Free Play Florida

A couple weekends ago, I adventured off for a rare not-for-someone-else trip to Free Play Florida in Orlando with a few goals in mind.   I've been working on some ideas in the Mobile gaming space that nod back to the era of arcade culture and I thought what better opportunity than an Arcade and Pinball weekend conference!   Plus, I have a few machines of my own and I felt it would be a good scouting mission for our next Arcade or Pinball addition to the game room.

Here's a bit about the trip.  First, some of the mundane details of travel:

Flight and Accommodations.

The Flight

Because I'm cheap, err.. frugal.. I opted for a direct flight from Pensacola to Orlando, via Silver Airways.     I mean, the price was right. 

At the boarding gate, I noticed they boarded 2 planes from this single gate in Pensacola, while other gates sat vacant.  Seemed inefficient but whatever.  The attendant's PA etiquette made me laugh, "Okay, Ya'll going to Orlando, C'Mon."  No, really, that's how that went down.

As with any smallish plane, boarding, you get to walk out on the tarmac.   We felt sufficiently safe from being chopped into bits by wayward propellers because of the orange cones in place for our safety.   

The flight itself was pleasant and sufficiently short to justify the airline expense.

I've always liked the look of the Orlando area from the air.  You get sufficiently the impression that this town was in fact built amidst swamp land.     A feat of construction and engineering!

I would like to post my experience about the return flight but the return flight didn't happen.   Most airlines can fly in (actually, over) small storms, so long as conditions are amicable at the origin and destination airports.   These little puddle jumpers, evidently cannot.   So, a light rain on the panhandle meant, no-return-flight-for-me.  

Well, I mean, 6 delays and an eventual cancellation after the weather appeared to have moved out.

The return flight attempt wasn't a complete loss, though.  I did enjoy the interaction between some uptight TSA Agent and a guy whom I can only describe as being Shaggy from Scooby Do:

"C'mon sir, you are holding up the line."

"Hey man, yeah it's cool, I'm just working at my own pace, ya know?"

I wonder which one of these that real-life Shaggy from Scooby Do pushed?

That's the problem with a litigious society.  You are either infringing on someone's rights to not be rushed or you are infringing on someone else's rights to be at the gate on-time.


The Accommodations

The event was held at the Doubletree Hilton SeaWorld on International Drive.   While the hotel was clean and the rooms were well kept, the service ranks up the typical level of failure I've come to expect from a Hilton on business travel.

I requested (and paid for) an upgraded Suite with a King Bed and refrigerator.   My friend requested adjoining rooms.  Apparently these two requests were incongruent and so I received neither.

The room was clean, the bed was comfortable and the A/C was quiet.  All good things.

These hangers, cracked me up for three days as they sat hanging in the hallways.   I took three more pictures of the resort area and one of them is of a pile of poop by the ice machine.   It appeared to be human sized, though I didn't stop to collect DNA so maybe it was a gigantic pile of dog poo.    

I'll spare you the picture but the point is, I don't know if it was ever cleaned  up or if they were waiting on the rain to take it away.

Lack of, attention to detail.

The front desk level of service is basically the attitude and level of service you get at a McDonald's.   Any requests are met with eye-rolls and huffs and I should mention that I'm freakishly polite and not-demanding at all, when traveling.  The Laundry Services are actually more of a paid-for scavenger hunt to locate your own clothes.   Maybe I missed the part where that's fun.

For those looking for provisions, a small alcove connects to the front desk where you may purchase soft drinks, fruit bowls, snacks & toiletries that TSA may have confiscated on your way to the hotel.   Too bad getting someone to come over from the front desk to ring up your purchase is akin to getting a cab in NYC.  It isn't that they were busy, it's that ringing up your Mt. Dew is beneath them.

As a result. I saw at least 4 people just walk out (steal) drinks and snacks from this area.   I guess the "15-minute rule?"

On a positive note, the hotel restaurant's BBQ Nachos are out of this world and the service in the restaurant was pretty good.  

The Event

The Event was pretty darned cool.   The staffers were polite and worked their butts off.  

I had bought VIP tickets (quite early) and it would have been nice when I arrived for my stuff (swag) to have been ready and shirt size correct.   Instead, they rifled around for 10 minutes looking to make a bag for me.   For a minute I wondered if I was going to be admitted or have to fly home and play my own machines.  I did end up conceding to the wrong shirt size but they were super-friendly-and-apologetic about this very minor thing. 

I have this sort of luck, see, so I don't see it beneficial to take out my bad luck on poor unsuspecting innocents!  I think you can tell a lot about a persons' disposition when things aren't going according to plan and my impression is that these local club members were patient, professional and reasonable folks.  Probably a cool group to hang out with.

The event was decent-sized.  I mean, there can never be enough games.   I was a little disappointed in that a few games that I wanted to try didn't make it or were out-of-order.  I'd say less than 10% of games were out of order at any given time, so they did a good job of keeping things going.

