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Muvico child care gives parents a break and kids time to play

By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


When the next Academy Awards rolls around, parents in Pinellas County may have seen some of the top nominees in an actual movie theater instead of their living room. We will probably be more seasoned moviegoers in the coming year because BayWalk's new Muvico theaters offer child care as a way of bringing parents back to the movies.

Like other parents I've talked with, I was a little skeptical that I would take advantage of the on-site child care. I had heard all the good stuff, that it is staffed with caregivers who have current or past experience working in day care or schools. Also there is always a 2-to-10 ratio or better between caregivers and kids. And you can't beat the price. You pay $5.50 per child before 5 p.m. and $7 after 5 p.m. Each additional child is $4.

Still, I couldn't picture dropping my daughters off in a room they had never seen before with people they had never met before. They have been in day care and preschool so it's not that I have a problem leaving them -- it's just leaving them in an unfamiliar place that made me uneasy. Then my husband asked about the first time we ever left them in day care or school. Weren't they unfamiliar places at the beginning?

He had a point. We decided to try Muvico's children's playroom on Thanksgiving afternoon. But when I called to double-check whether it was open I learned the child care is only for children ages 3 to 8. (They have to be toilet-trained, too.)

My youngest is just under 2 so we have to wait another year. Still, I visited the next day just to check it out. I was very impressed and think my girls would be happy to play in there for a couple of hours while we take in a movie.

The caregivers, Patricia McDaniel and Valerie Green, were cheerful, fun and interactive with the two children there when I visited. (Now talk about a good ratio: 2-to-2.)

They were helping the kids glue fuzzy balls along their names written on paper. There were lots of other craft supplies in the supply closet, which is safely locked at all times. There were also some pictures made with macaroni moons and feather butterflies that other children had left behind to display in the playroom. Along with the craft corner, the room features two doll houses, a make-believe cooking area, three computers with the latest CD-ROMS, two Nintendo stations, a closet full of games, plastic dinosaurs, puzzles, his and hers dress-up chests, headphones for music and story tapes and a television with a loaded video library.

As for the room itself, each wall features a bright pattern of polka dots, stripes or swirls. The carpet has stars across it.

"We haven't had one cry yet," said McDaniel, when I asked her if the children seemed hesitant to be left in a new place. "When the parents come back and say, "Come on, let's go,' the children say: "No We don't want to go yet.' We can't get them out of here."

"Whoever came up with the idea of having day care right there had a brilliant idea," said Eva Sexton, whose 5-year-old son James enjoyed the playroom on a recent Saturday. "I may have to go from Largo, where I live, to St. Pete. But it's worth it."

The many security precautions the theater takes made her feel very safe leaving her son. Parents and children wear a wristband with corresponding numbers. Parents must also leave their driver's license, which is checked when they pick up their child. Also, no adults -- even other parents dropping their children off -- are allowed in the playroom if other children are in there. You must sign in and say goodbye to your child in a glass foyer outside the playroom.

"And there are windows along the side (of the playroom inside the theater lobby) so it's not like anyone would attempt to abuse your child because people are constantly glancing in as they walk by," Sexton said.

Parents are also equipped with a beeper so they can be contacted if their child needs Mom or Dad for any reason. A week into business, McDaniel and Green said they hadn't had to beep anybody yet.

"The two ladies in there were wonderful," Sexton said. "My son hugged both of them when we left."

Louise Boyd of St. Petersburg dropped her 3-year-old and 5-year-old at the Muvico playroom after the whole family took in the recent boat show downtown.

"We haven't done anything spur of the moment since we were first married," Boyd said. "There were two wonderful women, not teens, who were calling our kids by their names before we left. . . . The kids didn't want to leave when our movie was over. Harrison had three works of art and Maddie was all dressed head to toe like a princess."

"Spontaneous is the key word," said Randi Emerman, spokeswoman for Fort Lauderdale-based Muvico. "We look at the children's playroom as an amenity to guests to get them going back to the movies."

Muvico opened its first such playroom in 1998 after market research showed one of the main reasons people didn't go to the movies often was because they didn't have child care. The company now offers child care in six theaters and plans to put it in most future projects.

Though the BayWalk playroom hasn't neared its 10-child maximum capacity, playrooms at other theaters often fill up on weekend nights, Emerman said. But you can save a spot by making a reservation as far in advance as you want. Even a couple hours before the movie, however, usually snags a slot.

The one negative I found with the child care center is its strict security measures often prevent parents from being able to preview the playroom or even take their children in to become familiar with it. If children are inside no adults can enter. The playroom opens at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and noon on Sundays so it is empty off and on until around 3 p.m. Curious parents might try dropping by early those days to check it out. (Monday through Friday the playroom opens at 5 p.m. and it admits children up until 9 p.m. every day.)

If you still feel uneasy, try going for safety in numbers. Get several families to go out together and drop your children along with a few other friends in the playroom while the grown-ups share a movie. You could all do dinner before or ice cream after the show. That way there is still some fun of a family outing even if you split up at the theater.

- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write to Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

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