Things That Go Putt In The Dark

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Monster Mini Golf is glow-in-the-dark family fun

If you're looking for a family-friendly alternative to corn mazes and haunted houses this Halloween season, check out Monster Mini Golf in Danielson, Conn. It's a glow-in-the-dark miniature golf course and arcade housed inside an old factory, offering something for everyone in the family -- regardless of the weather outside. That's what Christina and Patrick Vitagliano were hoping for when they created Monster Mini Golf last year. Christina, a Providence native, had run an antiques auction house in Danielson for several years, but decided to sell it because it was no longer fun. So she decided to come up with another idea for the 10,000 square feet of factory space she'd been renting in an old textile mill building off Route 6, five miles from the Rhode Island border. She wanted to create something fun and family-friendly, since there wasn't much for families to do around Danielson. But she wanted none of the stress or long hours associated with the auction house. "I wanted to own the exact opposite of that business and thought, 'What is the easiest thing you could possibly think of?' " she said. "That's where miniature golf came in. All you do is hand somebody a putter and a ball." She researched the idea on the Internet and found that miniature golf was considered one of the 10 most profitable businesses to own. But building an outside miniature golf course with fancy technology to attract and impress players could cost millions, and an outdoor course would only be open seasonally. So she decided to build a smaller indoor course instead. She knew she'd have to "make it cool so kids and families would want to come." So she thought of using black lights and fluorescent paints, to make everything glow in the dark. Her husband, who owned a sound production company, could provide music, fog machines and lasers. "We came up with the monster theme because I knew I could make the monsters," Christina said. "I've never been an artist, but I knew I could make them." Besides, she said, the factory building that had housed her antiques would provide the perfect backdrop. "It looks like monsters should live in it." Not so scary Her husband was a little skeptical about the whole idea at first - - they're not mini-golf fans and they don't have kids -- but he agreed to give it a try. They spent five months building the course by hand, painting pumpkins and monsters on the walls and building or buying others to do the course. They've got an eclectic mix that includes a haunted tree, a two-headed creature, a pink elephant with purple polka dots and a shark from the movie Shark Tales. "We had to come up with a fine line, to make them scary but not so scary that little kids won't want to come here," Christina explained. (The fluorescent oranges, yellows and pinks distract even the most timid of visitors -- including my 6-year-old daughter, who was afraid of virtually every ride at Disney World this past spring - - while the detail of some of bats and skulls hanging from the ceiling catches the eye of the pre-teen set.) "We have all kinds of decorations - lots of funky-looking pumpkins and jack-o'-lanterns. But there's never any bloody gore and nobody jumps out at you, even though we'd love to do that," she added. (That said, beware of Tony, the Vitagliano's 200-pound mastiff, who hangs out behind the cash register.) To add to the fun, they use a black rug and glow-in-the-dark putters and balls. The 18-hole course isn't particularly long or challenging, but certainly provides a few tricks and turns during the 20 or 30 minutes it takes to play. The simple obstacles range from a fan that blows balls away from the hole to a wrought-iron gate to go through or around. Older kids may roll their eyes. In fact, my 13-year-old declined to come, convinced the very idea of an indoor mini-golf course was "stupid." He was disappointed to later learn that the Vitaglianos had the teen set covered: They've got about 35 arcade games ranging from skee ball to Dance Dance Revolution, as well as an air hockey table, pool table and four computers for online gaming to keep the older set occupied. (Games cost 25 cents to $1 apiece; online gaming is $6 an hour.) Meanwhile, there's also a disc jockey booth as part of the course and that's where Patrick, a.k.a. Dr. Shock, runs Radio Station WIRD (short for weird). He plays music for the grownups, mostly from the '70s and '80s, while also engaging golf players in contests -- such as betting golfers $1 as to whether they will make or miss a shot. Finally there's a party room -- a large room set up like the den of a haunted house, complete with tables and chairs that provide a quiet break for parents and grandparents -- or a comfortable place for a company party. To make it affordable for families, the price is based on height - - as determined by three hand-painted monsters standing beside the front desk. Basically, those 12 or older pay $6; the average 8-to- 11-year-old pays $5; children 5, 6 and 7 pay $4; and kids 4 and under are free. The Vitaglianos opened Monster Mini Golf in May 2004, hoping for little more than to "pay the rent," Christina said. But it's been surprisingly popular -- and profitable -- from day one. They worried that business would drop after last Halloween, "but (customers) kept coming, so that was a good thing." In fact, she said, it's been so successful that she and her husband are now offering franchises and hope to have a Monster Mini Golf operating in the Providence area soon. Though Monster Mini Golf is a year-round destination, they're offering a Halloween special this year: Anyone who comes in costume this month will be given a key and invited to return back on Oct. 30 to see if the key opens one of five prize "coffins" containing prizes that include New England Patriots and U2 tickets or a Sony PSP game system. Meanwhile, the Vitaglianos are thrilled with the success of their venture -- and they're glad it's been a hit with families. "There's nothing cooler or makes you feel better, Christina said, "than when a child comes in and says, 'I want to live here.' " Monster Mini Golf, 24 Maple St., Danielson, Conn., is open Wednesday and Thursday, 2 to 9 p.m.; Friday 2 to 11 p.m.; Saturday noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 8 p.m.; and Monday holidays, noon to 8 p.m. Parties by appointment. For more information, call (860) 779-3996 or go to www.monsterminigolf.com.

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