We spent the afternoon at one of those indoor inflatable party arenas after having enjoyed a brief interlude from them for most of this school year. Christopher and his fourth-grade classmates have pretty much aged out of these places, but we’ve just started another cycle now that Matthew is in kindergarten.

You know the places I’m talking about. They’re warehouse-sized arenas filled with huge, inflatable playground equipment, like the old “Moonbounce” rides you sometimes see at school carnivals. There are usually 8-10 of these things in the arena, each looking different on the outside, but housing some variant of only three types of activities — bounce, climb and slide. The obstacle courses let you bounce, climb AND slide!

The Caped Crusader straddles the entrance -- a tight squeeze!

On the outside, these things are adorned with favorite cartoon characters, so as to entice the kids in — Disney princesses, superheroes and the like are there to tell the more nervous kids that yes, it’s okay to venture into this palace of darkness and germs. Never mind that horrible smell, kiddies; if you don’t breathe in, you probably won’t vomit. Still, the facades manage to promote their own particular brand of imposing. Batman’s a very cool hero, but do kids really want to crawl between his tense, heavily muscled legs as he stand there with a stern look on his face? It took a few minutes for Matthew to warm up to the idea, mostly because as a junior tag-along at one of his brother’s parties in the past, he’d had a traumatic moment when he went airborne and flipped end over end at the bottom of an extremely fast slide. So it was the size and potential speed of the slides that made him nervous, as opposed to the grim nature of the guardians out front. (Although I have to admit, the 20-foot T-Rex at the front of the “Jurassic Survivor” obstacle course certainly didn’t help matters.)

If only Belle had known what fate awaited her outside the window....

Once we worked our way up to it, though, Matthew was willing to tackle Gotham City’s worst. It took a couple of practice runs on the considerably shorter, tamer slide inside the gigantic Mystery Machine across the hall. One thing he refused to try, though was the pirate ship with the giant octopus attacking it. While all of the other inflatables have either an open top or a screened wall to let in some light, this one had a long, enclosed walkway leading deap into its bowels. And if Matthew can’t see where a tunnel ends, Matthew doesn’t enter the tunnel — probably a good rule of thumb, and one that more of us should adopt in a sort of metaphysical context.

It doesn’t help to be in an open-admission environment, where the arena is shared by numerous groups and individuals. That’s how the franchises make their money — maximizing the number of paying guests at the main attractions. Pump It Up is a little different in that they have two smaller arenas and rent one to a particular party. Parents feel safer that way, because they know their kids won’t encounter anyone who’s not part of their group. The other places typically host a free-for-all, where all of the parties share one arena and you can’t be sure your kid won’t encounter some wayward pituitary case from the obnoxious party as he rounds the bend of Shrek’s castle.

In those places, you don’t want to let your kids out of sight until they’re rounded up at the end of play time and herded into the party room, a cramped little spot where they take a shot of hand sanitizer at the door, then go inside to sweat and try to catch their breath as the host serves pizza, cake and juice boxes. There’s nothing quite like letting little kids run wild for 90 minutes, then hopping them up on carbs and sugar before sending them home with their beleaguered parents.

Let’s see…Matthew has 12 other kids in his class — an average of one of these per month. We missed one during the first half of the year, which means we can expect ten more invitations during the next six months or so. Toss in a couple more to account for his close friends from other classes and that averages to more like two a month until the start of first grade. And the trend continues through second grade at the earliest, so we have a lot more of these to look forward to.

If you ask me, the whole experience is overinflated.

About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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