ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Pinball is riding a new wave of popularity all the way to Rockford.
On Feb. 1, Pinball Land opened on Courtland Street just east of N. Main Street, filling a void Ryan Thompson saw in the city.
“In my opinion, Rockford is a lot like a theme park. However, it’s a theme park with not much to do — you know, there’s plenty to eat, plenty to drink, lots of hot dogs, lots of ice cream but there’s not really any activity aside from the bowling alley. So I really wanted to provide something to do when you come to Rockford,” he said.
Inside the business at 114 Courtland St., you can find Thompson’s pristine collection of pinball machines and classic video games.
Thompson says his passion for pinball started around age 9 with a Gottlieb Abra Ca Dabra machine in his parent’s basement.
“I played that every chance I could get,” he said.
However when he went away to college, Thompson says the pinball machine stayed.
“When I came back, it was turned into a mouse nest and it was heartbreaking,” he said.
Thompson went to work learning how to fix it:
“I restored the machine. I took it down to the wood and cleaned it all up and got it working again and now it’s beautiful and it sits in my basement. And that’s what started the fever.”
Thompson’s pinball collection has now grown to about 25 machines, gathered over the years by scouring Craigslist and online message boards and traveling to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“I’ve got a problem,” he said with a laugh.
Back at home, he did run into a problem:
“I had a beautiful collection at home, great, top-shelf machines, but nobody was playing them in my house,” Thompson said. “It’s been so rewarding, putting it out there, putting the pinball machines in their natural habitat, an arcade, and actually having people enjoy them as they should be.”
It’s also bittersweet.
“The best is when a father and a son come in and they’re both grinning ear to ear when they walk in the door because dad knows what’s up and he knows that his kid is going to like it just as much as he does and watching them talk trash to each other, slug each other in the arm, laughing and carrying on, is the greatest thing ever. I lost my dad a year and a week ago and it’s all I ever wanted to do with him,” Thompson said. “It’s really nice to be able to provide the father-son interaction I always wanted to other families.”
INSIDE PINBALL LAND
While pinball arcades have popped up in places including Grand Rapids, Gobles, Fremont and Holland, Thompson said Pinball Land’s free play model sets it apart from many of them. Visitors pay $12 per adult or $9 for children ages 12 and younger for a wristband allowing them to play all the games the entire day, even if they leave and come back.
“It gives you an opportunity to play machines over and over and over again, figure them out, get good at them. Or if you’re a new player, get comfortable with just the idea of playing pinball without worrying about running out of money,” Thompson explained. “When pinball is $1 a play and you really don’t know what you’re doing, it’s very easy to get discouraged and never want to play it again. But if you’re in an environment where it’s a friendly place and you don’t have to worry about putting more money in the machine, just keep on playing until you figure it out. And I’m sure you’re going to walk out being a much better player.”
Pinball Land is filled with 20 machines — half pinball machines and half video games “so there’s something for everyone,” according to Thompson.
>>App users: Tap here for photos of the games at Pinball Land.
He said he will switch out machines every couple of months to “make sure the lineup is fresh.”
He’s also eyeing his next pinball purchase.
“I really want to get a Deadpool,” he said. “That game is so much fun. And I want to get the new Black Knight (III Sword of Rage) as well… it just came out last year. It’s totally awesome, I want one,” he said.
Thompson intends to open the backroom of Pinball Land to add five or six more games and a spot where parents “can sit down, read a book and let their kids have some fun.”
He also plans to roll out a youth pinball league this summer.
PINBALL’S COAST-TO-COAST COMEBACK
What you won’t find inside Pinball Land: free Wi-Fi.
“Because I don’t want you to be on your phone, I don’t want you to be playing Fortnite. I want you playing real games with your real friends. That’s what it’s all about,” Thompson said. “I see so many kids locked into their phones all day, it kind of drives me nuts because there’s so much world around them that they’re missing out on because they’ve got their nose buried into that piece of glass. I really wanted to put Pinball Land out there and put pinball machines in front of kids to show them what a real game is all about.”
Pinball appears to be catching on with that younger generation.
“Coast to coast, pinball is blowing up. There’s websites about it, forums about it, leagues,” said Thompson, mentioning at least two leagues in Kent County.
Netflix’s “Stranger Things” included a pinball arcade. Now the nostalgic series set in the 1980s that has itself become a Stern Pinball game.
In 2015, the manufacturing giant Stern Pinball announced it was moving its headquarters near Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport to a facility nearly double in size to keep up with “continued worldwide growth of the pinball industry” fueled by collectors, leagues and a new generation of players “discovering the allure of the silver ball.”
“The young people are really getting into it because they’re realizing that pinball is an experience that they can’t get on their phones,” explained Thompson. “You know, a guy like me sees a smartphone and is totally blown away by it. It’s magical to me. But a kid who’s grown up with smartphones sees a pinball machine and that’s magic to them. And it’s attracting a whole new generation of people that just didn’t know it was that cool.”
Thompson says while video games and apps can help prepare players, they can’t capture the feeling pinball provides.
“Playing a real pinball machine is a physical, visceral experience. You can feel everything that happens inside the cabinet. You can manipulate it by shaking the cabinet around, give it a little nudge, give it a little love tap, make the game do what you need it to do so you can win. And when you play with other people, it’s so competitive and it’s so much fun. And that’s the best environment… nothing compares to that,” he said.
Thompson says pinball tournaments are “all the rage now” and there are even shows where collectors share their machines with the public to play and buy.
Pinball at the ‘Zoo will return to Kalamazoo for its 21st year in April.
“Is a great pinball show,” said Thompson. “It’s just nonstop fun all weekend long.”
Its longevity isn’t surprising considering the game’s roots.
“They’re almost all made in Chicago, which is really cool. The Midwest is big into pinball. It suits our weather,” Thompson said.
Those looking to escape West Michigan’s winter can visit Pinball Land weekdays from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. or Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.
Thompson also plans to rent out the arcade for birthdays and other events. The cost is $50 an hour for up to two hours and $10 per guest, with a 10-guest minimum. The birthday person plays for free.
While Pinball Land is a part-time career for Thompson, he said he’s ready to take it on full-time when the time comes.
“It’s the best. Being able to do what you love for a living is the best thing anyone can do,” he said. “I just get a big kick out of making something fun for people to do.”