluminum cage and shoot the balloons at each other with giant slingshots. Hitting your opponent requires good aim and a decent amount of strength. Let's just say that, after I squared off against my kid, nobody was calling me Cobra anymore.
5957 McKee Rd., Fitchburg, 608-442-9800
We're veterans of Chuck E. Cheese and the far-east- and far-west-side Rocky Rococos - restaurants with game arcades attached. Fitchburg's Good Times offers an upgrade for older kids, not to mention their parents. The mood is calmer, thanks to a more upscale ambience and the building's clever structure. The arcade is blessedly segregated from the restaurant, so you don't have to hear BONGS and BOOMS with every bite of your burger.
And speaking of the burgers, they're a huge improvement over the fare at Chuck E. Cheese and Rocky's. My son scorned the kids' menu and ordered an Apple Smoked Bacon Big Cheese Burger - his first step toward manhood. Meanwhile, I grooved on the alternatives to fast-food pizza. The menu offers filet mignon, cedar-plank salmon, shrimp scampi and other adult pleasures. Suddenly, parenting got a whole lot easier.
The arcade isn't huge, but it has enough machines to keep an older kid busy while the food's cooking, including Dance Dance Revolution, Deal or No Deal, air hockey, Ms. Pacman and Big Buck Hunter. On the night we went, a tiny toddler hogged Big Buck Hunter's red rifle, cocking it like a pro and ruthlessly mowing down deer. I briefly considered calling social services.
Many of the machines spit out long ribbons of tickets, which kids can redeem for candy and toys. My son wanted a combination of prizes worth 105 tickets, but he had only 95; the nice lady behind the counter let him have it anyway. In a world where toddlers are packing heat, I was grateful for this evidence of human kindness.
Bogey's Family Fun Park
3110 Laura Ln., Middleton, 608-831-5559
Miniature golf: check. Arcade games: check. Batting cages: check. Bogey's shares elements with the places we've already visited, but it raises the ante with go carts.
My son was apprehensive as we approached the course, with its racing-style cars roaring like lawn mowers. He even broached the idea of our riding in the same vehicle - a sweet reminder that his little-boy side hasn't completely disappeared. But no, the car was too small for both of us, and besides, this suburban speedway is about the gentlest rite of passage I can imagine. After we strapped ourselves into separate racers, the attendant announced that there would be "no bumping, swerving or reckless driving." Then he waved his checkered flag and sent us putt-putting down the long and winding road.
My son quickly got the hang of his car and had a grand old time careening around the curves. In four years, when he gets a set of real car keys, I hope he remembers the wise advice: no bumping, swerving or reckless driving.
Other hot spots
West side: 7035 Old Sauk Rd.
East side: 808 Walsh Rd.
Trampolines, a climbing wall and gymnastics equipment, plus open-gym times specifically for older children.
Boulders Climbing Gym
3964 Commercial Ave, 608-244-8100
8,000 square feet of walls, ropes and footholds, with a summer camp and a school-year club for kids.
Four Seasons Skate Park
3226 Progress Rd., 608-222-7275
Ramps galore in a cavernous warehouse.
Kids critics' choice
Dane County Fair
July 15-19, Alliant Energy Center
Animals to pet, funnel cakes to eat, entertainers to gawk at, rides to get sick on. In short: paradise.
Olbrich's Blooming Butterflies
July 15-Aug. 9, Olbrich Botanical Gardens
An up-close look at the miracle of metamorphosis as butterflies emerge from their chrysalises and flutter picturesquely around the Bolz Conservatory.
Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration
July 25, Camp Randall, 10 am-2 pm
A Civil War reenactment, featuring a parade of troops reviewed by Abe Lincoln himself (or a close approximation).