There were few things I envied more when I was a kid than families who owned a trampoline.
Having a trampoline was a status symbol, the Birkin bag of the playground. There was nothing more exotic than going to a friend’s house and jumping on one, giggling and shrieking with joy for hours, forgetting for that brief time your own backyard comprised of crab grass and boring, un-bouncy dirt.
It behooved you to keep in the good graces of the kid with the trampoline. Even if he sucked at football, you’d better pick him for your team at recess, because you never knew when he might slide a trampoline invite your way.
The kids with the trampolines were also the ones who threw the bad-ass birthday parties. My childhood parties were always at home in the basement playroom, where we drank Acme-brand sodas and played musical chairs. Trampoline kids’ parties were elaborate, destination affairs: video game night at the arcade, a swim party at the YMCA, or the penultimate venue of a spoiled kid soiree, Chuck E. Cheese.
Like the trampolines, I coveted these parties with longing, green-eyed gazes. I begged my parents to throw me a party symbolic of my coolness — maybe a party at a batting cage or a bowling alley — anything to augment my cultural cache on the monkey bars. But my parents never capitulated, so in the interest of preserving my bruised ego, my desires turned to bitterest gall. I psyched myself out by reasoning I didn’t need a fancy party to be cool and that trampolines were a symbol of the backyard bourgeoisie. And for the most part, it worked.
But things have changed since I was a kid. I feel like destination parties are now the norm, not the exception. As a parent, there’s a lot of pressure to make some grand gesture of love and throw the type of primary school banger that will keep the local tribe of mini-van moms talking for weeks.
Likewise, there are more and more establishments that cater to such indulgences. There were limited places the trampoline kids of my day could hold a glamorous celebration. But every month, my kids bring home an invite to some birthday party at an elaborate indoor park or gym where they can run around like feral animals for two hours and then cram into a $200 party room that smells of stale farts and gorge on supermarket cake that’s 90 percent frosting.
Given the calloused tolerance I’ve built up over the years against opulent shows of status, I don’t see myself as a parent willing to oblige such frivolity. I’d rather throw a sprinkler in the yard, pop some Bagel Bites in the toaster oven, and let the kids go to town. But since I’m a step-dad and have the voting power of a DC Senator, I recently found myself co-hosting a bacchanal birthday bash that combined both spoiled-kid fiesta and trampoline-owner stratum in one disgusting display of luxury.
Dominic’s 10th birthday party took place on a Sunday afternoon at a place called Jump, a warehouse-sized venue whose website warns potential patrons to “brace yourself for all-out adventure and excitement!!!”
Located in an industrial park next to an impound lot and two car-rental companies, Jump is a 15,000 square foot trampoline park that offers, again according to the website, “wall-to-wall trampolines, Airborne Dodgeball, Slam Dunk Basketball, Battle Beam, Ladder Challenge, Laser Race Courses, a Kidz Zone with foam pit, and so much more! Host an epic birthday party,” it pleads, “for the ultimate active entertainment experience!”
I’ll tell you, nothing convinces me to spend some hard-earned cash like a surfeit of exclamation points!!!!!
I’m being harsh. In the scheme of things, Jump’s prices are not astronomical. An “adult” ticket — that is, anyone over the age of 7 — can participate in 60 minutes of unbridled, hopping mayhem for 19 bucks. If you want to up the experience to an hour-and-a-half, plop down another five spot and you’ve got yourself a party.
Where the company makes its nut, however, is clearly the party packages. For $360, you can get 10 kids one hour of “unlimited park access,” and an 8’x15’ boardroom for 45 minutes. The price also includes a t-shirt for the guest of honor, unlimited water, and two large pizzas.
Want to supplement your water and food ration with soda and chips? Well sure, but it’ll cost ya. Unfortunately, Jump prohibits any outside food or beverage. The company doesn’t publicize how much it charges for their 2-liter bottles of Coke listed in the “party add-on” section, but given a small bag of kettle corn runs five bucks at the snack bar, I could make an educated guess.
Needless to say, we decided to forego the “ultimate party” experience and host Dominic’s nine guests for a post-Jump reception at home.
Still a little resentful from being denied such lavish party accommodations when I was younger, I enter Jump’s doors fully prepared to hate every second of the 60 minutes I was scheduled to be there.
Oh Reader, did I hate it.
The scene in the lobby is enough for me to appreciate exactly why my father retreated to the car at every childhood event I ever attended. Dead-eyed, unmoving parents stand in two lines like cattle, waiting for their turn to check in, while their un-monitored children zigzag across the floor at full speed, weaving in and out of the crowd like they are playing tag on a subway platform. I do my best to stay clear of the mayhem, but one little boy manages to find me anyway, ramming into the back of my knees with such force I almost go down.
