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Hard Knocks: Orlando's lifelike laser-tag battlefield is loaded with action

We may be waging war with the dog days of August, but if you're in the Orlando area, you can head indoors to fight the sticky weather — and feel the heat of battle.

Hard Knocks, a laser tag-style combat simulation arena in Oviedo, offers 30,000 square feet of air-conditioned mayhem. In the middle of a 94 degree day, the coolest thing to do is run for your life as dozens of people try to shoot you.

Hold on a second; there's no running. That's technically against the rules. But you'll want to hustle, in any case.

Owners Joe and Dena Wheeler, who opened Hard Knocks five years ago in a tucked-away industrial park near the University of Central Florida, do have a runaway success with their business, which they refer to as "combat entertainment." It's easy to see why, because this ain't another dull game of laser tag we're talking about here.

"We really wanted to change up the feel," Joe Wheeler said. "No strobe lights, no smoke machines. … We wanted to give you the impression you were really in combat."

The Wheelers' model is so lucrative, they're even exploring franchising. It's pretty slick, considering he's a former entertainment consultant who once worked for Disney and she used to be a middle- and high-school teacher.

Weapons are large and made of metal, lending a feel similar to their real-life counterparts. When you pick up gear out of a locker in the pre-game dress-in area, you get a MOLLE-style tactical vest, complete with an infrared-equipped firearm that apes an M16 or P90 rifle or MAC-10 submachine gun (among the myriad choices). The guns broadcast gunfire sound effects and record hits, and require push-button reloads when necessary. The three separate arenas are mock-ups of an office, a warehouse and a single-family house, and are so detailed that SWAT teams from departments across Florida rent the space after hours to use for training.

But the missions are what make the game a winner.

Take the one called Assassination: One team is given a designated VIP, whom they must escort to a rally point, and then defend to the death. The other team's objective is simple — kill the VIP. Or maybe Triage is more your speed, since it assigns each team a medic who can "heal" you if you're killed during the mission. Then again, Sabotage features two teams trying to eliminate each other, with a mole on each team working for the other side. There's bound to be one or two you like, with more than 40 missions available — although you'll have to play the scenarios to find out all of them, because the Wheelers consider them trade secrets. That's adult stuff for what's normally considered a kid's game.

"The edginess of the scenarios really resonates with people," Joe Wheeler said. "It does feel like something you maybe shouldn't be doing, but they love the edginess of it."

What kind of people? Not just children or students from nearby UCF, but plenty of adults, too. In fact, much of Hard Knocks' business comes from businesses who book the arena for corporate team-building exercises. The Wheelers say out-of-town customers, including from Tampa Bay, are frequent and are rewarded by having the one-time membership fee waived. And yes, in the summer, there's plenty of interest from day camps and folks looking to keep kids busy gunning down friends and strangers alike.

"Believe it or not, some of our best clients are churches and youth groups," Dena Wheeler said, noting there's been no backlash by anti-gun groups. She says clients like the friendly environment and physical play, and often try to squeeze in as many kids as they can. "Eight is the youngest we'll go. Parents every day are asking us to lower that age."

If you're looking for a more mature time outside the day camps and birthday parties Hard Knocks hosts, you can have a bachelor or bachelorette party, which features a specific mission called Wedlock that's just for the wedding group (birthdays have their own called Birthright). Alcohol and food can be catered in by vendors, whether it's for a celebration or a corporate retreat. During down time, there's a gaming lounge full of Xbox 360s, Playstation 3s and Wiis, and a new, proprietary shooting simulator featuring real but non-functioning M4 rifles and M9 pistols rigged to recoil while shooting at a screen.

With as many as 150 or so people rampaging through the grounds at any given time, chaos is sure to reign. That's where the Regulators come in. Fitting a mold the Wheelers designed — all female, all athletic, all with outsized personalities — the Regulators bring more TNT than T&A to the party. Each woman creates her own mystique, complete with a code name that keeps her anonymity, but reflects her identity (Mercy, for example, is a nursing student in real life).

"We're creating an empowered female character. Don't get me wrong, the male customers love it," he says about the skin-baring costumes and friendly but take-charge attitudes all the Regulators have, "but it helps the females feel like, 'I can do that.' "That's because 30 percent of Hard Knocks' customers are females, like 14-year-old Megan Bongardt, who was in town from Clifton, Va., visiting family in Altamonte Springs. She said the Regulators put her at ease and made her feel she was an equal in the arena.

"I don't think boys have an advantage," she said, noting one of her favorites was when the Regulators split the girls onto one team and the boys on the other. "We really got them that round," she smiled.

Megan's brother, 18-year-old Andrew Bongardt, also thought the simulation was a blast, so to speak. He's attending Winter Park's Full Sail University in the fall, and wants to come back to Hard Knocks when he returns. "You get to run around, get some exercise. I'll try it again once in awhile, when I can afford it."

At about $35 for an hour of arena time (you're only on the clock when you're alive, not during an entire mission), return customers are legion. Matthew Vinson, a 24-year-old UCF student from Niceville, has been to Hard Knocks about a dozen times. He says paintball is tougher because objects are actually flying at you, but this is much better than standard laser tag. "You're tired after this," he says, crediting the constant movement. "It's more intense."

His 22-year-old pal, Scotty Hickson, a fellow UCF student from Jacksonville, said the tone is what keeps bringing him back.

"It's kind of dark entertainment," Hickson says. "It feels more mature. You can come alone, you can bring a group. It's fun."

And thankfully, it's always indoors.

Hard Knocks

Take up arms at 5707 Dot Com Court, Suite 1025, Oviedo. The arenas are open from 1 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday and 1 to 10 p.m. Sunday. Prices range from $22 for a half-hour up to $75 for three hours, with gaming lounge and simulator time costing less. Group rates and discounts are available. Hard Knocks hosts several special events, such as a Free Combat Day in which people can try out the arenas for free, and Friday's Z-Day,

in which missions feature hired and volunteer actors who are dressed as zombies and engage players during combat. Check online for tickets, which were being offered for $34 on the day of registration. (407) 359-9091 or indoorwar.com.

Hard Knocks: Orlando's lifelike laser-tag battlefield is loaded with action 08/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 9:19pm]

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