Date: March 2011
When we heard about a new arcade opening up with around 80 pinballs inside, we just had to get there. The fact it was about 6,000 miles away from the Pinball News HQ didn't deter us. Nor did the fact that on the only day we could get there, they were closed.
Located in an office block under the 183 freeway, around 10 miles north of the centre of Austin, Pinballz Arcade is the brainchild of Darren and Mikki Spohn.
Darren runs a number of telecoms, IT and consulting companies, but his interest in pinball began when he bought his first game, a Bally Star Trek. That led him to also buy a Mata Hari and the obsession well and truely kicked in.
His original plan was to operate pinballs on a route and use those to teach his kids how to run a business, but instead he decided to concentrate his games in one central location where he could mix the newest games with classic older models.
When the opportunity to move his businesses to a new location came up, the building on Research Blvd allowed the companies to operate upstairs while the arcade could open in the 13,000 sq ft space on the lobby level.
And open it did at the end of 2010.
Once you walk into the entrance to Pinballz Arcade, you immediately sense this is no ordinary arcade.
For a start, everything is so clean it looks more like a car dealership showroom, while the shine emanating from the machines almost makes you wary of touching them.
But turn your head and you quickly discover those fourteen games are only the tip of the iceberg.
In fact there are around fifty pinball machines on the entrance level of the arcade, including all the newest games from Stern - Avatar, Iron Man, Shrek, Indiana Jones and many more.
While DMD games are in the majority, they're not the only type of games at the Pinballz Arcade. On the opposite side of the collection are some classic earlier games - both solid-state and EM.
On the left side of the room is a collection dedicated to movie-themed games including Indiana Jones, X-Files, Jurassic Park - The Lost World and Starship Troopers.
Entry to the arcade is free with all the games operating on 25c tokens. Each game typically costs two or three tokens, depending on the machine's age.
Darren's intention is to have the top 100 rated games in the arcade. He doesn't buy collector-quality games since they are going into an arcade after all, but he does buy the best condition ones he can find and has purchased three new-in-box Stern games for the arcade: Shrek, Avatar and Big Buck Hunter.
Many of the games have LEDs fitted, either for spot lighting effects or - in one or two cases - to change the look of the game, such as in this Stern Batman game.
Darren said the more expensive LEDs typically paid for themselves in about nine months, due to lower power use, less heat generation and less-frequent replacement.
The arcade operates a membership system with incentives for regular visitors. The three tiers give members varying Pinballz Arcade merchandise, discounts on room rental, tickets to a year-end machine raffle and other benefits, such as having exclusive first-play on the newest additions to the arcade, invitations to member-only nights and perhaps the most popular, discount token purchases of up to 50%. When we visited, the arcade had been open for three-and-a-half months and around sixty members had signed up so far.
But pinball isn't the only type of game available at the arcade.
Video and redemption games are sited on the left and right sides of the room with a ticket redemption counter at the back.
Playing all these games can be tiring, so Mikki runs a cafe which sells snacks and hot or cold beverages. The prices seemed pretty reasonable too.
If you need take the weight off your feet, there are regular tables and chairs, but also an assortment of cocktail videos and pinballs if you want to keep playing.
Pinballz Arcade merchandise can also be purchased at Mikki's Replay Cafe.
And if all these games aren't enough for you...
Yes indeed, head up the stairs and there's another room packed with 40 more pinballs as well as a large collection of video, skill and redemption games.
Included in this upstairs collection are the two games which got Darren into pinball in the first place. Like all the games in the arcade these have price tags on and can be purchased, although the $1,495 asking price on these two games probably indicates Darren's reluctance to be parted from them.
Indeed the selling and repairing of pins is a side of the business which has seen significant growth since they opened. After amassing this collection, Darren's obviously acquired quite some experience puchasing games from across the country, from Canada and also from Europe, so he's not shy about selling games in the arcade at reasonable prices.
The pinballs fill the left side of the upper room while the right side is mainly redemption and skill games, with some video games added to the mix too.
Keeping all these games up and running is no small task, so the arcade employs four part-time techs and one full time manager - Albert Yarusso - who also looks after the private party requests.
Private parties provide a significant and growing part of the arcade's business with an average of 4-5 parties per weekend. There are currently two separate party room and another two were about to be built during our visit.
In case you are wondering where all the players are, we visited the Pinballz Arcade on one of the two days of the week when the arcade is closed to the public so the games can be cleaned and repaired.
The arcade is open Wednesday - Sunday during the winter months. Hours are from 3pm to 10pm on Wednesday and Thursday, from 3pm until midnight on Friday, from midday until midnight on Saturday and from midday until 8pm on Sunday. During the summer and school holidays the arcade opens 7 days a week and stays open an hour longer on Friday and Saturday nights. Check their website to be sure.
In addition, during the winter months the arcade will open for private parties on Monday or Tuesday if needed. Indeed, the day after our visit they were hosting a party for two hundred people and had previously opened when a film crew wanted to shoot parts of their movie in the arcade.
Of course, none of this comes cheap. Darren said he had spent half-a-million dollars on the arcade so far and with one full-time and four part-time employees, that's only going to increase.
But the arcade looks bright, clean and inviting and is packed with games of all types to keep everyone amused for hours, if not days.
Amazingly enough, the number of pinballs in the arcade has risen further since we visited and now stands at 105. And they're not going to run out of games any time soon. Darren told us he had another 100 pinballs in a nearby warehouse awaiting their turn in the arcade.
For more details on opening day/hours, membership, upcoming events and contact details, visit the Pinballz Arcade website.
© Pinball News 2011