Because my photo post exploded on Twitter with nearly 10,000 impressions and engagement from about 2,500 people at the time of writing, here’s the story of our trip to the last remaining Aladdin’s Castle in Quincy, Illinois.
You may also be interested in my post about the site of the very first Aladdin’s Castle location.
One year ago this weekend we visited earth’s last Aladdin’s Castle arcade. It’s in a dying mall in the middle of Illinois, but the employees were delightful and we had a blast. The photo of the front has over 26,000 views on google maps. pic.twitter.com/74cL0uXbLt— Todd Mitchell (@mechatodzilla) July 26, 2020
First, a little background on why this was of interest to me and how I found out there was still an Aladdin’s Castle location to see.
I was born in the mid-80s which means I discovered arcade gaming during the particularly exciting 1990s. I saw the meteoric rise of Midway games and enjoyed the seasoned quality from names like Sega, Konami, and Capcom. My local mall, The St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights, Illinois, had a fairly large Aladdin’s location when I first took notice. Dozens of kids and teens dragged weary parents around the loud and garish space, waiting in line to face off in Tekken on a huge screen or team up with up to five other players on the oversized X-Men cab. Every Pizza Hut had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Simpsons and every skating rink had a Lucky & Wild, but nothing quite measured up to being amongst your fellow players at Aladdin’s Castle.
I have never found a single photo from my local Aladdin’s Castle on the Internet, and I have sunk some time into it.
As I grew older, I gradually became aware of opposing forces in the arcade world. I knew personal computers and home consoles were stealing the spotlight–and I happily played my own–but I still think there was a regional momentum in my area that kept the arcade sacred damn-near forever. It was there in Illinois that the first Aladdin’s Castle was opened in Harvey in 1969 (The Blues Brothers would film there a decade later) and it was there that locations would thrive, not only through the chain’s 450-location peak in the 80s, but right through its decline into the 90s and eventual sale to Namco in 1993. When I was eventually researching the company for a potential article and learned that Illinois still had an operational location in 2019, I was surprised. I didn’t share the same disbelief I’ve seen on Twitter since posting about it, but as an Illinois arcade kid, I had to smile and wondered if I should have known we’d still be holding on to the arcade for dear life.
“Tonight I learned there is one Aladdin’s Castle Arcade left on Earth,” I posted to friends and family in the middle of the night on Facebook. “1 hour and 55 minutes away in Quincy, IL. Who’s in?”
Two friends responded positively right away. I was even more pleasantly surprised to hear my wife respond with interest in making a family day of it. We picked a day we both had off the following week and started getting our four-year-old psyched up for a road trip.
The road from Greater Saint Louis, Missouri to Quincy, Illinois is quiet and doesn’t require much reading about, but to simply let you know I’ve never seen larger fireworks retailers before that day or since. I’m surprised the ATF doesn’t step in after a certain square footage of wall-to-wall gunpowder, and I’m from the Midwest.
Quincy itself is a somewhat scenic college town, somewhere in Illinois’ top 50 highest populated cities. It’s about where you’d put the belly button on Illinois if you were looking at a map. Pull one up, you’ll immediately know what I’m talking about. I’d spent an ill-fated day there a decade earlier helping my estranged father hastily move out of town after what I suspect may have been an eviction, only to spend the next morning in the emergency room about something the full day of driving and moving had done to my back. I couldn’t believe my luck that the last bastion of familiar arcade refuge was in the middle of a city with such randomly negative baggage. I wouldn’t have returned in most circumstances, but just maybe this was the universe trying to level things out a bit.
I’d like to say I was encouraged at the sight of the Quincy Mall, but actually I started to panic. That whole facility looks straight-up abandoned. Before we even parked I was convinced my information must have been wrong and this former mall, along with Aladdin’s castle, was history. I didn’t think it could have even been the mall; it looked more like the rear shipping and receiving area of an old K-Mart. I got rid of the haunted exterior photos with my old phone, but I’m borrowing a Twitter photo of the nice part of the entrance side.