I'd like to have gotten my hands on a Wizard of Oz and I always like my time with TOTAN.   The latter was actually on the game list but didn't show up.

Two pins (Williams' Indiana Jones & Mousin' Around), I'd hoped to spend some time on actually got pegged for Tournament Play, so of course I had to buy tickets to get to play them.  I'm glad, though - it was a cool experience to get to play in a Pinball Tournament (even doing poorly at it.).   I'd like to know how many game-tickets the winners bought ($10 for 3 games) - buy as many as you'd like.

The Pin Tourney folks were a serious but respectful bunch.

The Santa Guy?  Yeah, hell if I know, I didn't ask. :)  
(Though, maybe we know what he does in the off season now!)

Vader's Fist

Speaking of Cosplay, the 501st Legion, Vader's Fist was there.  
I'm honestly not sure what that even means, (is that a tax exempt organization?) but I'll Google it.  
That being said wherever there are storm troopers playing video games, awesome props and a full scale R/C replica of R2D2 roaming about, i'm having a good time! 

The People

The Pins

While I'm into arcade stuff, I really wanted to get to spend some time broadening my Pinball horizons.   So many of the arcade games I can at least get the gameplay via a Multicade (or a rough approximation).   With Pinball, very seldom do virtual pinball apps represent the real experience (though the Farsight Studios app is darned close).   In terms of quantity and quality, Southern Alabama is a bit of a desert in terms of pinball.   A few machines at a bar or pizza place are usually put there in sorry condition and the best games are in collectors' homes.

I've heard people respond, when you talk about Pinball, "Pinball, is that still a thing?"   I guess the general thought is that Pinball is dead.   The takeaway from this event is that Pinball is still very much alive in Florida.

Medieval Madness

On the list of dream-pins to play, I immediately found and played dozens of times, Medieval Madness.   The machine was in very good shape and played quite well.  

The condition was MUCH better than the MM that I found at the Pinball Museum in Las Vegas the week before:

A good friend of mine, Marshall & I may have been a little too excited about seeing Medieval Madness.

All joking aside, it was great to get to play this game and put some decent numbers up.  Neither of us leaderboard'd the game but it was really quite fun trying.  I'm really thankful to whomever brought their Precious to the show to get so many plays on it!

America's Most Haunted

Getting to play America's Most Haunted was enjoyable.  There was a steady line of folks getting to play this hard-to-come by, boutique machine.  

It is a fun theme and a cool game, that reminds me there should really be a good Ghostbusters pinball machine.  I mean, there's a Ghostbusters Slot Machine in the Casinos, so why not a Pin, too?? :)

The bank beneath the ghost toy made this awesome sonar toy.  The ramps were fun and the lighting was cool.   I only got to play the game a few times and it seemed a little drain-y to me in those few times but maybe just because I was doing poorly.

Unfortunately, at some point this machine caught fire (yep, actual fire) during the show.  It was put out without any major cosmetic damage but I hope that doesn't prove to be too much of a setback for one-off pin projects like this!


The Walking Dead

if I had to pick the winner of the popularity contest for the weekend, it would probably be The Walking Dead Pinball from Stern.   Three of the machines were on site.  One on free play, one in the PAPA Tournament play and one set at $5/play for a fundraiser.

I played the free play and tourney machine and I really wasn't impressed.  Perhaps more time on the machine would yield a more favorable opinion but as it stands, I thought the machine was quite a one trick-pony.   That one trick, being theme, theme, theme.    

It just wasn't fun to play and I've watched the show (all of it to date) so I do get the references.
The floater is a play field strike toy, while clearing the prison yard of walkers and eventually opening the cell block doors for strike and multi ball opportunities, I just didn't feel the love for this machine.

It's not this bad:

But, for the inevitable one to two bucks per play that this will cost in the wild, it's going to be a little bit of a:

My Hands Down Favorite: Star Trek LE/Premium

I have to admit that I was completely wrong about this game.   When it was released, I observed a flood of Williams' STTNG hitting the market and idly commented that these fools were trading a Ferrari for a Ford.   

I'll take this time to change my analogy.  They traded a classic Ferrari for a Tesla!   (In that both are cool for different reasons.  )  I like Star <Anything>.  Star Trek, Star Wars.   I'm not sure about The Dancing With the Stars but I imagine if it involves bright tightly compacted nuclear balls of light, I'm all in.

Color Changing LED's provide kick ass light shows for a myriad of game modes that are fast, but have great flow, great sounds, great everything.  I explain the gameplay of this machine in terms of sex.  If Attack from Mars and Williams' STTNG had a love child, this is it!

The Premium and LE models feature a laser show, where a (usually red unless modded otherwise) laser paints a revolving star field onto the play field.  To frikkin cool.

