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Obituary of a Medieval Arcade


Dominique Zamora

Golf Ball Image

Dominique Zamora


THERE'S A CASTLE behind a strawberry field on Anaheim’s La Palma A venue. It's a sad, stubby brown thing whose eerie glow barely peeks out against the starless suburban sky, and whose back leans against the fenced-off shoulder of the westbound 91 F reeway. A pair of weather-beaten stone knights guards the castle's entrance while an asphalt moat separates it from a neighboring parking lot. On quiet nights, a sound like an old sewing machine creaks from the broken marquee that hangs above the castle doors.

“Camelot. Pizza | Arcade. Lazer Joust,” the sign declares, in an assortment of bold, mismatched letters, as half the bulbs framing it light in succession while the rest remain stubbornly unlit.

Unlike most suburban family amusement centers, there are absolutely no signs here, in the middle of Anaheim’s industrial district, surrounded by warehouses and office buildings, to guide guests to the castle; no sign-spinners sent to intrigue random passers-by. Just that sickly yellow glow and the fading hope that people turn to see it. 

Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Camelot Golfland served as a haven for wandering businessmen, teens, and families alike, each seeking to indulge his or her inner two- year- old. In the warm California summer, they came and went like moths amid the electrical buzz of video game cabinets and the whir and clank of old pinball machines. Mornings were typically slow, young mothers and their children wandering in to play a few rousing games of mini-golf until the older kids had to be picked up from school. At lunch, packs of local monkey suits, ties tossed over shoulders, scarfed down grease-puddled pizzas and tried to best each other’s high scores. After school, teenage employees on their off-days dragged friends along to try the new waterslides or the newest flavor of Iceberg milkshake. And late at night, the street outside would fill with “cruisers,” college kids in their low-rise cars drinking and smoking and showboating before entering the castle and kicking off the night.

Over the years, the crowds flowed and ebbed along with each new gaming era, first with Pac-Man (1980), then Street Fighter (1987), then Dance Dance Revolution (1999), before eventually trickling out by the mid '90s to the early 2000s. As game manufacturers switched their focus away from bulky, expensive cabinets toward compact, personal gaming systems, the center of family fun slowly moved homeward. Arcades became less profitable, rent grew more expensive, and — unlike the industry behemoths Disneyland or Universal Studios, which had other revenue sources as back up — the small, family-owned entertainment center slowly fell into decay.

Eventually, the Kenneys, a Mormon family who owned Camelot — along with the handful of other Golfland locations throughout California and Arizona — just stopped visiting, stopped monitoring, and Camelot grew old. It looks like its last paint job was three years ago, about when a new manager came on, determined to try and save the place. Along with him came plenty of promises for change. He switched the company’s primary soda brand from Pepsi to Coke. He ordered a bevy of new games for the arcade, from kaleidoscopic, ESPN-themed racers to the miniaturized bowling alley out front. He hired a security guard to patrol the parking lot and prohibited employees from visiting on their days off, except for once a month.

In the old days, Camelot was considered “hip” and the “place to be,” but now is described by many Yelpers as “cheap,” a little “scary,” and frankly, “kind of ghetto.”

Though its demise was long in coming, the decline of Camelot Golfland mostly coincides with the decline of the American video game arcade and fun center, many of which used to litter the Southern Californian landscape. From its dingy brown carpet, dated neon signs, and black, rain-stained piping, to its chipping paint, dusty canopies, and the perpetual smell of dirty feet, nearly everything about the two-story arcade feels old-fashioned and outdated. Though no alcohol is allowed on the premises, a suspicious brown bag sits defiantly atop the large trash barrel outside on a Sunday evening. Promotional discounts typically meant to draw guests during the off season instead run almost each and every day.

One late afternoon, a middle-aged mother whispers loudly to her son as they step out of the din into the bright winter sunlight. “I dunno,” she muses, “I still think Chuck E. Cheese was better.”


Whenever Gary* works the Lazer Joust counter, he makes sure to bring his phone, lest he die of boredom. Unlike the pizza or golf counters, which guests must pass by constantly just to get anywhere in the castle, Lazer Joust is upstairs on the balcony, where they keep many of what appear to be the old or broken games, meaning the seventeen-year-old slacker usually works it alone.

And that's only if you consider what he does here "work." The way he tells it, for every eight- hour shift, he spends about ten minutes of it actually doing anything. Embroidered Golfland-green polo and khakis on, Gary waits for guests to come by at their reserved game times, plays them an instructional tape, helps them put on their vests, opens the door into the arena, and then comes back out to wait until they finish.

The rest of the time he's scrolling through Facebook, wandering around to see if any other counters need help, or most often, staring at nothing. His second story-view comprises a kitschy mural of a black knight, a broken plastic clipboard, and the giant hanging moose head that overlooks the pizza parlor below.