Our one-hour wristbands secured and $3 proprietary Jump socks paid for, we follow a teenage Jump employee in a purple polo down a hallway and into the main chamber. “Welcome to Jump,” she says, her smile all teeth.
It is like that scene in Willy Wonka, when Gene Wilder opens the door to the chocolate factory for the first time, except instead of a magical wonderland, laying before me is a nightmarish carnival of chaos. A more appropriate allusion might be the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, when the door of the landing craft drops on Omaha Beach.
The “wall-to-wall trampoline,” which I pictured in my head as one big springed surface, is actually a series of smaller rectangular trampolines connected by padded walkways. The space is arranged into various “rooms” partitioned by mesh netting and composite rubber aisles. Top 40 dance hits blare from ceiling-mounted speakers the size of Mini Coopers. Bored parents line the walkways, sitting on plain, locker-room style benches and staring at their cell phones.
Kids. Are. Everywhere.
I lose sight of Dominic & Co immediately as they scatter into the sea of bouncing children like inmates on a prison break. I attempt to track them for 10 seconds before giving up altogether, which, looking around at the hundreds of disengaged parents succumbing to the siren song of their iPhones, seemes to be guardian SOP.
Supervision throughout the park is passive at best, negligent at worst. A scant number of employees walk the park wearing striped referee shirts, which is probably helpful if any of them have additional jobs at Foot Locker or the NFL. These Zebras are high school-aged, and all of them appear to have about as much zeal for their jobs as the kid who took my order last week at Wendy’s.
Each netted room contains a different activity, all of which require varying levels of supervision that neither the Zebras nor the parents offer. In one room composed of a foam-filled pit spanned by a padded balance beam, I watch a fat kid and a waif who looks like he’d get blown away by a summer breeze battle with those Q-Tip shaped sticks they use on American Gladiators.
The fat kid delivers a crushing blow to the waif’s temple and he crumples into the airbags. For several seconds, the waif does not move. I look around, realizing I am the only person who saw this occur, despite at least 10 other adults occupying the pugil stick room.
Lucky for me, the waif resurfaces, none worse for the wear, squealing with delight.
Squeals seem to be the primary method of expression here, in fact. Every four or five seconds, another kid lets out an ear-splitting shriek somewhere in the park, giving the whole place a serial killer vibe. It’s hard to discern between the screams of delight and pure, unadulterated terror, but I figure it’s someone else’s job to do that anyway.
At about the time I start to wax internally about the unbridled joys of childhood, a boy in warm-up pants and a mustard-colored turtleneck straight out of 1991 approaches me, mumbling something about fun. I ask him to repeat himself.
“What’s that, buddy?” I say.
He leans European-tourist close to me and screams at the top of his lungs. “Ooooooooeeeeeeeeaaaaahhhhhh FUN!” He scampers away.
I hope it’s fun, kid. Somebody’s paying 20 bucks an hour for you to do something I did for free on my parents’ bed when they weren’t looking.
By far, the most unregulated park area is the dodgeball room, which looks like a scene plucked from Lord of the Flies. The teams are absurdly lopsided; one side consists of six middle schoolers, the other a handful of pasty, anemic kids who might be third-graders at best. One teen with a mustache who wouldn’t get carded at the liquor store wings balls with the velocity of a middle-inning reliever.
The little kids don’t have a chance, and they play like they know it. One little boy sidesteps a rocket with a nervous swim move. His eyes express fear and a resigned awareness it’s only a matter of time before his number comes up.
He doesn’t have to wait long. Mustache takes aim, winds, and sends a laser beam directly at the little kid. It connects with his forehead, and he slumps to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.
There seems to be a lot of argument about the rules of dodgeball, shouting about who is out and who is not. No Zebras in sight to offer objective rulings. The only real indication there are indeed guidelines at Jump is a pre-recorded voice reminding patrons of house policies every 15 minutes or so. The booming voice repeats the phrase “NO RUNNING” three times, a rule, by my estimate, being followed by approximately zero jumpers.
I make myself comfortable on a leather couch by a bank of vending machines selling Gatorade for $2 a pop and sight an elusive Jump Zebra. He’s being led by a teenager wearing white Apple headphones in her ears to the vending machines, his expression bored and hapless.
“See what happens?” the girl says, pointing to the Gatorade machine. “I try to put my dollar in and it won’t let me.”
Zebra’s countenance conveys he’s not a certified vending machine technician and also doesn’t give a flying fuck about whether this girl’s thirst is quenched with a bottle of Glacier Freeze or not. He presses a couple of buttons, knocks on the glass, and shrugs. “Sorry,” he says, retreating toward the foam pit with the teen hot on his heels, blabbering something about a refund for her stuck dollar.
Three minutes later, two girls in matching Thrasher magazine t-shirts attempt to conduct their own transaction on the malfunctioning machine.
“It’s not working,” says one.
