Saturday, June 20, 2015

Family Adventure: Billy Beez at Oakridge Mall (San Jose)


Note (January 2016): Several readers have requested that I re-visit Billy Beez and consider updating my review, as it has apparently changed a bit since my last visit in September. I'd be happy to do so, and plan to visit in the next few weeks. Thanks for the tips!

After several months of anticipation, Billy Beez indoor play space opened at Oakridge Mall in San Jose on Tuesday, and (big surprise!) Toddler X and I made it at point to be there at the very minute the fun started (actually a bit beforehand, as they were kind enough to allow me to come in and shoot pictures before the crowds arrived). We returned on Friday for even more fun, and given that we've probably now spent more time there than any other kid/mom in the South Bay, I think it's time that I publish my review.

In short, Billy Beez is not only incredible, but also incomparable. I mean that in the most literal sense of the word -- I can't think of any other play space (and lord knows I've visited plenty!) that combines the physical play and pretend play needs of young kids the way Billy Beez does.


While the play structure could be compared to the likes of Safari Run, La Petite Playhouse or The Jungle (though it's bigger and more intricate than any of those, save maybe La Petite Playhouse), and the pretend play "village" could be compared to, perhaps, Whimsy, Play!, Habitot or the Children's Discovery Museum (though it's more extensive and intricate than any of those), I can't think of any other venue that combines all those elements in an easily-accessible, indoor environment. (The closest I could conceive of would be the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, which has incredible indoor and pretend play options and a really neat outdoor physical play area -- but that's an hour and a half away in traffic, and much of it is located outdoors, making it unattractive on a rainy day.)

The biggest complaint I've heard thus far about Billy Beez -- and I've heard it from many, many people -- is the pricing structure, which I'll discuss below. It does sound like a lot, and yes, it is structured very strangely (adults must pay separately from children) -- but I have to say, it's hard to contend that the price is unreasonable once you see the place and its huge array of offerings, plus the in-and-out privileges and possibility of all-day play. While it almost certainly won't be a weekly trip for most of us, I feel comfortable saying that it is definitely worth the price as a special occasion.

Here's why I'm such a big fan:




The Honeycomb Village

I bet you thought I'd start out by reviewing the incredible indoor play structure, right? Because that's what you see from the outside of Billy Beez, and that is the comparison most people are drawing on when they consider the price (places like La Petite Playhouse and The Jungle, with structures in the same vein, cost much less). But the cooler (in my opinion), and totally unique, aspect of Billy Beez is actually the amazing pretend play section called Honeycomb Village.

With a little street running down the center, complete with toddler-sized traffic signs and a set of four Plasma Cars for riding, the Village features individual rooms representing buildings you'd find in a town. There is the Honeycomb Hospital, the Little Beez Schoolhouse, a house (complete with a sweet outdoor garden), the Worker Bee National Bank, the Rainforest Pizzeria and Bakery, and the Honeycomb Supermarket.


Each of these buildings has an adorable storefront and a completely separate room, filled to the brim with themed pretend play fun -- much of which is educational (pretend play as a whole is developmentally critical for young children, but the features in the Village go beyond that, including things like scales, globes and calculators). If you have any appreciation for "cuteness" at all, you won't be able to walk down the street without smiling.


The furnishings in the various rooms are top of the line. I saw lots of toys I am familiar with, and was impressed that they thought to include. The Plasma Cars, for example, are extremely popular vehicles for kids -- they have four of them for cruising up and down the street. The costumes they have in the various rooms (chefs, doctors and more) are by Melissa & Doug, as are all the baking sets (a ton of them!) in the Pizzeria and the puzzles and whatnot in the Schoolhouse. There are three Learning Resources calculator/cash registers in the bank and supermarket, three of those cool Boogie Board writing tablets, Magformers, and other magnetic learning toys in the Schoolhouse, shopping carts, wagons, wheelbarrows, Ikea plastic plates and utensils, and more pretend food than you could even imagine. It is all high quality and all awesome!


