McDonald's to open indoor play center

April 05, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

The battle for profits to be made offering kids expansive indoor fun is about to heat up in Howard County.

McDonald's Restaurants has decided to launch one of its indoor play centers, called Leaps & Bounds, in Columbia.

The company has bought a site in the Rouse Co.'s hugely successful Snowden Square shopping center, said Edward Ely, senior land sales and marketing director with the Rouse Co. The shopping center is located off Snowden River Parkway.

Leaps & Bounds does not have a projected date for opening the new center, which will have more than 10,000 square feet filled with play equipment and activities for kids. "We expect to have the center open sometime this year," said Kathy Hartman, marketing director for the Oak Brook, Ill., company.

"It's a natural area for us to expand," said Ms. Hartman.

The Columbia center will be the company's first venture into the Baltimore area market and part of an aggressive growth plan for 35 to 50 new centers opening nationwide this year, she said.

The closest of the company's 39 open centers: Manassas, Va., and Philadelphia.

Leaps & Bounds faces two established indoor play competitors in the area, Family Fun Jungle and Gymboree.

Fun Jungle, which features an obstacle course area and a video game room, is located in the Enchanted Forest shopping center on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City. The 8,200 square-foot family entertainment center opened in July 1992.

Meanwhile Gymboree, which offers multiweek parent-child play sessions, has five centers in the Baltimore area, including one in Columbia.

Discovery Zone, Leaps & Bounds' most heavily financed national competitor with 179 operations, also plans to enter the Baltimore market heavily this year.

The Chicago-based operation said it has leased five sites. The one nearest Columbia will be on Route 40 near Rolling Road in Catonsville.

"Leaps & Bounds should do very well [at Snowden Square] considering the area's demographics and that the market area is much larger than we thought at first," said Mr. Ely, the Rouse executive.

Snowden Square has several "category killer" and national discount retailers such as BJ's Wholesale Club and Marshall's, and has been drawing customers from outside the county. Shoppers are coming from Glen Burnie, Laurel and Owings Mills, a license plate survey by Rouse found.

Meanwhile the county's demographics were one of the top draws for Leaps & Bounds. Howard County has the sixth highest median family income in the nation -- $54,348. It also has a preponderance of families with children. Twenty-eight percent of the county's population is under the age of 19 years and 8 percent of those are under the age of 5, according to 1990 census data.

Leaps & Bounds' target market is children age 12 and under.

The center's charge about $5.95 for each child to enter. Parents and other adult guardians enter for free. There is no time restriction for staying inside.

One of the company's priorities: security. No adult may enter the center without a child and no child may enter without an adult. And children and their guardians receive matching sticker badges to ensure each youngster leaves with the adult with whom he or she arrived.

Inside the center it's a world of attractions for children.

Children have about 40 different activities from which to choose for play, ranging from suspended tube mazes, called turbo slides, trolley rides, clubhouses for toddlers, suspended cargo nets and about 500 feet of various other tubes, slides and tunnels for romping.

"It's every kid's wildest dream," said Ms. Hartman. "Literally it's an imagination adventure for kids. They can create their own trip."

The center's attractions are built to accommodate adults so they can play along with the children.

"We encourage adults to get involved with the play," said Ms. Hartmann.

"Kids get more out of the experience if Mom actually goes down the tube slide with them rather than just waiting for them at the bottom. The whole orientation is for the family."

But there's also a respite area, called a "Plenty Quiet" room for harried parents.

The company's philosophy is that creative play time is essential to a child's growth as a well-adjusted individual, said Ms. Hartmann. Play, the company philosophizes, should have "a purpose" for kids.

And the purpose for providing the service for the company is profit.

The company, which started in 1991 in Naperville, Ill., isn't releasing operating profits and on revenues yet. It is "being treated as a project still at this point" said Ms. Hartman.

However, the company will say that on average the typical Leaps & Bounds center attracts 100,000 children annually.

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