PUBLISHED: 9:04 PM on Wednesday, February 16, 2005
It's virtually virtual reality:
Anyone up for a game of 21st century tag?

Photo by Christina Holmgren
  Carly Cummings, manager at Play Zone, outfitted to play a swift, fun game of laser tag.
Laser tag is like virtual reality - in reality: It's like stepping through the screen, into your favorite computer or Play Station game and using your entire body instead of just your fingers to do the game playing. Or, if you're too ancient to understand that metaphor, think of it as a high-tech version of the old standby game Hide & Seek - with laser guns. Though the guns more resemble the bar code scanners at department store cash registers, you quickly get caught up in the game once the lights are turned out and the music starts pumping. Think a kids' game for the Star Wars generation - one that the kids will have to fight their parents to get to play - because the parents are likely to want to get ahead of their kids in line!

When Darlene McNaughton opened Party Zone, Juneau's only laser tag facility, in November 2004, it was only the second laser tag operation in Alaska (the other one is in Anchorage). Over 2,000 square foot of the old gas station building has been turned into a maze with pillars, neon lights, a fog machine and speakers to funnel 90s techno-music into the game maze. Nay-sayers were skeptical that 2,000 square foot would be enough - but once they got inside, McNaughton said, "they were surprised at how big the place seemed."

Photo by Christina Holmgren
  Play Zone aims to be a safe, fun place where Juneauites can hang out with families and friends while having fun and getting out of the rain, said manager Carly Cummings, at right. At left, Sonia and Riley Halsted Payne,
McNaughton, owner of "House of Gifts" in the Nugget Mall, was looking for a new location for her business - one that gave her "more exposure" - and had long liked the old Williams Express station at 6.5 mile Glacier Highway. Initially, she thought about just moving the party supply business to the new location, and subletting part of the building to someone else. But none of the other businesses that showed an interest in sharing the space was fun enough, McNaughton thought. "So I thought, 'why don't we just do it all?'"

Having run her business in the mall for years, McNaughton couldn't help noticing the amount of people - especially kids - hanging out in the mall looking for something to do. After looking into different options, she settled on laser tag, "because it's popular all over."

And it is fun. No matter who you are, you can sort of drop your everyday persona at the door, right where you don the gear. Before entering the laser tag arena, visitors are outfitted with a vest with two targets - one on the front, one on the back - and the previously mentioned laser gun, or "phaser" as it's called. The "phasers" aren't really laser beams; they use a combination of radio frequency, fiber-optics and laser to shoot at the targets. You score by hitting the targets on other participants' vests, which turns out to be a challenge when strobe lights, fog, and loud music challenge your senses in the dark. In there, you can pretend-fight whoever you want to, in your mind - be it Darth Vader, the evil Sauron, or a crummy boss.

"We use a continuous play system," said Play Zone manager Carly Cummings. That means you can come in and join a game in progress at any time, as long as there is room. The lazer tag arena can fit 12 players at any given time, and a session is usually 10 minutes. If that sounds short, Cummings recommends trying it out and seeing if you change your mind.

"Most people come out and are pretty pooped and all sweaty after 10 minutes," she said. And after your session is over, you get your own personal computerized scorecard, which tells you how many hits you got in on others, and how many hits you took.

McNaughton took her 21-year-old son there before they opened. "He came out with 335 points and I came out with over 4,000." In the interest of full disclosure, though, McNaughton did have a little assistance by her son's rottweiler, who kept following in the footsteps of its owner and revealing his location to the trigger-happy mom.

The laser tag game is completely safe, Cummings said, pre-empting a frequently asked question; you don't need to wear protective goggles or anything. "We use the same laser tag system as Knotts Berry Farm does - which means it's a real high-end system," she said. And there's no age limit - up or down. "But we obviously won't send a 3-year-old in with a bunch of teens," she added. "We use our discretion when it comes to grouping people properly."

Right now, McNaughton and Cummings are planning for a laser tag tournament for teams - teams with six members each that can play other teams.

"Some of the businesses around, if they want to set up a team with their employees, or sponsor a team, that would be great," McNaughton said. "We have different games we can use for the tournament - last man standing and stuff like that."

McNaughton also suggested that a game of laser tag might be a good gift from employers to their employees. "It's a real good stress-relief," she said. "You go in there, you get some aggressions out in that laser tag room, and you come back to the office a lot happier."

The staff at Play Zone enjoys playing a game of laser tag themselves when given an opportunity - but they also enjoys listening to the game from outside, Cummings admitted. "You can hear the kids in there screaming at the top of their lungs - it's pretty hysterical. And when you hear adult doing the same thing, it's even more comical!"

"We really encourage the parents to come and play with the kids," McNaughton said. "They have fun, they enjoy is as much as - or more than - the kids." Filling the function of a community gathering place was part of the reason for starting the business.

"We're not only a business," said Cummings, "we want to be a place where people can do fun stuff, just be together with their family or their friends, and have fun and stay dry. To that effect, the "play" area of PlayZone also has video games, a pool table and air hockey, and the concession stand serves pizza, hot dogs, ice cream, and soda. "Some of the things we have, you normally only see in bars," Cummings said, "where kids don't have a chance to play."

Play Zone is open for individuals or groups, and patrons can also reserve space for a birthday or other party. Party supplies are available in the party goods store right next door. And this spring, McNaughton said, she will add batting cages under the awnings outdoors. All in the name of fun - and staying dry.

Editor's Note: Play Zone is open Sun-Thu 10 a.m.- 9 p.m., Fri-Sat 10 a.m.- midnight.