Part of the fun of traveling is delving into a country's underbelly, those places that are just so damn odd it can sometimes be difficult to figure out exactly how they fit into a country's culture. And when you're on the road, you have the perfect excuse to visit those off-the-wall places that the locals generally avoid...until they have friends in town. ("Do you want to go see the world's largest ball of twine? It's just down the road!") Traveling means not only can you visit the world's largest thermometer collection, but you can grin proudly for the camera and proclaim loudly to the world, "Yes, I am indeed standing in front of 4,000 thermometers and I am loving it!"
Tim and I are big fans of quirky travel sights. We've balanced eggs on nails at the Inti Nan Solar Museum at the equator in Ecuador. We've squeamishly made our way past medical oddities in Philadelphia's Mutter Museum. And we've even toured a UFO museum in Turkey under the watchful eye of a very intent museum caretaker. Because, hey, how many times do you get the chance to visit a UFO museum in the middle of Turkey?
So when our best friend Philip asked if we wanted to go on a road trip to see the world's largest arcade (conveniently located a mere three hours from Cape Cod), who were we to say no?
For nearly 60 years, the village of Weirs Beach in Laconia, New Hampshire has been home to Funspot. Founded by Bob Lawton in 1952 (after borrowing $750 from his grandmother), Funspot was originally known as Weirs Sport Center and was located across from the boardwalk (and near all the summer tourists) that overlooks Lake Winnipesaukee.
(Yes, the same Lake Winnipesaukee mentioned in the 1991 Bill Murray movie, What About Bob. Though, it should be noted, What About Bob was not actually filmed on location, much to the disappointment of town residents and, most decidedly, the tourists who still go there hoping to see part of the movie set. But this is neither here nor there when it comes to our hero of this tale: the largest arcade in the world.)
It was on the boardwalk that Weirs Sport Center became the perfect place for families to go during the rainy days of a week-long vacation. And with a penny arcade, an indoor miniature golf course, and an active concession stand, there wasn't much more a family looking for a break from the beach needed.
But it wasn't until 1964 when Bob Lawton purchased 21 acres of land and re-located his business just a bit down the road that his labor of love would become more than just a place to pass the time.
As the years passed (and after the name changed from Weirs Sport Center to Funspot Family Fun Center), Funspot became a destination in its own right.
Over the next 40+ years, Funspot expanded and changed into what it is today: an entertainment mecca containing just about every indoor activity you can think of all under one roof. Video games, pinball machines, bowling, bingo, and an indoor mini-golf course fill three-stories and 75,000 square feet.
It's also home to the American Classic Arcade Museum with over 250 pre-1987 video games and pinball machines. PacMan, Donkey Kong, Frogger, Space Invaders, and Centipede are but a few of the games still beeping and buzzing at Funspot. It is here where adults can re-live a bit of their past, spending hours with their faces illuminated only by the glow of a screen, putting token after token into the game from their childhood all for that chance to get just one level further, just one score higher.
Which, of course, bring us to the next part of our story.
In 2007, a documentary called The King of Kong introduced a rarely-before seen part of Americana – arcade tournaments – into mainstream life. (Watch a preview of the documentary here, I promise you won't be disappointed.) But the tournaments in the documentary don't feature your Xbox or Wii or any number of other popular gaming systems on the market today. Instead they focus on the oldies but goodies. And in this world, Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde never defeat Pacman, and Mario always gets the girl, because it's not the once-in-the-blue-moon arcade game players competing. It's the men and women who spend dozens and dozens of hours each week practicing their retro-game of choice just for the shot at gaining a world record.
The documentary primarily focuses on two men, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe, and their quest to hold onto (in Billy's case) or break (in Steve's case) the world record for Donkey Kong. The editing pretty clearly gets the audience rooting for Wiebe, a recently unemployed teacher who rarely seems to get a break in life, as we watch some of the tricks and tactics that Mitchell appears to take part in an effort to hold onto his world record that, up to that point, had stood for 25 years.
Over the course of 80 minutes, us mere mortals are introduced to a seriously competitive world of gaming. We see stacks of video tapes that show people breaking world records and have been sent to Twin Galaxies (the umpire organization of video game world records) for verification. We see a room full of people "ohhing" and "ahhing" when a new video tape with a world record is held up for everyone to see before a mini-viewing party. We hear how two men go uninvited into a fellow competitor's garage with the intention of photographing the inside of his arcade machine (to see if he had cheated in any way on a recent world record attempt). We witness time lapses showing people playing video games for hours and hours on end. And we watch as gamers fly around the country to compete against one another in different tournaments.
This is not your mother's Atari system, folks. (Though it might be the game she liked to play.) This is serious business. And much of the story – and even the reason behind all of this old-school gaming madness – is filmed at, you guessed it, Funspot.
I'll admit, even though I'm a fan of quirky, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from our sojourn to the world's largest arcade. Part of me wondered if it could really live up to the dream that our friend Philip hoped it would be. But soon enough, Philip's eager enthusiasm for visiting Funspot pushed aside whatever slight concerns I had about the day. Not to mention, Tim and I were also eager to see if Philip, who fancies himself a rather competitive player of Gyruss, could break that game's world record.
After a gorgeous three-hour long drive through Massachusetts and up through New Hampshire, we finally located our mecca for the day, and the hero of this story, Funspot. Sitting back a bit from the road, it'd be easy to pass the unassuming buildings without ever knowing history has taken place there. Video arcade history, yes, but history nevertheless.
The next six or so hours found the four of us (Philip, as well as Philip's lovely girlfriend and our good friend Lauren, Tim, and myself) moving from floor to floor in search of our favorite games from yesteryear. Tim found his beloved Joust, Lauren spent some time with Burger Time, I hopped my way across the road in Frogger, and Philip went to work at Gyruss. We wacked moles and alligators, tried our hands at air hockey, and bowled skee-ball like never before, all to the tune of some of the 80's best power ballads.
I don't know if it was my cup full of tokens (much more than I ever had when I was a child!) or just the familiar sounds of games I haven't played in 25 years, but I truly felt like a little kid in a candy store. The entire time we were there, I couldn't help but feel giddy every time I'd turn a corner and find another old friend from childhood: Hey there, Pong! Hey there, Ms PacMan! How've you been? And everywhere my eyes looked, there was yet another game I wanted to stop and say hello to before putting in a token and giving it a whirl.
Philip, meanwhile, never did break that world record. He did manage to score the highest game on Gyruss (as did I with Frogger), but the world record eluded him. That said, it was pretty obvious he knew what he was doing and those enemy spaceships never had a chance. But neither would Philip, as it turned out: the joystick on Gyruss finally gave up the ghost and stopped working completely just a half dozen or so games in for him.
Nevertheless, the day was an absolute success. Childhood dreams were relived. (And childhood toys were broken!) And Lauren, Tim, and I managed to win just enough tickets from skee-ball that we were able to nab a nice beer glass with the Funspot logo on it for Philip. That and a ring with a plastic spider on it. I mean, if you're going to visit someplace quirky, you might as well go home with something quirky too.
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