Zachary Seitz was ready to party. Grinning from ear to ear, he ogled the presents piled on his table and rushed off to play his first game of air hockey.
The birthday boy was celebrating his sweet 6th in style. Surrounded by family and friends, he entered a glittering world of bright lights and music, dancing animals and arcade games.
A dazzling array of entertainment options -- kiddie rides, flashing video games, Skee Ball and free-throw basketball -- beckoned. Within a few minutes, Zachary had spent four game tokens and proclaimed the celebration his "best birthday ever."
And that was before the pizza arrived.
"We knew it would be a smash success, that the kids would have fun here," said Joan Seitz of Pasadena, who considers herself lucky to have booked a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.
A cross between a pizza parlor and Disney World, the Irving, Texas-based Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain bills itself as "the place where kids can be kids." The parent company, Show Biz Pizza Time Inc., opened its first Baltimore-area restaurant next to the Motor Vehicle Administration in Glen Burnie two weeks ago.
Less than a week after the Chuck E. Cheese mascot, a large, fuzzy mouse with long whiskers, greeted the first group of children, the restaurant was booked solid for birthday parties through January. The only time still available is during week days.
Word of the new, child-oriented restaurant spread quickly. Parents from as far away as Baltimore, Annapolis and Fort Meade started bringing their children to eat pizza, play games and watch the Chuck E. Cheese show.
"There's so much to do here, it keeps the kids busy while they're waiting for their food," said Nancy Povlock of Severna Park, who already has brought her 18-month-old son, Paul, and 3-year-old niece, Kristen Faubion, to the restaurant twice. She plans to become a regular.
"You can't take kids to a sit-down restaurant because they can't wait that long," Povlock added. "This is really ideal. It tires them out for a good nap."
Kristen, a tow-headed bundle of energy, doesn't get tired easily. She yawned only after bouncing in the romper room filled with multi-colored balls for an hour.
"It's soft," she crowed, diving into the balls and throwing a handful up in the air Monday afternoon.
Lori Connelly's two toddlers were equally entranced by the game. Her 2-year-old son, Billy, was adept at romping in the sea of balls, but his 17-month-old sister, Caitlin, kept drowning.
"Oops, there she goes again," Connelly said with a laugh. "She loves it here, but she keeps going under in all those balls."
The Povlocks and Connellys were typical of the lunchtime crowd at Chuck E. Cheese, where the motto could be: "Don't trust anyone over 16."
Younger children line up for the kiddie rides or huddle around the mascot mouse, while 9- and 10-year-olds slurp Cokes and play Skee Ball.
Surveying the group, Thomas Taylor admitted: "We don't get many teen-agers here."
But the 32-year-old manager doesn't mind catering to the pre-teen crowd.
He hopes the Glen Burnie branch will be the first of many Chuck E. Cheese restaurants in the Baltimore region.
A few businessmen and MVA employees do show up at lunch to indulge in pizza and video games. But all the entertainment at Chuck E. Cheese is geared toward the 3- to 11-year-old crowd.
"It's not quite like anything else in the world," said Richard "Dick" Huston, director of marketing for the 270-restaurant chain. "Our niche in the marketplace is young kids and their parents. We're pretty unique in that way."
Huston chose the site in Governor Ritchie Plaza, off Ritchie Highway, because he was impressed by "the vitality of the area and the demographic base."
His choice appears to have paid off handsomely. The 320-seat restaurant not only has booked birthday parties through the end of January, but also has a waiting list for the spring.
"We've had tremendous success," Taylor said. "We've done no advertising at all up to this point, but the word has just spread like wildfire."
Becky Taylor, a resident of the Brooklyn section of Baltimore, can't remember where she first heard about the new Chuck E. Cheese in Glen Burnie. But she was overwhelmed by all the games and toys, the animated show and the prizes.
"I'm just as excited about this as they are," she said, watching her sons battle out a game of air hockey.
Eight-year-old Steven kept the lead over his 6-year-old brother, Bobby, for most of the game. But Bobby came crashing back at the last minute to tie.
"I just love it here," he said, holding up his fingers in a victory sign.
Taylor walked by at that moment and smiled. "That," he said, "is what makes Chuck E. Cheese all worthwhile."