Matthew Benson, 7, his mother and 16 of his friends showed up at the Discovery Zone in Falls Church on Thursday for a birthday party that had been planned for two months. But instead of brightly colored climbing equipment, toys and games, the group found windows that had been painted white. A typed note announced the store's closing, effective immediately.
"I can't believe this happened," Molly Benson said Friday. "Why didn't anyone inform us? I need an apology. I need someone to apologize to my son."
Discovery Zone Inc., which has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since April, unexpectedly closed more than 100 centers Thursday, including 10 in the Washington area, said Dick Huston, executive vice president for CEC Entertainment Inc. CEC, which operates the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant chain, yesterday was awarded some of Discovery Zone's assets.
Three area Discovery Zones -- in Manassas, Germantown and Rockville -- will remain open. The Montgomery County locations are franchises and are unaffected by the bankruptcy filing. Tony Scivolette, who owns the Germantown and Rockville centers, said he will try to accommodate parties that had been scheduled for the closed area centers.
Discovery Zone, which operates more than 200 stores nationwide, filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors after an expansion drive left it short of cash. In the Chapter 11 petition filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, Discovery Zone officials listed $108.3 million in assets and $146.7 million in debts. It was the company's second Chapter 11 filing in the past three years. Discovery Zone officials did not return phone calls seeking comment Friday.
CEC Entertainment acquired the rights to the Discovery Zone name and logo, 13 fun centers and their contents, the leases of another seven stores and two parcels of undeveloped land for $19 million. CEC plans to convert as many as eight of the centers into Chuck E. Cheese's and continue to operate the remainder as Discovery Zones. CEC, which runs 333 Chuck E. Cheese's locations, is the fifth-largest pizza chain in the United States.
Discovery Zone maintains ownership of the remainder of its stores. Huston said officials with the New York-based company made the decision to close the stores. CEC had no part in the decision.
Debbie Royal, manager of the Falls Church center, spent yesterday explaining the closing to frustrated parents. Royal said Discovery Zone officials called her Wednesday night to tell her that the store she had managed for almost three years would not open Thursday. She then called her 23 employees and dozens of parents who had scheduled their children's birthday parties to relay the information on the closing.
"Let's just forget the children crying outside, the school bus that arrived with 68 children, the 17 scheduled birthday parties for Saturday," she said in exasperation. "I understand that this is a business, and that there's a way to do things, but a business that's supposed to be for the children sure doesn't seem to care about the children."
Customers seeking information about refunds should call 954-316-5525 or write Discovery Zone, Attention: Refund, 6600 Northwest 16th St., Suite 4, Plantation, Fla. 33313.
CAPTION: Tiffoni Cottman peers at the closed sign on the Discovery Zone at Skyline Mall. She and Lynnae Salter used to bring their children to the center there.