Chuck E. Cheese's caught in gambling controversy
Staring into the face of Chuck E. Cheese's (CEC) is an exercise in perspective.
Parents see a few hours of blistering screams, bad pizza and worse music played by animatronic rodents, followed by a night of quiet, restful slumber. Supporters of illegal Internet gambling parlors see a whiskered double standard and a cartoon pit boss slinging tokens and stuffed animals.
Time magazine notes that the mouse and his arcade-and-pizza playhouses have been sucked into the gambling debate in recent years by people opposed to crackdowns on strip mall storefronts filled with simulated slot machine games that run on swipe cards, give out cash prizes and have become a boon for elderly patrons. In the words of one 70-year-old woman from Ohio interviewed by The Wall Street Journal: "It has become my world."
Just how closely that world resembles Chuck E. Cheese's depends on one's opinion of recent efforts to regulate or shutter video gambling parlors in Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan, Massachusetts and Florida. While parlor owners in Massachusetts and elsewhere say the cash prizes are only paying for the "computer time" of a few free rounds, a new law in Florida outlawing video gambling machines has created somewhat of a conundrum for Mr. Cheese and his playroom pals.
The wording of Florida's law, enacted last month, says for arcade machines to be legal, they must be coin-operated (no dollar bills or swipe cards), they must involve some skill (not just be games of pure chance), and they cannot award cash or gift cards as prizes. The only prizes allowed are merchandise with a maximum value of 75 cents.
That's far less than the roughly $20 value of prizes for Chuck E. Cheese's boardwalk-style games. It also puts restaurant chains with games, like Dave and Buster's, in a bit of a spot because their arcade prizes hold similar value and their machines take only swipe cards.
Owners of gambling cafes, seeing the wide loophole and turning a blind eye to the inherent differences between stuffed pandas and wads of cash, claim discrimination and tell The Miami Herald that the new law is "is something you expect in a country like Cuba, not the United States."
The Florida Arcade Association told The Naples News that targeting adult arcades is an "abuse of police power." A lawsuit was filed in April claiming that the new law is unconstitutional, with plaintiffs saying the legislation is "arbitrary" and "irrational."
Chuck E. Cheese's has been caught up in gambling arguments before, including a $5 million lawsuit filed in 2001 by a mom in San Diego who alleged the chain was a gateway to gambling addiction. But Florida officials seem loath to put the mouse on trial. Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, whose city removed 72 machines from gambling cafes and arcades the day the Florida law went into effect, offered The Miami Herald this bit of perspective when asked about Chuck E. Cheese's:
"I'm not going to go arrest Chuck E. Cheese in front of a bunch of 6-year-olds. If the governor and the Legislature want that, they can come and do it themselves."