Thatz not OK: Elitch ditches the Wack a Mole

The school of hard knocks starts early.

Kids, drawn to the bells, bright lights and dare of arcade games, learn young that the deck is stacked against them. Statistically, the giant stuffed gorilla at the county fair or mall parking lot carnival is pretty unattainable, no matter how easy it looks to shoot a hoop or pop a balloon with a dart.

It’s a ritual for my boys, as for thousands of Denver school kids, each year to redeem a certain amount of summer vacation reading time for free tickets to Elitch Gardens. In my book, Elitch’s and the Denver Public Library deserve big thanks for the program.

Usually the week before school starts, we spend a day winding through the park on the same slow path: from the wave pool, to the lazy river, to the small coasters and then the bigger ones, with some giant turkey legs and Dippin’ Dots along the way. Each year, sunburned and queasy, we end at the games. We each fall off the rope ladder, no matter how hard we try to reach the top. And, for some reason, the bean bags we toss at “Tin Can Alley” never knock down enough cans to merit a prize. Like clockwork, the games of skill and chance on which my boys quickly blow their handful of tokens leave them heartbroken and pissed off, despite the promise of amusement.

By the end of the day, token-less and longing, my kids have always gravitated to the Wack-A-Mole – a box with five holes through which cute but dopey looking plastic moles pop up and down. The object is to beat as many moles back into their holes as possible using an oversized, soft mallet. In carnival industry parlance, it’s a “redemption game,” meaning a game of skill in which the final score reflects how many moles the player whacked. For us, the Wack-A-Mole, the only game with a reasonable chance of winning, was our last chance at redemption.

“Can we, mom?” “Please?” Understandably, they just wanted to pound something for a prize.

Partly because I’m a pushover and partly because I like to think that we as a family are particularly adept wack-a-molers, I’d buy more tokens and we’d whack. There’s a kind of catharsis that comes in pounding plastic replicas of burrowing insectivores after a long day of being pulled through the heat and crowds by two sugar-amped kids. Besides, following our string of other arcade defeats, it was buoying that, more often than not, one of us would actually win. Two or three rounds of Wack-A-Mole guaranteed my kids something stuffed to remember the day. For me, those toys promised a way out of the park.

But this summer, there was no such promise. After falling off the rope ladders and failing to toss rings around bottles, we headed toward the trusty old Wack-A-Mole for some love. “It’s gone,” the rope ladder attendant told us. “Wasn’t making enough money, so they took it away.”

The back office at Elitch’s won’t offer much in explanation for this year’s Wack-A-Mole removal. Park spokeswoman Jessie Falk won’t say who made the decision or why. “I don’t believe there would be anyone here that would have information like that,” she told me. “We’re not looking to participate in an article.”

Through its partnership with the library system, Elitch’s helped motivate my boys to read this summer. But the Wack-A-Mole disappearance also came with its own teachable moment: The realization that redemption never comes cheap.

A recovering newspaper journalist and Pulitzer finalist. Her criminal justice reporting includes “Trashing the Truth,” with Miles Moffeit, and “The Gray Box.”