Bowled Over

by Scarlett Chidgey

Independent on Sunday, 2 March 1997

Ten-pin bowling has made its way back across the Atlantic, and is being enjoyed in its American form in bowling alleys all over the country. Our panel compares the chains — and their bars — and finds striking results

Although it’s claimed that the origins of 1o-pin bowling go back as far as ancient Egypt, and that bowling (in a nine-pin form) was played in england as early as the 12th century, it was Americans who took to the sport. In the 19th century, our transcontinental cousins were hooked on the game, and it was in the US that the first organized professional bowling began in 1959.

Yet how do our British bowling alleys measure up to their American counterparts? Four Americans in England decided to try them out.

THE PANEL

Our testers were a native of Massachusetts, Jaime Nolan, the daughter of an expert bowler, who is herself a bowling enthusiast; avid bowler Kate Dawson from Texas; our man from Ohio, Michael McGannon, bowler extraordinaire and the panel champion; and myself, bowling disaster from California, who only knocked down 10 pins an entire game.

THE TEST

Our panel went on a bowling spree for several days visiting four centres, each one from a different chain. The panel rated appearance, service, bowling and social facilities, and value for money.

***MEGABOWL

This bowling centre is not called “mega” for nothing. Not only is it a huge complex, it also boasts 36 lanes, a Pizza Hut, bar, pool tables, and a video game area. MegaBowl offers bowling packages for groups and families, too.

We were very impressed by the set-up of the bowling centre, which was spacious and comfortable. Michael McGannon loved the place: “I was smiling from the time I walked in the door until the time I walked out.” MegaBowl seemed to be a very child-friendly and its hilarious dog mascot that walked around talking to the kids made us laugh. “It’s truly a place for the entire family to go” exclaimed Jaime Nolan, enthusiastically.

One advantage of MegaBowl is that you don’t have to bowl to have a good time. If you don’t feel like making a fool of yourself knocking down the pins in adjoining lanes (it was the first time I’d ever played the game), there’s always pool, and the bar was quite lively. The only problems we found were that the selection of bowling balls seemed limited, and the automatic scoring system did not have instructions, making it difficult for new bowlers. The look of the place was plasticky and the staff’s uniforms (brightly coloured, geometric shirts) were a bit too loud for our liking.

**AMF BOWLING CENTRE

Although not the flashiest of the bowling centres, the AMF we visited is equipped with 24 lanes, a bar, snack bar and video games.

The staff were, on the whole, very helpful and the snack bar did a great plate of chips. Perhaps because it was a smaller centre, AMF had a cosier atmosphere than the larger ones. We were impressed by the bowling facilities (plenty of balls at hand when you needed them), and we thought there was a good video-game selection. We were disappointed, however, that the bar did not provide a view of the bowling lanes. The lack of space was also commented on. “The seating arrangement was a bit too congested” said Jaime Nolan. And Kate Dawson thought that “the aisles were too small between the lanes.”

Even given its spatial disadvantages, AMF was fine for an evening hanging out with friends and improving bowling skills. Michael McGannon thought AMF “was as good as any bowling alley I’ve ever been to in the States.”

**WESSEX SUPER BOWL

Although the smallest of the four centres we visited this was by no means small, the Wessex Super Bowl has a bar, a games area and a snack bar. It was also the only one of the centres we tried out which had a bar overlooking the 24 lanes. We loved being able to watch the other bowlers while waiting for a lane (and what a delight to see others staggering under the weight of the balls for a change). The bar area laso had a small dance floor for Friday and Saturday nights when the Super Bowl puts on a disco. The décor was more tasteful here and the music funkier, which made for a better atmosphere. Kate Dawson thought that, “the facilities were good if you were a teenager wanting to just hang out.”

A pamphlet “Easy Steps to Bowling” was provided, although poring over it didn’t bring any subsequent improvement to our games. We were all pleased to see that Wessex had 8lb balls which could not be found at AMF and MegaBowl (both of those had the smallest 6lb balls and then jumped right up to the 10lb balls, which were a bit heavy for some of us). Michael McGannon declared “it was very difficult to find a ball” referring to the centre’s rather high person to ball ratio. The place itself didn’t seem to be very well designed, becoming crowded and congested around the lanes. “It was a little cramped for my style,” Michael concluded.

****HOLLYWOOD BOWL

Like MegaBowl, the Hollywood Bowl was large and spacious, with a number of bowling packages on offer.

Jaime Nolan and Kate Dawson walked in and both said: “The Best.” I confess we all made a beeline for Wendy’s fast-food restaurant, and then piled into the bar (which actually brews its own beer at some of the centres). But the real beauty of the centre was revealed when we took to the bowls. There were wonderful amounts of space around the lanes and Kate commented on the comfortable, large seats provided, while observing the game. There was also a massive video-games area.

We noted that the Hollywood Bowl offered a good range of differently weighted balls. At the reception desk there was a model bowling ball with different size finger-holes, so that new bowlers could find out which size was best suited for their hands. There was also an electronic foul line at the beginning of the aisle, which could be useful for serious bowlers. And everything from the lanes to the snack bars was sparking clean.

Although Hollywood Bowl had a similar range of facilities to MegaBowl, what won it the vote as best of the bunch was its general ambience. Appealing to a more mature crowd and not overrun with packs of noisy children, Kate Dawson summed it up as “a colourful atmosphere for serious bowlers.” Most definitely a winner.


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