When other parents ask me for cheap outing ideas with their children, I always used to recommend an afternoon at the Memorial City Mall because you can spend hours there having a good time for $20. Lately I find that recommendation to be rather false as the mall struggles to modernize the way it charges for attractions like the carousel and the mall train.
Don't get me wrong, the indoor play area is still one of the best in the city. It's absolutely massive, featuring a huge tree house, slides, rope bridges, a dragon to climb, a great toddler area, and plenty of places for parents to sit down. When you add in the fact that it's not only gated, but actively manned by a security guard to ensure children can't elude you and wander out into the mall, not to mention that it's free, I firmly state that you can't go wrong planning a couple of hours running around there. They've even instituted a more firm rule about the number of kids allowed in at one time, which cuts down on the overcrowding.
No, the problem is that the other fun things to do like the carousel and the mall train impose convoluted ways in which to pay for them, and it's really soured me on the destination as a place to go when money is tight.
Consider the carousel, which is the second best carousel in the city and the best mall carousel period for 50 miles 'round. I have no qualms with the ride itself. The animals are varied and well-cared for, there are two great spinning teacups stands, and it's two stories so the lines stay low and the kids get to be high up.
However, the only way to ride the carousel is to put money into a token machine then physically hand the tokens to the operator. What is this, the 1930s? I understand that the point is to keep the line for the ride down so as not to make the operator have to process each individual transaction, but all that really does is cause a longer line (And an unguided one, at that) clustered around the quartet of token machines. All four are rarely in service, and only one takes credit cards (And that one not very well).
The prices themselves are fine. $5 for three rides seems more than fair to me, but either you're stuck using a very glitchy credit card kiosk, or you're scrambling to find exact change for the best deal for yourself. The only other alternative is to wind up with oodles of unneeded tokens.
Six months ago they didn't take credit cards at all, so this past weekend I came armed to the mall with a $20 bill. Stuck with no one in the entire food court willing to change it, I used the credit card terminal since I didn't really need 12 rides.
The mall train has gotten even worse. They always did take credit cards, but now the driver is completely out of the loop as far as the processing goes. Instead there's a kiosk, and yes, it too will process a card, but it will also take cash. Will it give change? No, of course not. By then I had some smaller bills from a stop at Target for popcorn snacks for me and the kiddo, but still not enough to make exact change. Rather than go over my budget even more by using the card reader I just ate three dollars more than I wanted to spend on two tickets and gave the extra to another child.
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Oh, and the kiosk charges a 35-cent processing fee. Guys... no. Just, no. That's unacceptable. It's not the price. It's really not. It's that you have got to stop pretending that you're doing us a favor by taking our money in this way. Especially since I ended up paying ten times that fee in overspending because you stopped taking money the old way.
Again, I understand the kiosk. I saw the train shut down for an hour some months back because the driver had to go out and acquire small bills to make change with, and pardon the pun but that's no way to run a railroad. But hey, here's some ideas. Maybe instead of the fancy kiosk why don't you just give the driver a bunch of change and a secure place nearby to store it when it runs low? Or hey, use the ridiculous token system at the carousel so that the train also accepts them. That way at least when we're stuck getting more than we want to because the concept of breaking a $20 is abhorrent to every merchant in the mall, we can have options.
At least snuggling in front of the fireplace and watching Netflix on my phone with the kid was still the same lazy, wonderful experience it always was. As far as I can tell the Memorial City Mall is one of the few malls left in Houston that works as an all day family excursion with its ice rink, cinema, and other attractions. It's just a shame that they've apparently put so little thought into the way their charging us for them. I really shouldn't have to load up on ones like I'm going to a strip club.