Definitely on my wish list for Santa.    Hey, I have a Williams STTNG in Primo condition.  Anyone looking to trade their Tesla for my Classic Ferrari? :)


Other Classics

Circus Voltaire made an appearance.  I didn't get any pictures because I was too busy playing it. Awesome machine, special thanks to whomever brought it in for public consumption!

Theater of Magic is always a treat to see.  This one was very nice cosmetically but had some flipper problems.  Still, cool to get to play it!

A dude repurposed a Hollywood Heat Pinball Machine into a Goonies themed pinball machine.  Pretty danged cool and he won all sorts of awards for his efforts!

Creature Gets an Upgrade

Don Bosworth ( added the LCD mod to his Creature.   The result was really quite sick!  Great mod!

Speaking of creature, apparently this is a thing. :)

Familiar Titles

Tournament Play

Like A Boss

With IAAPA in town, it was fortuitous timing to have an arcade themed gathering in town.  Jersey Jack was sadly absent from Free Play Florida, as was the Wizard of Oz pin, which I thought was surprising.    

Gary Stern, on the other hand was kind enough to pop in and even hold a Q&A panel at the event.  Before his panel, I saw Mr. Stern at the hotel restaurant and tried to be sneaky in picking up his tab.  He did figure it was me and we spoke briefly about pins, from the collector perspective.   Seemed like a likable dude.

During the Panel discussion, Gary told the crowd that Stern pinball sees themselves as an American Manufacturer, like Harley Davidson.   People like to mod their pins, people like to mod their Harley.   More analogies can be made.

He added they typically build around 45 machines per day and target for 3 new titles each year plus a Vault Edition or two each year.

Some attendees mentioned the terrible condition of pinball machines at Universal Studios and Walt Disney World.   He made a note to check into it.   Universal's machines are evidently owned by an overseas manufacturer while Disney owns their own machines.

While I'm sure that DisneyQuest represents the worst-case-scenario for the usage of machines, I can't help but extend that Harley analogy to include the inevitable maintenance issues that go with owning the American Made classic motorcycle brand.  

Don't get me wrong, I love my Stern machines.  But do they hold up as well as the older, now-extinct Williams', Bally, Gottlieb and Data East machines?

By the end of the show I thought this was an interesting sight.  The Stern Tron and Stern Star Trek were epic games but were now out of order. (Both mechanical issues, not electronic)  Those older machines on the row still cranking along, unaffected.

If the Stern Pins are Harley Davidson, does that make the Williams Machines, Hondas?  :)

But, I digress..

The Games!

The show did feel balanced with a 50/50 split between arcade games and pinball machines.   There was a distinctive lack of super-modern games, with a few rare exceptions.

It is fun to see one of my kids' favorite games turned arcade.   I played it for a bit and I'm not sure how well this title translates to the arcade model of gaming.   I'm no Minecraft expert but watching my kids play, it is clear that the gameplay is more adapted to longer play sessions, not the typical 2-5 minute insert-quarter, then play arcade experience.  

But cool cab nonetheless.

Speaking of custom cabinets, someones' Fix it Felix cab was there, as well.    I didn't observe a lot of love being given to this by the classic arcade folks but I thought it was cool!

Didn't get a chance to play in the Classic gaming tournament, since this was mostly a pin scouting mission for me, next show!

Of all the classic games out there, I would really like to own a Tapper!   If nothing else just for the novelty.   Plus my wife is really really good at this game.

Unfortunately this one had problems over the weekend so I didn't get to play it much.

Plenty of classics were scattered throughout the show floor.     Along with some of the usual faces I guess one expects to see at these things.  

Billy Mitchell, walking around in a white suit, a table selling his hot sauce.

I guess I have some arcade documentaries to watch! :)

It was fun to get to spend some time putting my initials on some very clean Tron machines.

I only noticed two sit-down driving games but this stand up version of Out Run was a fun trip down memory lane.
Remember playing Zaxxon and thinking, "Whoa! It's so.... Three D!" :)

The Take Aways

No, literally I took this away :)

Introduction and Gameplay footage

I did end up bringing home a pin, (A Pin2000, Williams Star Wars Ep 1) and I did get to scout some other awesome pins and machines for future collection additions.

It is good that Gary Stern recognizes that Pinball Collectors like to pimp out their machines.   I still think the unfortunate consequence of the Pro / Premium / LE feature differences is that most of the pins that people will experience in the wild will be the stripped down versions of those pins.   That's a real shame and I think is damaging to the overall impression of pinball.

I overheard plenty of feedback on the show and the consensus seemed to be that Southern Fried in Atlanta and the Dallas show are both (a little) larger than Free Play Florida.   I have no first hand knowledge for comparison but I had plenty of fun at this show, so I'll definitely check the others out as well!

The final take-away that I have is that the arcade and pinball culture is still very much alive.   Maybe it is more out of nostalgia than the actual function of gameplay but certainly this Central Florida show had plenty of attendees and plenty of great games to choose from!

A walk through the rows of games at Free Play Florida