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New Port Richey McDonald's opens PlayPlace for national test

NEW PORT RICHEY

At the McDonald's on Rancho Del Rio Drive, cheeseburgers, fries and coffee are just part of the appeal.

What customers really gobble up is the new indoor PlayPlace with interactive toys, computer games and a playhouse.

The PlayPlace is the first of four "evolution" play areas the world's largest hamburger chain is testing in Florida. If successful, McDonald's may expand the concept nationwide.

The playgrounds were designed to become destinations for families with younger children in the chain's never-ending quest to grab market share from Chick-fil-A, Subway and even Starbucks. Instead of running in and out, people can eat a meal and tap into Wi-Fi while their kids play a few feet away. Other pilot play areas are planned for McDonald's restaurants in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville.

For customers like Tammy Smith, the PlayPlace at 8937 Rancho Del Rio Drive is a fun, low-cost way to spend a few hours. During spring break, she and her grandchildren, ages 8 and 9, came in for lunch and playtime.

"It's great to bring the kids here and not have to worry about the rain," she said as the kids ate their Happy Meals and played on the computers. "We've come here almost every day."

So have a lot of other families. Since the PlayPlace opened in March as part of a store makeover, sales have been up "substantially," said owner Bob Brickman, who owns eight McDonald's restaurants in Pasco and Hills- borough counties. Sometimes it's tough to find a parking spot.

"We're selling a lot of Happy Meals," Brickman said during a recent lunch rush. He declined to give specifics, but past McDonald's restaurants have seen up to double-digit sales boosts after major remodeling projects.

The 1,500-square-foot PlayPlace has a four-level playhouse, climbing features that make musical sounds and a few booths for dining. At the request of parents, it also has a separate restroom so kids don't have to walk to the opposite end of the restaurant.

The main dining room has four computers with games for older kids, a "sparkle" table that lights up and upholstery in some of the booths that changes colors when touched. New furniture, lighting and a digital menu board round out the improvements.

The changes weren't without risk. Aside from the initial cost, which Brickman wouldn't disclose, he said he had to add 15 to 20 employees to the staff of 65 to cover the play area and lobby. He also wondered if it would take away business from his other nearby McDonald's restaurants, although so far that hasn't happen.

In the end, Brickman figured it was an investment that will pay off over time.

"Outdoor play places are becoming obsolete," he said. "The beauty of this is it's year-round and air-conditioned. People can play here rain or shine."

McDonald's opened its first play area in 1971 in Chula Vista, Calif. Along with combo meals, toys and the Ronald McDonald mascot, the playgrounds appealed to parents wanting fast, affordable meals their kids would also enjoy. PlayPlaces also opened the door to birthday parties.

"They helped capture the young stay-at-home moms," said Randy White, chief executive officer of White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, which designs children's learning and play environments. "You had to have one if you wanted to attract parents with children."

Today, McDonald's has about 5,500 indoor and outdoor play areas nationwide. Author Eric Schlosser, in his book Fast Food Nation, says the chain is the largest private operator of playgrounds in the United States.

Play areas can mean big business for fast-food restaurants, says Scott Hume, editor of BurgerBusiness.com. Not only do they draw families in the immediate area, but if done well, they can become area attractions for families looking for something to do.

"If you can convince parents that this is something good for kids, parents love that," he said.

But the financial return is not instant.

"The business you're attracting is kids' meal business," he said. "It's not the Angus burgers. There's not a huge margin on apple slices and milk."

Play areas haven't been without controversy. In 2011, an Arizona mom launched a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about play area safety after discovering dangerous germs and bacteria on the surfaces of play areas at McDonald's, Burger King, Chuck E. Cheese and other kid-friendly restaurants. Some chains responded by boosting cleaning regimens.

The emphasis on play areas coincides with McDonald's recent efforts to fight childhood obesity. Often blamed for peddling food high in calories and fat, the chain drew praise from first lady Michelle Obama for adding apples and reducing the calories in its Happy Meals. A few weeks ago, the chain introduced the Premium McWrap with chicken, spring greens and cucumbers.

The redesigned play areas are a twist on the R Gyms the chain experimented with in 2006. The mini gyms, named after Ronald McDonald, had stationary bikes hooked to video games and electronic basketball hoops that cheer on good shots for kids ages 4 to 12.

McDonald's planned to roll out a significant number nationwide, but only a handful were built in California, Oklahoma and other states. Critics said they were an attempt to dodge obesity lawsuits and legislation and didn't really offset the consumption of fast food. They also required a large amount of space that otherwise could be used for dining.

Instead, the chain has focused on remodeling its 14,000 stores nationwide — its biggest comprehensive makeover since it was founded in 1955. Out are the red roofs, white facades and huge golden arches. In are muted colors, plug-in stations for phones and laptops and yellow swooshes along the roof lines. To speed up service, many added a second drive-through lane.

Of the 53 McDonald's restaurants owned by the Casper Co., the area's largest owner, 34 have been remodeled or are under construction.

Smith, the grandmother, had only one complaint about new New Port Richey location:

"Now they just need more parking."

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

New Port Richey McDonald's opens PlayPlace for national test 04/13/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 12, 2013 6:37pm]

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