During our visits on Tuesday and Friday, I wasn't at all surprised to see most of the toddler-aged kids (I asked many parents their children's ages -- most were between 18 months and 4 years, and all were having a blast) congregate there. There is so much to do, to move, to touch, to try on, and all of it is on their scale.


The Village is an ideal set-up for parents as well. It is, of course, delightful if you want to go into the individual rooms and actively play with your kids, which I did a lot of. Toddler X bought groceries from me at the supermarket and wheeled the shopping cart full of his purchases to the kitchen next door, where I helped him load them in the fridge and prepare a meal. We planted a garden together (who knew that oranges and lemons grew out of the ground?). We baked cookies and created felt pizzas in the pizzeria.


But, as any mom can attest, sometimes you just want to bow out of play and SIT for a moment, and the Village allows you to do that as well. The street is lined with several cushioned benches, and each individual room has only one entrance/exit, leading onto the street. If you just keep an eye on which room your child has entered, there is no way for him or her to escape besides coming back out that door, which is right in your line of sight. Containment!! Heaven!!

Toddler X could have played in the pretend play area alone for three hours -- spaced out over the course of the day, maybe even more. He was in heaven. And this, in my opinion, is what really differentiates Billy Beez from any of the other indoor play options out there.

Here are some details from the different rooms:


Honeycomb Hospital contains doctor costumes and accessories, examination tables with doll patients, a waiting area, a scale, x-rays, an eye chart, a skeleton learning toy and more.

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Little Beez Schoolhouse has little tables with lots of educational offerings for toddlers, including magnetic toys, a puzzle, a latches board, those Boogie Boards and more.




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The play house has a full play kitchen, with a refrigerator, a pantry, a sink (complete with scrub brushes), a stove, etc., as well as a table, chairs, a doll bed, a vacuum, and Toddler X's favorite, a set of sweeping/mopping tools, which he used to "clean up" the whole town.




Outside the house is an adorable little garden area, complete with picket fence, with a growing plot and various garden tools, including a wheelbarrow.


The Worker Bee National Bank (which also includes the Post Office) has calculators for bank tellers, a painted ATM on the outside wall, a calendar and clock, and mail slots (there are little mailboxes throughout the Village for amateur mail carriers to visit).



The Rainforest Pizzeria and Bakery was by far the most popular building in the Village, jam-packed with fun play food options, almost all from Melissa & Doug. They have the play pizzas and birthday cakes, cookies and cookie sheets, rolling pins, a battery-operated mixer, and adorable baker costumes (complete with hats and oven mitts), which were very popular among the kids when we visited. There is an "oven" built into the wall, where little chefs can cook up their creations.


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And finally, there is the Honeycomb Supermarket, Toddler X's dream come true. He LOVES loading play food into shopping carts -- any time he can find a place to do so, it's his favorite activity -- and they have more play food here than anywhere else I've seen. There are also four shopping carts, as well as hand carts, and a wagon, just in case you're stocking up for a big party.


The whole thing is exceptional in both concept and execution. If you child enjoys pretend play at all, he or she will be entranced.

The Main Play Structure


Not to be outdone by the Village, the main play structure is pretty incredible as well -- far bigger than the Jungle's, it's most comparable to the one at La Petite Playhouse, though it feels a bit more spacious and spread out (not as much height, more breadth).

There are a huge number of slides, more than I could count easily (they start and end all over the place), and tons of climbing options, with fun features mid-structure (yoga balls, a climbing pyramid, etc.).



It is lots of fun for kids and parents, and a toddler over two could get to most places by him or herself (there are some places where there's a maybe two foot climb between levels, which would be almost impossible for a two year old, but the entire structure is interconnected, so you will always be able to find an easier way up). When we were there, it wasn't at all crowded, so I can't speak to the experience when it's packed with kids, but from my perspective, it was very toddler-friendly. I wouldn't send a two year old in alone, but I was more than happy to let Toddler X (3 years, 4 months) explore solo.




