Leaps, bounds and hand over fist

April 08, 1994

Sugar does not make children hyper, a recent study revealed. That's news? Any parent can tell you the real truth: Kids come hopped up straight from the womb.

If you don't believe that, fine, but an increasing number of entrepreneurs do, and they're making a pretty buck on their assumption.

The news out of Howard County is that Leaps & Bounds, an offshoot of McDonald's restaurants, plans this year to open a huge, indoor playground at the Rouse Co.'s booming Snowden Square shopping complex in Columbia. It will be that venture's first leap into the Baltimore market; its nearest centers are in Northern Virginia and Philadelphia.

The operation works like this: Parents pay $6 a head for their offspring to run and jump their little heads off in a squeaky clean, warehouse-sized play area, typically equipped with fancy climbing stuff, tube mazes and rubber ball lagoons for diving into. Food, prizes and other stuff costs extra.

With the nation's sixth highest median household income, Howard is a ripe market for this fad. In fact, a local operation called Kids Funjungle has been in Ellicott City (and Perry Hall in Baltimore County) for a couple of years now. Meanwhile, Discovery Zone, a similar chain based in Chicago, is also considering the Columbia market and has leased space in Bel Air, Glen Burnie, Annapolis, Catonsville and Owings Mills. It's already in Essex, too.

We don't know who dreamed up this concept; we only wish we had.

It's an amazing formula that capitalizes on all those baby boomer parents looking for ways to lavish some of their disposable income on their progeny. It also profits from society's concern that pint-sized video-game zombies are too sedentary and from the fact that pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and an iced cake apparently don't cut it for kiddie birthday parties any more. (No wonder kids regard rented limos as a prom necessity when they hit teenhood.)

If we who grew up quite well using broomsticks for bats and chalk and rocks for hopscotch games sound bitter about the artifice and the commercialism of this trend, truly we are not.

In fact, these play-for-pay facilities may help alleviate Mother Nature's only enduring asymmetry: That parents have an inordinate energy deficiency compared to their young ones. Any invention that works to help equalize that imbalance is indeed welcome.

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