Earlier this week, America’s most popular rat-fronted pizza restaurant and entertainment venue announced a plan to phase out some of its animatronic performers, and admirers of Chuck E. Cheese’s iconic leering robots are in mourning.
According to a report from CBS News, Chuck E. Cheese plans to modernize several restaurants by toning down the wacky, colorful design, removing animatronics, and adding large dance floors where a human dressed as the eponymous rodent will come out and dance with children. CEC Entertainment Chief Executive Tom Leverton told CBS that they’re making major changes because kids prefer people in animal costumes over animatronics. He also explained that they want to make the restaurants more inviting for parents and grandparents.
Only seven locations in San Antonio, Texas, and the Kansas City, Missouri, areas will be redesigned initially. But Leverton (who was not available for a comment to Gizmodo) told CBS he has a “strong hypothesis” that the entire company will soon pivot away from animatronics. There are more than 500 Chuck E. Cheeses across the world.
Adult Chuck E. Cheese aficionados are understandably disheartened by the news, and took to Retro Pizza Zone forum—a gathering place for fans of all things cheesy and robotic—to grieve. “[L]oss for words,” lamented one poster, “don’t know what to say about it :(”
“Well guys, with the 2.0 dance floor remodel coming it appears we will have to say goodbye to our favourite animated friends soon,” wrote another. “It seems kids these days are more interested in digital crap than something that’s actually there.”
An argument even broke out about the ultimate fate of the performers.
“They aren’t going to sell the bots,” one forum member chastised another. “That isn’t how it works. They’ll be slowly re-located to stores who need them still or if no stores need them they’ll be destroyed.”
Others tried to focus on the positive. “Yes, it is sad that the animatronics are done for,” wrote a commenter, “but we should cherish the remaining time we have with them (Which will be for a handful of years), and when it’s all over, we look back, and reminisce on the good times we had.”
Forum member Wolfpack5fan, who maintains a YouTube channel of rare Chuck E. Cheese animatronic footage, explained to us why he and other fans are so upset. “[CEC wants to] replace these works of art, each with there own story and history, with a cheap dance floor,” they told Gizmodo. “Back when they had shows, the place meant something. It was a place where magic comes alive... The theme of the show reminded you that you where lucky to be born in the age, and that a good future was ahead.”
Wolfpack5fan lives in Lee Summit, Missouri, about 15 minutes from one of the seven Chuck E. Cheese locations that is being remodeled, and said the company has been self-destructing for a while. “CEC Entertainment started removing what made itself unique. First went personality, then side characters, showtapes, tokens, mazes.” But now, they say, the company is killing its “roots, where it all started, way back in ‘76 when a man had an idea, to unify family, entertainment, and music, to create a masterpiece.”
One member of Retro Pizza Zone wondered how the man responsible for that “masterpiece” felt about CEC’s decision, writing, “All of this CEC 2.0 buis[i]ness makes me wonder what does Nolan Bushnell, the creator of Chuck E. Cheese’s think about all of this? How does he feel about seeing his original creation becoming this once it passes the testing phase?”
We reached out to the Chuckfather himself to find out how he felt about the demise of his creations. Atari founder Nolan Bushnell created Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theatre in San Jone, California, in 1977 after realizing that arcades were making more money off his games than he was. “It started with my desire to bring my games from Atari to a broader marketplace. The math was very simple,” he told Gizmodo.
So he decided to fuse amusement parks and arcades into a new type of family-friendly gaming venue that wouldn’t compete with businesses that were already buying Atari products. He figured pizza would draw kids in and provide enough wait time for some game play.
He got the idea for animatronic entertainment when he saw mechanical birds at Disneyland’s Tiki Room and realized his own engineers could easily build anthropomorphic machine performers. Atari employees made the robots using pneumatic cylinders and 4-track tape recorders.
Bushnell wanted to call the concept Coyote Pizza and imagined the mascot would be a coyote. “I bought a costume and an amusement park show that I thought was a coyote, but it turned out to be a rat,” he told Gizmodo. “Rather than try to get another costume, I just changed the name.”
Bushnell told Gizmodo he’s been pleased with the company’s recent game selections, and trusts that they’re “moving in the right direction.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, Bushnell said he’s at peace with CEC’s decision to ditch the bots. “Animatronics was cutting edge when Chuck E. Cheese started,” he said. “I try very hard not to live my life in the rearview mirror. I like change, I like progress, and I like new things.”
Either way, Bushnell is happy that fans are still celebrating his work. “Your fanbase makes you feel like, ‘Hey, maybe my creations have a life of their own.’” he said. “It humbles you and makes you proud.”