A couple things to note: the slides are FAST. I mean, really fast. The exit areas are well padded, but you do come shooting out the bottom, and it's tough to slow yourself down. On some slides, you can't see the end from the top, making it impossible to know if anyone is standing at the foot of the slide. I stressed to Toddler X again and again how important it is not to hang out at the foot of a slide, and until you feel confident that your toddler understands that, I wouldn't let him or her wander through the play structure alone.


Also, because the whole structure is interconnected, you can go in at one corner and end up all the way across the room. With tunnels and slides and switchbacks and all, it's almost impossible to stay on the ground and keep an eye on your toddler at every moment -- even putting him or her in bright colors won't help, because the structure itself is so colorful. If you are very concerned about being separated, I'd say you need to plan to climb alongside your little one. Otherwise, you'll just have to accept that there will be moments that you lose sight of him or her.

One tip on that point: after evaluating the structure and the facility as a whole, I decided that Toddler X was old enough to go in without me, so after climbing about with him for a few minutes, I slid out and let him continue on. Before I did so, however, I established a meeting spot. The facility is so big, and there are enough loops you could take, that if we both walked around searching for each other, we could pass without finding one another -- hello, panic. So we established that if we couldn't find each other, we would both head to the Supermarket in the Village, and wait there until the other came. We never had to resort to that, but it made me feel a bit better. :)

The Mini Beez Area


The main play structure might be too much for some toddlers, but the Mini Beez area is a great alternative for the 18 month to 3 year old set. It's closed off except for two openings, and the floor throughout is padded. It, too, has a ton of fun and unique features -- Toddler X couldn't get enough of the zip line ride, the cool bouncy water thing (no idea how to describe it!), the room full of big balls, and the punching bag type things. We just discovered on our second visit that the padded tunnel actually rolls (like a big cement mixer!), and after that discovery, it was hard to get Toddler X to do anything else!





The steering wheels hanging from the ceiling of one little room are a fantastic spinning idea!


Overall, it is much bigger and more complex than the toddler areas at any of the other indoor climbing places, and lots of fun unto itself.




The one drawback I'd note -- and one I plan to point out to the management -- is that there is no explicit sign saying that the area is reserved for kids under 4, or under a certain height. It's pretty obvious, in that it's separated off from the main area and is a good distance from the big structure (it's on the far side of the Village), and I don't know why any older kid would want to go on it with the big structure available, but I'd feel more comfortable recommending it for new walkers and the like if I knew that they would enforce a rule keeping 6 or 7 year olds out.


The Ball Room


Unique and ridiculously fun, the ball room is like nothing I've seen at any other indoor play space -- or actually, it's like things I've seen elsewhere, but taken to a whole different level. You know at the Children's Discovery Museum, in the Wonder Cabinet, where there's the wall with vacuum suction and little balls -- the kids put the balls in the tube, and they get sucked up, and bounce back down, plinko-style? Toddler X loves that. And you know at CuriOdyssey, how there's that cool feature that blows air upward with a fan, and you put styrofoam shapes in the cylinder to watch how they fly out the top? Toddler X loves that too. And you know the ballpits you see at some play places, that totally gross you out but attract children like flies?


Well this is an incredible -- and clean -- creation that incorporates all of the above. It's a big, padded/netted, two-story room with balls everywhere (spread out -- it's NOT a ball pit) and a few really cool features.

First, there are the vacuum tubes, similar to the ones at the CDM -- Toddler X loves sticking a ball in and watching/feeling it whoosh upwards.



Second, on the upper level, are the air guns -- the balls you insert in the tubes on the first floor pop out on the second, and kids up there (okay, adults too -- this is FUN!) load them into little cannons and fire at targets set up all around the upper story of the room. (This element will be tough for younger toddlers to understand, and the tight fit in the climbing area leading up to the second floor may make many parents hesitant to climb up there, so younger toddlers will probably remain at ground level.)




But ground level itself is super cool because of the third feature -- a big circular dish in the center of the room, where you load tons of balls in, then put your hand in front of the yellow button to turn on a fan that shoots them upward, creating a great big ball storm.



