Leaves flutter in the canopy of trees above. Lightning flashes. The thunder roars. To my left, a gorilla beats his chest. To my right, a parrot squaks. I’m not in the actual rainforest, but the next best place: the Rainforest Cafe. Some might say it’s even better. After all, you can’t get a plate of chicken fingers or a bowl of Rasta Pasta in the Amazon.
As far as chain restaurants go, Rainforest Cafe is right up there with the Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood as one of the most gimmicky and overpriced eateries around. And yet, as a child it was an immersive and original experience (what other restaurant is themed after an actual biome? You don’t see any Tundra Cafes or Desert Diners, do you?). To a nature-loving middle schooler whose parents could never afford a trip to Costa Rica, it was the platonic ideal. I could express my environmentalist ideals via lunch at the mall. And not just any mall, the fancy one with a carousel and an Abercrombie and Fitch. Because of its location and wild animal style (leopard print was all the rage in the mid ’90s, okay!), a crop-top t-shirt from the gift shop carried a lot of social currency at school, the ultimate signifier of cool and class.
I haven’t been to a Rainforest Cafe in nearly two decades. The one closest to my childhood home closed over 15 years ago when I was still a teenager. In fact, more Rainforest Cafes have closed than are currently open. A couple dozen exist globally, mainly in tourist-y locations like Disney World and Niagara Falls. There’s also one in Dubai that looks absolutely bonkers, mainly because everything in Dubai looks absolutely bonkers.
Some might say the restaurant is as endangered as the actual rainforest. This is unsurprising, considering their business model relies on tweens convincing their parents that vacation wouldn’t be complete without a visit to see Cha Cha the tree frog (yes, this is a restaurant with an actual mascot). Yet, I am lucky in this regard, given the scarcity of locations. There are actually two in the state of New Jersey and somehow I ended up living 10 minutes away from one. While I’ve lived in the neighborhood for over five years, I still have never set foot in this temple of nostalgia, until now. It will be an early Valentine’s Day treat to my inner child, who has been withdrawn and hiding under a pile of student loans, clinical depression, and vague Trump-related existential dread.
I brought along some friends who have never experienced the magic of overpriced hamburgers and animatronic monkeys. I have no idea if my adult self will be as enchanted as my 12-year-old self, but it will definitely be more inebriated. There is a bar in the shape of giant mushroom cap. While alcohol is the only element I never noticed as a kid, it’s the one that seems most pertinent as an adult. Now that I’m of age, I can only imagine how many Mongoose Mai Tais it took for my parents to tolerate a meal punctuated by shrieking apes and simulated thunderstorms every 10 minutes.
We walk through the giant gift shop, which sells t-shirts, stuffed animals, hats, pencils, and pretty much anything else that can be branded with its name. A talking tree greets us and rattles off a slew of plant-related statistics that I quickly forget because a chirping parrot begins to squawk over it. It’s a faux flora and fauna stimulation overload. We get the attention of a hostess who astutely confirms that our party is “all adults” as she leads us through the archway aquarium sans kiddy menus. I stare into the bubbly, blue water but I don’t see any fish.
We are seated next to a gorilla, who periodically whoops at other gorillas across the room. I give him a pat on the head and proceed to order beverages. I stick with Diet Coke but my friends are more adventurous and go with bright green kiwi Midori cocktails. Based on the one sip I try, I’m pretty sure it’s 99 percent sugar and 1 percent alcohol. But they get to keep the curvy glass it comes in as a souvenir, so the joke’s on me. What better way to commemorate our ill-fated attempt to regress back to our prepubescent youth. For only $12.99, it’s quite a bargain.
The veggie flatbread that we share as a starter does not fare quite as well. It is limp, soggy, and overloaded with paprika. The off-menu mozzarella sticks, however, are banging, which is exactly the kind of adjective I’d use if I was 12 to describe them. As an entree, the black bean burger is perfectly fine. We know full well that our excursion is not about food though, it’s about the atmosphere. As soon as the first strike of thunder rings out, I am giddy and grab my husband’s hand, in partial fear and partial awe. Except I am overcome by neither. It’s not nearly as loud as I remember. As a child I was startled by the slightest rustling tree branch. But now I’m just old, jaded and seated in the middle of a mall in New Jersey.
I’m not sure anything can bring me back to those middle school outings, not even a volcano chocolate cake, Rainforest’s trademark dessert. But maybe that’s a good thing. When I was twelve there was acne and mean girls and mean boys. Who wants to go back there? As we get up to leave, I spy a slew of kids throwing coins into a waterfall fountain and gorging themselves on chicken fingers. The future belongs to them.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.