Throne of Games

Step off the sand and into your childhood at York Beach’s Fun-O-Rama.

By Brian Kevin
Photographed by Jason P. Smith

[I]t’s a sad truism of modern parenthood that most activities or establishments claiming to be “fun for the whole family” will, in fact, be fun for those members of the family who still possess baby teeth and will most likely be a drag for everyone else. One conspicuous and long-running exception to this rule is York Beach’s 13,000-square-foot Fun-O-Rama arcade.

If you need proof, just stop by on a summer afternoon. The Fun-O-Rama’s bay doors open directly onto Short Sands Beach, which on most days is a polychromatic jungle of umbrellas, beach blankets, and folding chairs. On the deck outside, shirtless teenage boys jostle and preen, while cliques of suntanned girls make an elaborate show of ignoring them. Inside, prepubescent shouting mingles with the clang of pinball machines and an absurdist eight-bit symphony, as dozens of video games simultaneously sound their digital trill. Kids gather like communicants around glowing consoles, wide-eyed and clutching fistfuls of prize tickets.

But lo and behold, there are actual adults enjoying themselves at the Fun-O-Rama as well. Adults playing Pac-Man and Asteroids. Adults playing air hockey and a crazy robot arm-wrestling game from 1992, which they probably remember from the days when they were the teenagers out front. The dozen or so players standing at the row of old-school skee-ball machines run the gamut from grade-schoolers to grandparents. There is always a line for skee-ball, in fact, because skee-ball is the great equalizer of the arcade world.

“A lot of parents come in with their kids,” says Bob Lago, the fifty-five-year-old New Hampshire native who bought the Fun-O-Rama in 2001, “and what I hear a lot is: ‘I played this game when I was a kid, and now I’m bringing my kids.’ I can’t tell you how many wedding parties come in and just want to have their pictures taken, couples that met here or maybe played games here together when they were young.”

It’s hard to believe that the American video arcade, once vilified as a den of addiction and corrupter of youth, has evolved in just two or three decades into an icon of wholesome nostalgia. But evolve it has, and while Lago’s collection includes a few more-recent, must-have games (like Guitar Hero, in which players pantomime jamming on guitar-like controllers), the Fun-O-Rama goes in big for vintage games that could double as museum pieces. Classic coin-ops like Galaga and Donkey Kong share space with all manner of bleeping, Midway-style games from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Astrology buffs can consult with a creepy robot gypsy and an equally creepy Zoltan fortune-teller. And forget your Nintendo Wii — a lot of the older games at the Fun-O-Rama anticipate the “motion gaming” craze by twenty or thirty years. There’s a boxing game in which players spar with a dangling punching bag, a digging game that utilizes a miniature excavator, and a game called Punch Belly that involves, well, pretty much what it sounds like: repeatedly punching a plastic rendering of a paunchy bald man.

Needless to say, some of the games take a lot of abuse, and the fact that the Fun-O-Rama keeps so many older machines working is a credit to in-house mechanic Tony Innie. The arcade has a stockpile of old parts, but Innie makes many components by hand, and he points out that many games haven’t had anything resembling active tech support for the better part of thirty years. Lago calls his old friend “MacGyver,” and he’s watched him take a plastic toy from behind the prize counter, melt it in the workshop, and then mold it into a part to fix a $30,000 machine from the 1970s.

Of course, the games aren’t the only links to history at the Fun-O-Rama. The wooden pavilion itself has anchored the York Beach waterfront for more than a century, first as a bathhouse for beachgoers, then as a roller rink, then as an early pinball arcade in the 1950s.

“There’s a lot of history behind this building,” says Lago. The arcade owner collects historic postcards of York’s beaches and has a few going back to 1910. Sometimes, Lago says, he watches a family walk out of the Fun-O-Rama and onto the beach, and it occurs to him that very little has changed in all that time.

“It’s still the same people,” he says, “just different bathing suits.”

Brian Kevin is an occasional contributor to Outside, Sierra, and the Fodor’s series of travel guidebooks.