This is the first in a series I hope to launch on this site, one which will bring back plenty of memories for longtime residents and educate newer and younger North Hillers on things which have come and gone. The first installment deals with a favorite of the generation who grew up in the 1990s, giving them a reason to go to Northway Mall.
Discovery Zone opened at Northway Mall in early 1992. In a region where playgrounds are mostly ignored in the winter months, Discovery Zone brought a cutting edge indoor play facility to the North Hills. Rather than utilize exclusively traditional structures such as monkey bars and swings, the heart of discovery zone was a maze of tubes, which connected to rooms and pits through slides and climbing walls. Inside these rooms, which connected to the main tube structures at various points, were unique delights such as ball pits, moon walk rooms, water walk rooms (think of a giant waterbed here), and an obstacle course. Slides were also a key element of Discovery Zone, from standard playground-type slides to the roller slide in the center of the play area. The playground remained largely the same until 1995 when a few minor renovations were made, such as the addition of a new slide.
This type of indoor playground was gaining popularity at the time. One year earlier, the newly rebuilt Wexford McDonald’s sported a playground with a tunnel and ball pit structure (which was essentially a miniaturized version of Discovery Zone), a far cry from the old-fashioned wooden playground at the McDonald’s on McKnight Road. Indoor playgrounds were also popping up at Chuck E. Cheese and other play centers geared toward children. Within two years of the opening of Discovery Zone, all McDonald’s restaurants in the North Hills had updated or constructed these playgrounds.
There were two play structures located in the main area. One was a smaller obstacle course designed for young children while the other was used by children of all ages. There was no age restriction, which allowed parents and older siblings to enter with children (especially the youngest Discovery Zone visitors), although the center catered mostly to those aged ten and under. Most visitors typically went with siblings or friends.
Alongside the play structures was a small arcade. Skee Ball and Wacky Gator were by far the most popular games in this area of Discovery Zone, where children typically went when they needed a break from an intense day of play. These games yielded tickets based on performance, which could be redeemed for prizes such as temporary tattoos, pencils, and stuffed animals. (It wasn’t quite Dave & Buster’s in terms of selection or quality, but for a young child, something as trivial as a bottle of “magic ink” or whoopee cushion is golden). Food was also sold at Discovery Zone and included child-friendly fare such as pizza, hot dogs, soda pop, and cotton candy.
No tribute to Discovery Zone is complete without a mention of the party rooms in the back of the facility. If you were a child living in the North Hills between 1992 and 1998, chances are you were invited to at least a few birthday parties at Discovery Zone or hosted one yourself. With the demise of the Pine Creek Chuck E. Cheese in 1993, Discovery Zone became the de facto choice (and was, in some ways, already superior to Chuck E. Cheese due to the larger size of the play structure and better quality food; Chuck E. Cheese did have a larger arcade, however, and was generally a better atmosphere for adults who got to chaperone the mornings of mayhem their sons and daughters led on their birthdays).
I absolutely loved Discovery Zone as a child. My first trip came shortly after the center opened. The play structure was breathtaking and mesmerizing to my five and a half year old self and provided hours of fun. Although I had always enjoyed playing at Scharmyn Park and typically took advantage of the playgrounds at McDonald’s, nothing else held a candle to Discovery Zone. I celebrated two birthdays of my own at Discovery Zone and helped some of my friends ring in another year of life as well. Many hours were spent with friends at this little part of Northway Mall. Like fine wine, these memories, precious as they are to begin with, only get better with age.
The question: what happened to Discovery Zone? What happened between 1992 and 1999, when the play facility abruptly left the mall?
Those who played at Discovery Zone in the early days remember the crowds quite well. Simply put, it was the place for a North Hills area child to be on a day off from school, the best playground to use on a rainy summer day, and the area’s premier birthday party destination for anyone celebrating an age written with only the ones place. Plenty of promotions were in place, including tie-ins with the hottest franchises of the 1990s such as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Like the Megazord itself from the show, Discovery Zone seemed too great to fail.
The corporation itself was expanding at a rapid pace in the 1990s, opening new play centers left and right while absorbing competitors. Toss in hefty licensing deals and marketing campaigns and you’ve got a corporation spread about as thin as a piece of poor-quality tissue paper. Although the concept itself was doing extremely well into the mid-1990s, the corporation itself was very poorly managed and made too many quick decisions.
By the later half of the 1990s, there were also rumblings about the cleanliness of indoor play facilities. Imagine trying to clean every tunnel at Discovery Zone by crawling through the entire structure with a can of Clorox wipes. This task would take a very long time in of itself. Next, examine the ball pits, each of which have thousands of tennis ball-sized objects scattered about. How would such a place be sanitized properly? What if someone unexpectedly urinated in the middle of a pit during the day and nobody reported the crime?
Looking back, I’m guessing all the 90s children reading this would probably be hesitant to enter one of these play structures today. This is really what your parents meant when they said you’d have more fun at a bowling alley or a miniature golf course when you begged them to take you and your best friend to Discovery Zone circa 1998.
My last visit to Discovery Zone came in 1997. My younger cousin, then two years of age, was in town and I was her “tour guide” for the playground. By then, the once amazing play structure seemed to have lost some of its grandeur. I tried to blame it on getting older, but the signs of a struggling corporation and dropping attendance were there. As I left the building that day, I had a feeling Discovery Zone would eventually fail completely. To be honest, I was quite sad to have seen a childhood favorite go downhill in a relatively short amount of time.
Today, Fox and Hound occupies the former Discovery Zone space. Fittingly, the age group who once waded in the ball pits and climbed through the tunnels at Discovery Zone still comes to this structure for the purpose of having fun, albeit in a different context.
The area is currently devoid of Discovery Zone-type playgrounds. Safari Sam’s, a similar indoor play facility in Cranberry, met its demise several years after Discovery Zone closed. Every McDonald’s in the area has replaced the tunnel and ball pit play facilities with new equipment (some locations, such as West View, scrapped the playground entirely). Running a quick web search for dangers of ball pits will explain why their popularity has plummeted and will answer the question as to whether or not Discovery Zone could ever make a comeback in some way.
Although Discovery Zone was only around for about seven years, it managed to make its mark on the youth of the North Hills during its run at Northway Mall. My fond memories of Discovery Zone are undoubtably echoed by the majority of my peers who grew up in this area. I’m sure the recollections of this unique play center brought back smiles, laughter, and perhaps even tears to every 90s child who read this, especially after realizing the joy of running around a system of tunnels alongside friends is something our current and future children will never get to experience. What happened in the 90s will stay in the 90s, with only a handful of faded photographs, aged camcorder tape, and delightful memories remaining outside that realm of time to pass forward to generations to come.