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Freddy’s Days Are Numbered: The Extinction of Restaurant Animatronics
The clock is ticking.
The upcoming animatronic horror film Five Nights at Freddy’s (opening in theaters and on Peacock today!) and the video game of the same name on which it’s based, take their inspiration from a wave of robot-themed restaurants which swept the nation in the last decades of the previous century.
In a way, it’s fitting that foam-covered restaurant robots would end up in a popular video game, because video games are responsible for their creation. Let's look at how animatronic restaurant mascots came to be, and how they probably won't be around much longer.
The Rise and Fall of Restaurant Animatronics, Like Those Found in Five Nights at Freddy's
The Emergence of Chuck E. Cheese
In the late 1970s, the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell, realized a long-standing dream with the grand opening of the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theater in San Jose, California. Bushnell had been inspired by Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room and the Country Bear Jamboree, both of which feature impressive animatronic characters. Bushnell wanted to bottle a piece of that magic and mass manufacture it in restaurants across the country. It also didn’t hurt that Chuck E. Cheese could serve as a ready-made distribution channel for any new Atari games.
Bushnell opened several other California locations and one in Nevada before signing a co-development deal with Robert Brock in 1979. Under the terms of the deal, Brock would handle expansion and operations in 16 states while Bushnell would handle the rest. Shortly thereafter, Brock requested to sever the deal and quickly opened up ShowBiz Pizza Place. The first location opened in Kansas City, Missouri in 1980.
Eventually, Bushnell would file bankruptcy, allowing Brock to buy the company and merge the two competing restaurant chains together. Today, all locations operate under the Chuck E. Cheese name. Along the way, a series of familiar characters were created including Mr. Munch (alien), Helen Henny (chicken), Jasper T. Jowls (bloodhound), Chef Pasqually (human), and Bella Bunny (rabbit), and displayed in various formats.
The Evolution of Restaurant Animatronics
At first, characters existed as framed animatronic busts. The Pizza Time Players, as they were collectively known, sang songs, told jokes, and performed skits. During the ‘80s, as video games grew in popularity, Chuck E. Cheese became the default locale for birthday parties, combining pizza, video games, rides, and its famous (or infamous) mechanical musicians.
Soon, Chuck and his friends came down from the wall and took to the stage. The Pizza Time Players, more fully embodied in the updated balcony stage, played a number of songs throughout the day. Throughout that time, the animatronic band had a number of lineup changes with characters rotating in and out alongside the core characters.
At the same time, some restaurants were equipped with a cabaret stage which featured additional animatronic bands like The Beagles who played Beatles songs, and solo performers like the King, who performed as the animal version of Elvis. By the ‘90s, the cabaret stage had largely vanished. Around the same time, some locations started getting another upgrade to what became known as the C Stage. This version of the animatronic show featured only one character, Chuck E. Cheese himself, while the rest of the band were represented digitally on screens.
As technology evolved and kids began interacting with it in different ways, animatronics became less of a draw, and they quickly became endangered. Today, Chuck stands alone as the only remaining animatronic representative. Yet even he is in danger.
The Extinction of Chuck E. Cheese
From a certain point of view, the loss of animatronic characters is a natural progression of the Chuck E. Cheese spirit. The intention was always to appeal to kids, and to engage with them through games and technology in ways which were exciting. A robotic rat just isn’t as exciting to kids today as it was in 1977. Despite being a key part of the brand, the days of animatronics were likely always numbered.
In 2017, Chuck E. Cheese announced it would remove the animatronics entirely and replace them with an interactive dance floor in seven locations. Kids and parents were encouraged to dance on the floor, which lights up when in contact with your feet, and enjoy periodic visits from a live performer dressed as Chuck E. Cheese. After a successful pilot program, the new format was rolled out to 80 locations.
The number and quality of robots still in operation at your local Chuck E. Cheese will vary from place to place, depending on what updates they received and when. Eventually, animatronics will be removed from every location across the country and replaced with the new dance floor format and live performers. The remodel also includes ditching the restaurant’s iconic tokens in favor of reloadable digital passes. The robotic days of one Charles Entertainment Cheese will soon come to an end.