I haven’t been to a Chuck E. Cheese since my kids ditched the franchise for the mall and Chipotle. I drive past one almost every day and still get a little misty-eyed. I miss the instant-print images of my kids as cheerleaders or hockey players. I miss the excitement of a cup of grimy tokens and watching my children debate between a Transformers cinch sack or pastel cotton candy that cost the equivalent of sixty bucks. I do not miss the overhead tubes that smelled inexplicably of diapers AND cigarettes or the almost-fear of being punched over a ticket dispute or the time my mother slot-machined two cups of tokens in five minutes.
I also confess I miss the pizza. I miss eating it while being sung to by a set of animatronic figures in a rural Oklahoma barn. Recently, the parenting nostalgia gods smiled on me at Kroger when someone discarded a wilting frozen pizza at the self-checkout. It wasn’t just any pizza. I was surprised to find a familiar creepy mouse, bright colors, a free token certificate, and the magic words: Chuck E. Cheese Cheese Frozen Pizza. The “Cheese Cheese” felt instantly fun fun.
I’ve resisted ordering Chuck E. Cheese pizza through their faux pizza store (Pasquale’s Pizza) designed to make adults feel better about ordering Chuck E. Cheese pizza at home. I’ve also been tricked before with restaurant-offerings-gone-grocery-store; Cheesecake Factory bread is only good in a Cheesecake Factory. But this was Chuck E. Cheese frozen pizza; I had to take the chance at reliving the glory days of an elementary school Saturday. I pushed my wonky cart back to the freezer case and found a box of cheese cheese pizza. My Kroger only carried cheese but there is a pepperoni version somewhere out there, perhaps stored in that barn.
When I got home with my frozen bounty, neither kid was interested. Beyond their “we’ve outgrown Chuck E.Cheese” status, I’ve also never quite mastered the magic of making a frozen pizza taste good. The Chuck E. Cheese Cheese frozen pizza would be no different. As it cooked, I asked Alexa to play theme park music to set the mood, and she played the "Alexa Song,” which somehow felt right. The crust was simultaneously burnt and raw, but the cheese and sauce were triumphs, turning into that memorable gooey fireball of a mess on the roof of my mouth. The sauce, however, was a little bit sweet and a little bit metallic-can-of-Raviolios. Our house was filled with that familiar smell of sweaty socks and sweaty tweens mixed with sweaty cheese: childhood on a foil-lined cookie sheet. I dropped some pennies in a red Solo cup and shook them for old times’ sake. Only the dogs came running.
I wondered if the frozen version of Chuck E. Cheese pizza is just leftover restaurant pizza repackaged for the parenting public. But it just feels like when American Girl started selling their dolls at Toys R Us. The ambiance and experience were gone. By the same proverbial token, a frozen pizza at home is not the same thing as a pizza served with music, tickets, trinkets to ponder, the thrill of a Deal or No Deal screen, birthday parties, and a musical mouse.
After I tossed the evidence in the trash, there was only one thing left to do. I cut the free token coupon out of the cardboard box and snuck over to Chuck E. Cheese when my kids went to school for a little pizza and play therapy.