Life in the Fast Lanes

When Disney says Splitsville Luxury Lanes is “not your father’s bowling alley”—a polite way of saying not old, boring and musty—they must think your father is someone like, well, someone like me.

For the record, I do not own an Oldsmobile—as in “not your father’s Oldsmobile.” But it’s true: Splitsville is not my bowling alley. In fact, I almost missed it walking through Downtown Disney.
When I was growing up in the Midwest, my father drove us in his Oldsmobile to Classic Lanes, a sprawling, warehouse-like building with huge cardboard bowling pins on the facade.

Inside it was, yes, slightly musty and dim, and there was a clattery, resounding echo when the ball hit the pins. The lanes were lined up side by side in an unbroken vista like a Kansas wheat field. Somewhere in the back was a snack bar and several pinball machines. So last-millennium.

All towering glass and neon outside, Splitsville, which opened in December in the former Virgin Megastore space, doesn’t look anything like your father’s neighborhood bowling center. That’s because it’s not a bowling center. It’s a two-story, 550-seat restaurant with five bars and a gift shop where, Splitsville marketers say, “you can have a blast without even picking up a bowling ball.” At night, there’s a DJ and dancing upstairs, and no kids are allowed after 8 p.m.

The 30 lanes at Splitsville (sorry, but I see that name and think “divorce’’) are interspersed throughout the 50,000-square-foot complex—six here, four there, upstairs and down—hemmed in by dining, shopping and bars. At times I felt my bowling was getting in the way of other people’s eating and shopping.

Though if feels as “Disney’’ as a three-fingered Mouse, this Splitsville is the fifth and newest link of a chain that started in Tampa in 2003. The “evening-casual” after-8 dress code enforced at Miami and Tampa—no cutoffs, no athletic wear, etc.—is not posted for the motley tourist crowd at Disney, but don’t be surprised to find some sport jackets and skirts amid the spring-break attire upstairs after hours. 

Otherwise, the Splitsville concept, offering a full restaurant menu to bowlers while they bowl, mimicks what I call Disney’s Hotel California theory of park management—you can check out but you can never leave.

“The whole idea is you never have to leave the lane,” said Rebecca, our lane concierge.

That’s right, I said “lane concierge.” Since the actual lanes are just like the ones at Classic Lanes, it’s things like sushi, fine wines and lane concierges that put the “luxury” in Luxury Lanes and make it worth writing home about.

Rebecca delivered our bowling shoes to the lane and fetched another pair when mine didn’t fit. My wife, Candy, declared the shoes—with their jazzy design and Velcro fasteners—“really cute, the first time ever for bowling shoes.” When she got a blister on her thumb, Rebecca brought her a Band-Aid. And even though we didn’t order anything, a server brought us ice water and returned with refills.

We ate later upstairs, where there is even more going on with two billiard tables and 20 lanes, to say nothing of the servers weaving in and out. Unlike Classic Lanes, Splitsville has a “celebrity chef,’’ who designed a menu that does not include a bowling alley staple, coney dogs. No matter. Candy’s mahi-mahi with voodoo shrimp and my vegetarian pizza were both excellent.

The ultimate “not your father’s bowling alley” moment happened when Rebecca was getting us settled at our lane like a hotel bellhop showing guests the features of their rooms. I looked at the gumdrop-colored bowling balls in the ball return and asked if there were others to choose from.

“Oh, yes,” Rebecca chirped, gesturing behind us toward the racks. “I can help you pick one out if you like.”

God love her. “No, thanks,” I said, “I’ve done it before.”

There was something else, though, that made our excursion to Splitsville a true Disney experience—our very own tourist peanut gallery. After we had been bowling a while, we became aware that we were being intently observed by two girls, both about 7 years old, and a woman in a pink sweatshirt, apparently the mother of one or the other.

She watched for a few minutes, said something to the girls, then went, well, splitsville. For the next hour, the delightful pixies cheered and gave us high fives—and we served as their impromptu babysitters. A classic, if not Classic, moment. 

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