Toddlers LOVE it. The fan runs for a short time then turns off -- you can add balls while the fan is going and they will shoot up, but the far cooler effect is waiting until it turns off, loading the dish up with a bunch of balls and shooting them all off at once. (We figured out on Friday that if you load too many, the fan can't suck up enough air to shoot them out -- if it seems like the fan is struggling, just dump a few of the balls onto the floor, and start the whole thing up again.)


One more great feature of the ball room: containment!! There are two doors to it, both visible from any seating point outside (there are convenient tables and benches). Once your kid is inside, they can't escape without you seeing them. Toddler X disappeared into the upstairs back portion of the room for several minutes (not visible from outside), and I had to keep repeating to myself, "There is no way he can hurt himself up there...", but aside from that, I felt very relaxed knowing he was trapped (er...having a blast) in the room.

A note to avoid a ton of frustration: to turn on the vacuums/fans on any of the features, place your hand in front of the yellow sensor button.

The Practical Stuff

Billy Beez Tips

Two things to bring: socks (for everyone in the family) and a lock (like, a combination lock you'd take to the gym) if you want to use the free lockers to hold your stuff. You can use the lockers or cubbies without a lock, but obviously your possessions won't be as secure, and there's no way you can keep them in sight at all times. I generally wear a backpack with Toddler X at playgrounds, but that was really cramping my style when I was trying to crawl through the play structure at Billy Beez, so in the future, I'll definitely be bringing a lock. (Update: I brought a lock for our second visit, it worked like a charm, and I got to experience all of Billy Beez carrying nothing but my phone.)


Age Recommendations

It's difficult to make recommendations on the appropriate age range for a place like this because children are so different in both their physical skills and their adventurousness, and parents are so different in their degree of risk-tolerance. Obviously, it's ultimately each parent's responsibility to determine whether a particular play place or activity is safe and appropriate for their child.

At the most general level, I'd say that I don't recommend Billy Beez for a child under 18 months (though I would bring along a younger sibling of that age, I wouldn't come just for that young of a toddler). Some little ones would do fine among all the bigger kids, but the play space just isn't set up for early walkers or crawlers, and I'd be constantly worried about collisions and the like. Even the Mini Beez area would be risky for a very early walker. There are a lot of things that move and swing in there (you'll see what I mean when you visit), and three or four year olds are not necessarily good about giving ample space to a little one still finding his or her balance. And though the Honeycomb Village would be enjoyable for many younger toddlers, again, there are lots of bigger kids moving about, pushing shopping carts, wagons, lawnmowers and vacuums, riding plasma cars, and more. The street is not particularly wide, and I'd worry about an unsteady toddler getting knocked about.

Eighteen months to two years is a grey area, but I think the age at which many children will truly begin to enjoy Billy Beez is probably right around two years old, when pretend play becomes a big part of their development, and when they'll really be able to manage and interact with the features in the Mini Beez area and the ball room. They still won't be able to take full advantage of the big structure, but at the toddler prices, I think you'd be getting a good investment just enjoying the Honeycomb Village, the Mini Beez area, and the ball room.

And a three year old, on up? They'll be in play space heaven.

Safety/Security

I was pleased and impressed with the safety measures at Billy Beez. As you check in, they take a picture of you and your child together -- you are then issued wristbands with scanners and a reusable pass card. When they check you in at the gate, they scan you, and when you're ready to leave, they again scan both your and your child's wristband, as well as your pass card. Your photo comes up on a little screen, and only after confirming that you and your child are the people in the photo can you leave. It's pretty neat technology.

Nobody over 14 is allowed into Billy Beez without an accompanying child, so you won't have any teenagers or sketchy adults there just hanging out. There is a window out into the mall at the back of the main play structure, but you can't see any more of the kids from there than you'd see sitting at a park, so I don't worry about that.

There are two doors I found in the facility that say they must remain unlocked during business hours for fire purposes -- one is clearly a fire door and an alarm will sound if it is opened (it looks heavy, so I'm not that concerned about a toddler exiting), but the other leads out to the outside of the mall (it's located in the corner of the building, where you take off and stow your shoes). They have a rope across it, and the people from the front desk would almost certainly spot a toddler trying to escape via that route, but it still gives me a tiny bit of concern (not much, but a bit) and is something to be aware of.