Every so often, he’ll abuse his walkie- talkie privileges and annoy his friends at the pizza counter or golf-counters, or vice versa. Once singer/reality show judge Christina Aguilera (who lives about fifteen minutes away, in the lyrical rolling hills of Yorba Linda) visited for a private game of laser tag and Gary’s walkie was bombarded with hisses of “Oh my God, did you see her? and “Is she here yet?”

Not twenty minutes later, though, Gary was back to picking at his desk.

Still, Gary doesn’t love or hate the place, and sometimes even enjoys it. Like when a kid decides not to play and he can take the unused gun and go a free round, typically under the pretext of “testing the equipment.” Even better is when the castle’s empty and the manager’s not there and more than one kid bails, freeing up another gun for one of his coworkers.

After high school graduation, Gary plans to continue working here while attending community college, though he admits he hasn’t thought much further than that.

“I’m just kind of hanging out,” he says.


Stepping onto any of Camelot's four working mini-golf courses is a bit like leaving Kansas and entering Munchkinland. On any given night, you can almost feel the muddy concrete floor next to the golf counter buckling beneath the harsh fluorescent street lights overhead, while the 91 roars relentlessly just beyond the furthest edge of C ourse T hree. Once a game begins, however, the courses are transformed. With orange, green, neon pink balls and pint-sized putters in hand, guests — typically groups of teens and couples on dates —  make their way past the doldrums before scattering between any of the four  eighteen-hole courses, each arranged by increasing difficulty, and yet each an exercise in patience, humility and suspension of disbelief.

On hole number three, course number one, it takes the twenty-one-year-old Courtney eight strokes just to get past the loop-de-loop.

Her boyfriend, Jake, is laughing.

“Are you freaking serious?” Courtney whines by the fifth time the ball refuses to roll up and around the curve.

“You gotta put more oomph in it,” Jake says, swinging his own putter for emphasis.

“That’s what she said,” Courtney shoots back.

Once past the first few holes on any of Camelot's courses, it’s clear they all follow an almost childlike descent into whimsy. Closer to the exit are the more basic obstacles: tiny metal beams to block the ball or series of rolling hills; but further in, guests can find anything from water-traps and loop-de-loops to swinging pendulums and miniaturized castles and moats. The lighting in this area is better, too. Rainbow flower lamps light all the central holes, transforming rolling golf balls into blooming lotuses as their shadows trace along the ground until the balls disappear, clinking away into small metal tins.   

It’s easy to see why sites like the FW, Red Tricycle, and CBS Local name Camelot one of the best mini-golf venues in the country. But like many guests, Courtney and Jake haven’t been here in ages.

Courtney explains, “We come whenever we remember.”


By the time Carla Burns began working at Camelot in 1986, Pac-Man was considered one of the older games, they had just installed the four new waterslides, and the Family Fun Center was still open next door. A separate entity owned by a completely different company, but often thought to be co-run, the Family Fun Center was never considered a real competition to Camelot, at least not in Carla’s eyes. Sure they had bumper boats and a maze and batting cages, and sure, they attracted the same clientele, but FFC didn’t have handmade pizzas and ice cream cakes. It didn’t have a green dragon mascot named “Putt.” It didn’t have mini-golf. All it had was a tiny snack shack and besides, if there had been any sort of competition going on, Camelot would have most definitely won.

Carla was sixteen at the time and Camelot was her first real job. Like most employees, Carla grew up just down the street, attended one of the nearby high schools, and only really started coming here when she started working here, but never really left once she did.

Only about as old as Carla was at the time, Camelot was at the height of its glory then, the way Carla remembers it. The two story building’s design was iconic in a way the Family Fun Center’s wasn’t, the old medieval castle bright and festive with colorful banners hanging from the walls, which were themselves painted in solid, rich, saturated blues and greens. The picnic tables in the pizza parlor were made of newly polished wood and whenever a guest’s order was up, a cashier would call out over the intercom in his or her friendliest, most grandiose voice, “Camelot would like to thank you for your visit, and your pizza is ready.”

It was childish, Carla admits. It was kitsch. But it was also magnificent.

On a typical day, she and her coworkers arrived in their then-red Golfland polo shirts an hour before opening to begin their prep work. Carla, who worked in the kitchen, would grab her apron and start on the first batches of homemade pizza sauce and dough. Once those were done, she would warm the nacho cheese and ready the cash registers, and after that, either decorate the birthday tables with name tags and balloons or see which other sections needed her. Sometimes this meant fishing kids’ golf balls out of the water traps; other times, digging eaten tokens out of games.

She remembers coming in on her off-days to play air hockey and being so good that her coworkers and even some of her regular customers would challenge her to a game or two (which she, of course, would win more often than not). She remembers Christmas breakfasts for the staff, put on by the Kenneys, who back then were very involved in the company and visited often, before relocating the headquarters to Arizona.

Most of all she remembers the collective excitement that permeated the castle in those days: a dreamy nostalgia filled with the sounds of laughing children and dinging bells. Back then, if people wanted to have fun, this is where they went. More importantly, this is where they wanted to go.

