Making a Big Scene
Largest Indoor Entertainment Center in the U.S. Coming Early 2019
by Matt Harding
It doesn’t have its own zip code, but by commanding more than 220,000 square feet, maybe it should.
After all, the new, two-story Scene75 Entertainment Center location in Columbus, Ohio, will be gargantuan in every sense of the word. And that’s just how the company likes it.
Once completed in early 2019 — at an anticipated cost of $12 million — it will be the largest indoor entertainment center in the country, a feat that Scene75 takes great pride in accomplishing.
“We’re developing our brand of being the biggest centers in the United States,” said Alex Zorniger, the company’s vice president of operations. “It’s pretty exciting to be building this flagship store in Columbus.”
That excitement translates into everything being bigger and better at the massive FEC, which is going into a former Macy’s department store at the Mall at Tuttle Crossing.
There will be a whopping 250 or so arcade games, a custom blacklight laser tag arena, blacklight mini-golf, virtual reality, go-karts, bumper cars, an escape room, a 4D motion theater, bouncing inflatables and a laser maze. You name it, it’ll probably be there.
While you might expect such grand plans from long-timers in the biz, Scene75 is a young company, celebrating its sixth year in July. It’s made waves in the industry from the beginning.
The Sandler family, owners of the facilities, had always been entrepreneurs, Zorniger said. In 2007, they owned a massive furniture warehouse in Dayton, Ohio, where the tenant had gone out of business. It was a 160,000-square-foot building that sat empty for months, and then years, without anyone to occupy it.
In 2009, Les Sandler and his son, Jonah (now the CEO, “chief entertainment officer,” of Scene75), decided to repurpose it themselves.
Though Jonah was in the world of investment banking and management consulting, he also had entertainment experience as the designer of Putters Par-adise, a mini-golf course in Dayton, and the Chaos Room, the first interactive gaming theater in the country.
Jonah moved back to his hometown from Chicago to help his dad work on what they’d dreamed up for the space. They achieved their lofty goal in 2012 when the first Scene75 Entertainment Center opened up in that former Dayton furniture warehouse.
“At the time, it was the largest indoor entertainment center in the country,” Zorniger said.
Since then, they’ve opened up more sizable facilities in Cincinnati (2015) and Cleveland (2017). A September opening is planned for their new Pittsburgh location, the company’s only facility outside of Ohio.
Finding spaces that will work can be tricky, especially since the Scene75 crew is always trying to outdo itself.
“Because they’re so big, we do have to find a location that’s generally outside of a downtown area,” Zorniger said. “Dayton’s population of 1.3 million in the greater area is the smallest we’d want to go.”
A typical renovation costs them between $5 million and $10 million. They’ve never built from the ground up, instead using the former furniture warehouse in Dayton, Macy’s in Columbus, a Buehler’s grocery store in Cleveland and a pair of Kmart stores in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
“We think that benefits us,” he said. “It provides a quicker ROI.”
With such large entertainment centers, it’s only fitting that Scene75 has something for everybody.
“Typically, go-karts, laser tag arenas and arcades have been the anchor for our venues,” Zorniger said. While families are their first community and customer demographic, the company puts another focus on young adults, drawing them in with good food and beverage options in addition to the numerous attractions. At Scene75, those attractions are like the buildings themselves — bigger than most.
Columbus may be getting an impressive 250 arcade games, but a typical facility has “only” between 125 and 150. Around 70-75 percent of them are redemption units.
“The arcade is our largest attraction — it’s the bread and butter, and foundation of our operation,” Zorniger said. “People just migrate to the redemption games.
“The new Taj Mahal crane (from Smart Industries) has been absolutely crushing it for us at our Cleveland location — people absolutely love it.”
The company owns its own games and goes with a redemption counter concept with “a ton of high-level prizes” — autographed jerseys, electronics, headphones and perfume sets to name a few.
They scatter arcade games throughout their facilities, mostly surrounding the bar space in the center. “The center bar is a really cool concept,” Zorniger said. “It creates a focal point where parents can see the entire facility from.”
Go-karts are Scene75’s best fun-for-the-whole-family attraction, getting a constant flow of drivers. They use the Club Speed system and karts by Amusement Products.
To create a family atmosphere, the all-electric go-karts are set to a max speed of 21 MPH.
“The system runs like a finely tuned kitchen,” Zorniger said. “Everything moving in sync. It’s all about throughput.”
The same goes for their popular Spin Zone bumper cars, which feature an innertube design that sends riders into a three-second spin if an opponent bumps their target.
Their laser tag arenas also attract a wide range of people — from children and teenagers to corporate events. They use the Laserforce system in arenas designed by Art Attack, the company that also designs their mini-golf courses.
“They do a nice job mixing up the theme,” Zorniger said. “And no matter what age people are, they absolutely love it. It’s great to see people falling in love with that attraction.”
Something new turning customer heads is Scene75’s virtual reality setup. In fall 2016 at their Dayton location, they introduced a selection of games using 10 HTC Vive headsets (Zorniger noted that the headsets are relatively inexpensive at about $500). They added the same in Cleveland the following year.
“We’re going to have to evolve from that already,” Zorniger said. “We’re going to move forward and try to get something players can’t get in their homes.” The company is considering its options, weighing out creating an experience the user can’t get at home while still getting a solid ROI.
An inflatable bouncing area for kids 12 and under, a 4-D motion theater that simulates a roller coaster experience, and a Vault laser maze that takes players through a maze of laser beams (think Mission Impossible movie) round out the attractions at Scene75 Entertainment Centers (though the Cincinnati location got a full-length bowling alley in 2017).
At the ambitious Columbus facility, they’ll be introducing their first escape room.
“Everything will be bigger there,” Zorniger said. “We’re discussing adding batting cages as well. We’re going to have so much event space — it’s going to be great for corporate team-building experiences.”
Each Scene 75 location is unique, perhaps even more than most chains due to their huge sizes, but they all follow the family fun theme.
Dayton and Cincinnati have a bar and grill for food and drinks, which is also the plan for the Columbus location. Cleveland, on the other hand, has a “food truck alley,” — a group of renovated former UPS delivery trucks with kitchens built behind them. That concept will also be recreated in Pittsburgh.
“It’s designed to feel like this alley of a downtown area and you have four food trucks to choose from,” Zorniger said.
Retail stores are continuing to leave the spaces now occupied by Scene75 and other FECs around the country, a trend that Zorniger sees lasting into at least the near future.
The big entertainment centers taking their place, like Scene75, usually have around 150 employees (Scene75 will have roughly 200 at their Columbus location). They are the new anchors for malls and shopping centers.
“It’s interesting because (location options) are expanding and rents are becoming more attractive,” he said. “I think this is a really strong age for (entertainment center) brands to expand right now,” Zorniger added, noting that eventually, the tide will turn.
“The key is developing a really strong brand,” he said. “We are expanding, but not beyond our comfort level.”
For now, the plan is to aim for bigger and better than everyone else.