As for the structures, everything seemed very safe (with the understanding that the slides are very fast), and padding was appropriate.

Personnel

When we visited, there were two people working at the front desk, checking people in and taking payment; one person standing at the actual gates, scanning people in and out; one person at the foot of the big rainbow slide; one to two people (tough to tell with the dense play structure) wandering around the play structure area; and one person in the Village, patiently putting away pretend items that were going to get messed up again a moment later. I spoke with the manager, and she said that the number of staff they have assigned to each area will vary depending on crowd levels, but I would say it seemed appropriate. However, note that there are NOT enough staff there to be actively supervising every area at once, particularly on the play structure -- it's up to you to supervise your own child.

Everyone was very friendly and welcoming.

Cleanliness

A frequent complaint I hear about some play places is that they seem dirty and run-down. While it's hard to report on cleanliness when we were literally the first ones to visit, I can say that for right now, at least, it is pristine, and it seems like they will go to great lengths to keep it that way. I can't imagine them investing so much in the adorable village and all the high-quality play items in there if they were just going to let them get dirty and run-down. I'll report back after future visits, but overall, I would expect this place to remain relatively clean.

One thing I will keep an eye on is the relationship of the cafe to the play areas. The cafe won't be opening for a few more weeks, but when it does, it will serve pizza, nachos, and the like. One reason why places like Safari Run, La Petite Playhouse and Whimsy stay so clean is that there is no food allowed in the play areas -- The Jungle, on the other hand, has a restaurant situated right in the middle of the facility, and little hands seem to bring a good amount of muck and stickiness outside of the eating area. Hopefully Billy Beez will be sure to enforce a "No food outside the cafe" policy to keep the Village and the play structures clean and sanitary.

One final note: I didn't see any hand sanitizer stations set up, and unlike La Petite Playhouse or Whimsy, there isn't a centrally-located sink or a request that you wash hands before playing. I'm going to see if hand sanitizer can be added. I'm also going to ask about putting baskets in each of the pretend play rooms in the Village for items that have found their way into little mouths and require special sanitizing.

Food

As I mentioned, there is a cafe that will be serving pizza, nachos, drinks, etc., and the manager tells me that there will be vegetarian and gluten-free offerings as well. There are several nice tables and chairs set up in the cafe area, as well as TVs.



Once the cafe is open, they will ask that you not bring food into the facility, except for babies and people with special dietary needs. However, given that your day pass allows for in-and-out privileges, and the location is within a mall chock full of inexpensive food options, the Billy Beez cafe will likely not be the big draw of your day.

I'll update this section once I see the cafe in action.

Parking

Billy Beez is located at Oakridge Mall in San Jose, next to Sears on the Thornwood Drive side of the mall (the opposite side from Blossom Hill). There is a large surface lot right next to the Billy Beez entrance, and parking is free and ample.

Hours

Billy Beez has the longest hours of any of the indoor play spaces I know of, and unlike many of them, is open to the public on weekends.They're open 10 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. on Sunday. 

Cost of Admission

I saved this one for last because I only think it's fair to address this once you understand a bit more about what Billy Beez is, and therefore what you're comparing it to. From the outset -- even before they opened -- people were looking at the prices online and audibly gasping -- $9.95 for a toddler or $19.95 for a bigger kid to play on an indoor play structure, plus a charge for parents ($6.95 for the first, $9.95 for another)?!? Yes, comparing that to, say, La Petite Playhouse or The Jungle (both of which get you all day play for around $10, with parents included for free), it certainly seems excessive.

Billy Beez, however, is very different from both of those places for a couple of reasons. First, the Honeycomb Village is a totally unique addition that changes it from just a physical play space to a physical and pretend play space, where gross motor skills aren't the only things being developed. While we can happily spend two hours at La Petite Playhouse, with Billy Beez, there's a good chance that at each visit we'll spend three to four hours of actual playtime, as there are options for downtime (putting together a puzzle in the schoolhouse, making a pizza in the pizzeria, etc.) in addition to the energy-burning physical play.