By the mid ‘90s, however, the Family Fun Center had shut down, Carla had graduated high school, and, whether she liked to admit it or not, Camelot would never quite be the same as she remembered.


Mauricio Ceron is stressed all the time. As Camelot’s general manager, his brisk walk cuts through the electric buzz of pinball machines and the toppling sound of bowling pins as guests swerve to avoid the raging worrywart. Grey-haired, weather-worn, he races through the castle’s halls as though perpetually five minutes late, never bothering to look up, eyebrows forever furrowed.

Mauricio moved here from Colombia twenty-five years ago and has been working at Golfland since 1987. His first job was in the kitchen of the pizza parlor, where he slowly worked his way up by mastering the creation of Camelot’s signature pies, eventually becoming supervisor and then pizza manager. In 2000, he was offered the position of general manager at another Golfland location in northern California, where he remained for ten years before he finally returning here, where his real Golfland journey began.

Unlike Carla, Mauricio saw Camelot’s heyday begin and watched it end and faces the consequences of that experience daily.

Every month, Camelot hosts group interviews for potential employees, which are held in one of the back rooms of the castle, yet another holding cell for the games that have fallen into disrepair. This section is small and rarely busy. During the week, Camelot even has it completely blocked off to guests by thin black netting, because not enough people come by to justify turning them on. The rows of wooden picnic tables that usually fill the space are pushed up against unplugged arcade cabinets, their giant black screens watching blankly as the proceedings unfold. A circle of seventeen chairs faces inward while kids in various degrees of interview attire — (two girls are wearing heels, most boys are wearing polo shirts, one guy rode in on his skateboard and is wearing a bright red Young & Reckless tee) — sit and listen to Mauricio tell his life story, before he even begins to ask them a thing.

He’s really stressed, he tells them. He wants to make the company better. He’s building a new go-kart track where golf course five used to be, but the city won’t give him the permits he needs for the gasoline. What he’s looking for are employees who will work hard and stay long, but never ask any questions or talk back. That’s not what the company needs, he tells them. And what does the company need, exactly? He’s not sure. But trying to figure that out is really, really stressful.


In the furthest back corner of the furthest back arcade room, Juan Solorio is shoving his arm into the side of the Pirates of the Caribbean pinball game. It’s the third machine he’s tried all night — the first ate his coin, and the ball kept getting stuck on the second. Here though, he’s on a roll, literally. A cup of coffee rests on the ledge of the game behind him and his eyes work to focus on the four or five silver spheres currently scrambling all over the board. Peering over the glass are his thirteen-year-old son Jafar and his two friends, who watch as Juan uses the balls to “open Davy Jones’ locker,” “battle the Kraken,” and “sink the Interceptor.”

After a few minutes, they reluctantly leave his side to play their scheduled game of laser tag while Juan continues setting high score after high score.

He first learned how to play pinball after moving to Anaheim from Mexico when he was sixteen years old. He would go to the 7-Eleven down the street and play the Addams Family pinball machine, which had six flippers — two at the top, two in the middle, and two at the bottom. After struggling through the first month of learning, Juan was soon able to play for two to three hours at a time.

Now a computer analyst and resident of Irvine, Juan is well aware there are several arcades nearer to him, like Boomers or Dave & Buster’s, but Camelot is the one he prefers. For one, he feels safer with his kids here. The last time he went to Dave & Buster’s, a fight between two drunken adults broke out and he decided he wasn’t comfortable putting his kids in that environment, where the alcohol isn’t restricted to just the bar area. For another, this is where he grew up, and this is where he wants his kids to grow up, too.

Most of the guests still at Camelot right before midnight aren’t like Juan, however. Neither are the employees like Carla. From the handful of rowdy teens playing Skee Ball to the car of beer-sodden adults to the ten yawning arcade workers still left standing, it's clear most everyone can’t wait for the castle to close.

“Good evening Camelot guests,” a voice travels fuzzily through the dusty halls. “It is currently 11 : 15 p.m. Camelot will be closing in forty-five minutes. The last game of laser tag will begin at 11:20. Please begin to make your final reservations and purchases at the ticket counter. Thank you."

Already the lights over the pizza counter have been turned off, as Gary and friends head into a storage closet to retrieve birthday decorations for tomorrow: balloons on sticks and colored paper name tags. At first, there's a revitalized skip in their steps as they half-race to see who can set up the most tables fastest, but this soon gives way to heaviness and indifference — punctuated occasionally by a bouncy wokka wokka wokka from the Pac Man table hockey game. Eventually, that too, along with all the rest of the lights in the castle, will be shut down: a forceful but effective way to remind guests they can’t stay here forever. Sooner or later, everyone walks out the same wooden doors, beneath the same painted banner which always bears the same, simple request:

"A Safe and Swift Return to All."


*Some names have been changed.