For a few minutes we didn’t even bother getting out. I checked Google maps listings again, I was already apologizing profusely and telling the family how much I appreciated the effort and that I really enjoyed the drive. We finally noticed a couple of people walk into the completely nondescript entryway and disappear. Whatever was going on inside, the doors were open. Still convinced that, at best, people were inside turning this into a Planet Fitness, we got our boy out and headed inside.
It was still a mall inside, but only just. Few people were around, and the nearest bathrooms after our long drive up were at the far end of a room full of teenagers–and I don’t actually know what meth smells like–but I can’t imagine humans staying in proximity to that odor if they didn’t have anything to do with it. The bathrooms smelled worse, not that this brought me any closer to a theory on what was going on in there.
With the family regrouped, we followed the lights and sounds to the promised land: an open and operational Aladdin’s Castle. The signage was classic, but in great condition. The inside was quiet, but inviting. I couldn’t help but look down at my feet as I took my first step on to an Aladdin’s floor in twenty+ years. I was expecting crazier carpet.
We looked around to take inventory (as one does in this situation) and ran our first card swipe through a token machine. Loading up our pockets made us feel like kids again. I immediately noticed that among the lame Namco Pac-Man tokens–I mean they’re fine, but they’re everywhere–I’d pulled out a classic Aladdin’s token from many years before. I couldn’t believe my luck to have a souvenir like this moments after we arrived. I put it in a different pocket and showed our son some games he might like.
Somehow, the vintage token ended up in one of the very first machines we played. It was no one’s fault but my own.
I’ll pause here to address game selection which was a big focus on Twitter. It’s important to reiterate here that my trip was now one full year ago, but here’s what we saw on the floor:
- Loads of redemption games
- No pinball
- Good ol’ air hockey
- Many types of basketball machines with signs pleading not to let your kids stand on them but they were actually totally cool with it
- Some very cool classics including:
- Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga 20 Year Reunion
- The House of The Dead
- Dance Dance Revolution
- Time Crisis
- Ghost Squad
This may not sound like much (and I’m leaving some out due to lost photos), but we actually hung out and played there much longer than I expected.
As we started to tire out, we pooled our redemption tickets and got our son a couple of cool little trinkets to remember the trip by and agreed to let him ride some of the rides out in the walkway just outside the arcade. With each trip back to the token machine I scoured everyone’s tokens for any more precious vintage editions, but found none. I resigned to take pictures for the ‘gram while my wife disappeared to go back to the counter for something.
My wife rejoined us grinning from ear to ear as she dropped a few more tokens in my hand. These included one of the precious lost Aladdin tokens I’d stupidly dumped into a claw machine earlier, but also an even older type I’d never seen before that wasn’t even perfectly round.
“How did you manage this?” I asked in shock.
“I just explained how far we came to visit and what had happened and asked if they had any others around that I could trade them for,” she said. “They helped me look through a big box of them and made sure to give me both of these.”
I was floored at her efforts and their kindness on top of it. Despite staggering uncertainty, it was the perfect trip.
We rested and recharged at the nearby Applebee’s where we watched with fascination as an air conditioning leak of some kind ran freely into the bar area, soaking employees and patrons alike throughout the duration of our visit. Me and Quincy are even, and maybe then some.
To answer a couple of remaining questions from twitter:
- I heard they replaced the prize booth with an automated machine shortly after our visit. I can’t 100% confirm
- I also heard they moved to cards instead of tokens possibly?
- These changes allowed them to mostly automate the place and it may be much harder to find an employee there now. Again, going off of reports, can’t confirm or deny.
- I have not heard news of this place officially closing
Finally, there’s a group for Aladdin’s nostalgia on Facebook. It’s actually kind of cool. A quick FB search should bring it right up. Thanks for all the great interactions on Twitter about this and thanks for taking the journey with me.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of the GameDev Breakdown podcast. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.