Perhaps more significantly, the in-and-out privileges at Billy Beez have real value. The facility is located within a mall, with tons of food options -- unlike some places with in and out availability, you don't have to get in a car and drive somewhere to have lunch and return for more play. You can combine the outing with some shopping or errands (there's even a post office in Oakridge!), and you can use a return to the play area as a good behavior bribery tool. The way our day played out on Tuesday, we hung out at Billy Beez from 9:00-10:30, stepped out to get a snack and some coffee, played again from about 11:00-1:15, and left for lunch in the food court. Honestly, if I would have let him, Toddler X would have returned after lunch and played some more. When we were there on Friday, we were in the mall from around 10:30 a.m. until after 5:00 -- we even saw a movie at one point! -- and returned to play three times. When you get past the initial shock at the cost, and instead look at the overall value, it doesn't seem as bad.

That all being said, I don't like their cost structure at all. I think it would make a LOT more sense to have the toddler price be $17 for unlimited play for one child and a parent, with a discounted charge for a second child with the same adult. The $17 charge would be exactly what the current charge is for one toddler and one parent -- $9.95 + $6.95 -- but without the odd discomfort of charging parents separately. And I have no idea why a second parent would cost more than the first. Bizarre.

The good news is that the 10 pack of visits is a tremendous value. For $75 (with tax, it comes out to around $81), you get 10 visits for your child under age 5, each of which includes one parent. So yes, $8 per visit, instead of $17. You can't find a better deal than that for a truly incredible play experience. The 10 pack for kids over 5 is $150, but my understanding is that this, too, includes one free adult per visit, so (without tax) you're looking at $15 for all-day play for an older child, including a parent -- a very good deal.

Even better, I understand from friends that it is possible to split a package among children in a family -- so, for example, if you have two kids under 5 and you buy the package, then at each trip to Billy Beez, you'd use two visits, which would include two adults (one per kid). A family of two parents and two kids under five would get five trips to Billy Beez for around $80.

(Note: PLEASE confirm prices and terms with Billy Beez staff before you make your 10 pack purchase. Some of what I'm sharing is what I've heard from friends, and I can't vouch with certainty as to the accuracy of this information.)

Overall, what I'm trying to get at is that, while Billy Beez may not be a frequent outing for most people (particularly if you have more than one child), there is significant value to this place, and if you have a special occasion, it would be worth budgeting for. (It's also worth noting that a day here, for almost any family, will cost less than a day at the Children's Discovery Museum, Happy Hollow, or any of the local amusement parks.) If you're able to buy a 10 pack, then it becomes an exceptional deal.

While there's a lot more I'd like to say about Billy Beez, in the interest of getting this review published, I'm going to wrap up now. I'll gladly take questions, so feel free to ask, and I do plan to update this review after future visits.

Happy toddling!!

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3 comments:

  1. We took or 15 Month old boys and they had a blast. We found that you could split a 10 pack between 2 kids, but each 10 pack pass only allowed for 1 free adult per visit. If you buy 2 seperate 10 pack passes then you can get 2 free adults in per visit.

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  2. I took my 15mo and 3yo today. My 15mo is a steady walker. Did you know that grandparents are free? My party consisted of me (adult), 2 kids under 5yo, and 2 grandparents. I bought one-10 pack pass. So I was only charged 2 visits (one visit per kid). I asked the cashier how do you know if it's a grandparent? She said that they just ask "Are you a parent or grandparent?"
    (Note that I did not ask the scenario if I wasn't using a 10 pack pass, and what if only one grandparent and one child was visiting for a one-time visit.)

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  3. I hope you're revisiting very soon to update your review. This place has seriously gone downhill. Half the stuff is broken, it's very dirty, and the pretend play area in particular is a total mess full of worn down toys. I bought a ten pack visit pass and in the times I've gone, the change in quality is DRASTIC. So disappointing.

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