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A 'cool' new place to play

At the Cool-de-Sac Play Café, you can find a Lego station with millions of Legos color-sorted and stashed in bins; an arts and crafts center where kids can paint paper plates or ceramic pigs; a bank of gleaming white Apple iMacs on knee-high tables; and naturally, pizza.

This is obviously the result of careful planning, but just how careful might surprise you.

In addition to repeated trips to trade shows, owner Jose Luis Bueno hired a firm staffed by anthropologists and sociologists to examine the

IF YOU GO

Cool-de-Sac is in the Shops at Sunset Place, 5701 Sunset Dr., in South Miami. Admission is $13.95 for kids 3-12; $3.95 for kids under 3. Includes dining room and seven play areas, plus three party rooms. Party packages for 15 children and accompanying adults start at $895.

''DNA'' of his concept. He had market researchers observe parents behind two-way mirrors and sent his menu to a nutritionist in Seattle to create, among other things, a healthy purée of sweet potatoes and carrots to hide in sauces. He hired Leotta Designers, a Miami-based design firm known for its efficient and sophisticated corporate headquarters and not theme park decoration. And he did a demographic study.

Then he let his own twin boys and daughter run wild in the place. "A lot of people ask me, `How did you come up with this?' and I say, 'Really, it's about being a dad,' '' he said.

Bueno ventured into the growing arena of family entertainment centers after moving to Miami from Caracas and finding little to do with his young family.

For 14 years, he had worked in marketing in the corporate world -- he introduced Huggies and Head & Shoulders to Latin America -- and before the move oversaw marketing for GE in South America. But he decided to make a change, enrolled in the University of Miami to get an MBA and started a venture capital firm. He, his wife and their infant daughter were building a pretty good life.

Then in 2001, the axis of his world tilted dramatically. His wife gave birth to twin boys, a joyous but thoroughly life-altering development.

''I remember my wife being completely desperate to find something [to do] and finding nothing,'' he said. Friends and family in Mexico couldn't understand how anyone living in Miami would lack for fun. But he assured them you can only take a toddler and two infants to the beach so much.

Still a marketer at heart, he decided to do a little research.

He told his wife, 'I want to follow you for one full week and see how a struggling housewife finds things to do. I said, `C'mon, you have plenty of friends.' What I found is they came to the Shops at Sunset Place [in South Miami] to Barnes & Noble, where they took me, and I made a surprising discovery. There were seven or eight moms sitting on the carpet having coffee while their kids were playing at the Thomas the Train table. I said, 'There has to be a business opportunity here.' ''

He did more research and discovered an emerging trend in family entertainment, the edutainment center, where fun is instructional and food nutritional, a kind of merging of the edifying but slightly tired natural history museum and the fun but completely unedifying video arcade.

''What we're seeing is a blending of experiences,'' said David W. Mandt, spokesman for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. ``We're seeing . . . zoos adding rollercoasters and parks adding educational experiences. We're seeing museums making exhibits much more interactive.''

OLD IDEA, NEW TWIST

Entertainment centers have been around for decades, but in a more singular version: the miniature golf course or the go-cart track. They started in California in the 1950s when the Huish family opened its fun centers and underwent dramatic expansion in the 1970s and 1980s, diversifying by adding video games and food courts, Mandt said. Now, they're headed toward making fun good for you, like the California-based My Gym Children's Fitness Center, which started franchising in 1995 and has spread around the globe, including an opening last year in Bahrain.

Altogether, the United States has about 1,500 entertainment centers growing at a rate of 20 to 25 each year, Mandt said.

PARTIES A MUST

Originally, Bueno wanted Cool-de-Sac to be a kind of mommy-and-me place where moms could gather for coffee while their kids played with something instructional nearby. But a Boston consultant he hired warned that if he didn't make accommodations for birthday parties, he'd lose 50 percent of his market.

So he added party rooms, eventually settling on three rooms outfitted with sophisticated sound and lighting. He also installed a LightSpace Park, a giant light board that looks a little like a dance floor but one that can be programmed for different games.

The layout he settled on mimics a pinwheel, with the dining room in the center, enclosed by a giant circular banquet and play areas around the edges. Staff is assigned to each station where activities are geared for kids between 3 and 12. A fenced toddler area sits in one corner. In addition to the Legos, crafts and computers, there is a salon and dress-up area, an obligatory ball pit for toddlers and a towering, caged maze with a slide, swing and other features.

When Bueno finally opened in late April, he found himself not far from the origin of his idea. Cool-de-Sac is one floor above the Barnes & Noble where his wife used to sit on the floor with friends.

On a recent Friday, a birthday party of screaming girls rushed past the gift shop and through the gate where staff monitors who's coming and going. Their squeals echoed from the party room where they sat in kid-size Panton chairs parked under long tables, lights dancing overhead. Bueno explained that earlier, as the mom who booked the party was leaving, her friend showed up and decided she, too, would book a birthday party. In typical Miami style, she asked to have everything her friend had, and then more. Her bill eventually exceeded $2,500.

Esther Sampedro brought her son and daughter, 2 and 4, to escape what any parent of a toddler knows as the witching hour -- between early afternoon and dinner when kids get a little crazy and parents start to fade from a day that can start at 5 a.m.

So far, she likes what she sees.

''Right now, it's wonderful,'' she said. ``But I really want to know what it's like when it's crowded. How long is it going to stay clean? How long before the floor gets really sticky?''

Bueno says he's still working out some kinks. He wants to offer discount rates to frequent visitors. He's also thinking of expanding the menu -- exotic by family entertainment center standards with seared tuna and churrasco -- to include breakfast. And if his numbers add up by the end of the year, he'll expand, with stores in the Aventura and Dolphin malls. And like any ambitious businessman, he eventually hopes to franchise.


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