“The fuck?” says the other, an eloquent teen with braces. “Let’s go get somebody.”
“I think it’s broken,” I say, trying to save another miserable Zebra from repeating the scene I’d just witnessed. “Somebody else had the same problem.”
“Oh,” says the one with the braces. The pair tinker with the machine, trying to force the creased dollar bill into the non-working slot for another three minutes anyway. Then brace face disappears for a minute and brings back the same bored Zebra, who presses a couple of buttons, knocks on the glass, and shrugs.
“Sorry,” says the Zebra, and he walks away, the girls following behind.
While this Groundhog’s Day interaction plays out, I watch a four-year-old attempt to navigate a baby stroller twice her size down a short flight of stairs. From my vantage point, it is unclear if the stroller is occupied.
My brother and I begged our parents to get a trampoline for the better part of a decade, and we never got one. I always thought it must be a cost thing; trampolines were expensive (I guess?) and a bit extravagant for the household income of two teachers. But now I see why my parents never fulfilled my request for that most-desired backyard toy: those things are fucking death traps.
Jump tries to cover its bases by making the rules clear and explicit. Its website is sprayed with all caps disclaimers like “WARNING: TRAMPOLINING IS AN ACTION/EXTREME SPORT AND IS INHERENTLY DANGEROUS. JUMP AT YOUR OWN RISK AND WITHIN YOUR ABILITY.” Likewise, each guest entering the jumping chamber is required to sign a waiver indemnifying the company of all injuries (Side note: during my 80 minutes at Jump, I do not sign or even see one of these “required” forms). The most popular question in the site’s FAQ is “Is Jump Safe?” to which there’s some party-line response about employing the latest technology and strict safety procedures, blah blah blah.
While I don’t see any compound fractures or dislocated ankles during my visit, I do bear witness to a number of customer injuries.
About the time I’m checking my watch to see when this fun day at the park will end, I watch a 3-year-old bank off a trampoline next to me at an awkward, obtuse angle and fly through the opening in the net. He lands on his neck in the walkway, gets up, explores his neck for protruding vertebrates, and dives back through the door with his arms outstretched like Superman.
Some time later I pass a pink-faced girl with blonde pigtails lying on the ground clutching her knee, desperately looking around for someone to validate her injury. The only adults near her are a mother with a Nikon camera slung on her shoulder yelling at a middle-aged man struggling with a cardboard box full of party favors.
“I already told you where to put them,” she says with the intensity only a mom organizing a kid’s birthday party can muster.
“Would you calm down, Sharon?” says the frazzled dad. “I didn’t hear you. I can’t hear a goddamn thing in here.”
The girl, not finding any faces sympathetic to her cause, collects herself and limps off.
Back on the couch by the vending machines, I sit next to two mothers who are clearly friends but ignoring each other in favor of their phone screens. A pre-teen girl runs to them and delivers some bad news.
“Um, Augusta’s hurt.”
The mothers follow the girl back to where poor Augusta lies. She’s 11 or 12, her face sweaty and panicked, her leg cocked behind her torso at a strange angle that doesn’t suggest fracture, but definitely discomfort.
While the mothers try to assess the damage, a Zebra comes by and leans over to assist. “You okay?” he deadpans, a phrase he must utter a thousand times a day. The mothers, now on their hands and knees, try to calm the sweaty girl. The Zebra unzips his red fanny pack, hands them a chemical ice bag, and walks away.
Turtleneck kid finds me again. “You swizzle?” he asks me, making uncomfortable eye contact while I try to form a response. But before I come up with anything, he’s off again, cackling over his shoulder, out of his mind with fun.
I look at my watch. It’s been an hour already? I guess all good things must come to an end, huh?
I navigate my way through the lobby once more, through a fresh batch of feral recruits waiting for their turn in the Jump zone.
“How was that, guys?” I ask the rearview mirror once we’ve piled in. “Was it everything you dreamed of and more?”
My question is met with a resounding cheer in the affirmative, and despite my misery, it feels good. I’m coming to realize parenthood is a series of excruciating experiences we endure for the happiness of our kids, and no matter what preconceived notions I may have about the snootiness of destination birthday parties or the elite status of trampoline owners, it all goes out the window when you see the joy that an hour and 200 bucks can provide. I only hope Dominic will be able to cash in on this party and grab some elevated social status on the monkey bars. Maybe some of the kids will even pick him for their football team.
I back out of the busy lot and head toward home, where it will be time for snacks, soda and cake that aren’t subsidized by the Jump party staff.
I swallow a giggle at the shitshow I just witnessed and can’t help asking the kids another question. “Anybody get hurt out there?” I say.
“Not really,” says Dominic’s friend.
“Actually, I fell once because a bigger kid bounced me and I hit my lip on the side of the trampoline,” she added. “But it only bled a little bit.”
“Only a little bit? That’s good to hear,” I say.