The flashing lights, the sounds of the steel ball bouncing off the bumpers, the infuriating, frustrating, intensely addictive experience of trying to control chaos. Pinball, which nearly went extinct in the 1990s, has had a major comeback. It is a 19th-century game I have come to love.
Evolving from the game of Bagatelle, modern pinball was born in 1871, when Montague Redgrave added the spring-loaded plunger to the older, billiards-derived game. Pinball became a favored pastime in saloons and drugstores during the Great Depression.
By the 1940s, though, pinball’s reputation had soured. New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia even went on a pinball machine-smashing tour of the city, declaring parlor owners to be “slimy crews of tinhorns, well dressed and living in luxury on penny thievery.” For the next 34 years pinball was illegal in New York, and many other cities across the U.S.
But in 1976, Roger Sharpe, a young writer and pinball champion, played a masterful game in a city council meeting. After he successfully proved to onlookers that pinball was a game of skill not luck, the ban was lifted in New York City. Many other cities followed suit. Alas, the second golden age of the game was short lived.
As arcade games became more popular, pinball faded away, hitting its low point in the 1990s. By the 2000s, only one company, Stern, was still producing new pinball machines. But pinball, seemingly irrepressible, wasn’t out of quarters yet. Starting in the early 2000s, the 130-some-year-old game began to see a resurgence.
Around the country pinball museums began opening up. Private collections of hundreds of machines were made public and competition among serious players started to grow. In 2013 a new company called Jersey Jack began creating brand new pinball machines (although not always to rave reviews) and the International Flipper Pinball Association now counts over 30,000 ranked players. Pinball is back.
Here’s a guide to a perfect pinball road trip, a way to transverse the U.S. via its greatest pinball parlors. The map at the end of the article has 37 of the best places to play pinball around the country—though there are many more—and the article below features 11 of the most unusual and best stocked pinball locations in the country.
My love of pinball started in my local laundromat. We might as well start there, too.
As you pass a few classic pinball machines and a row of washing machines, you might notice something strange at the very back of the Sunshine Laundromat. Move closer and you realize that what looks like a stacked pair of washing machines is actually a door to another world. A world of pinball.
Those who push through the disguised doors will find themselves surrounded by over 23 pinball machines, each one a classic. Among the collection are very rare machines including the Safe Cracker and the Big Bang Bar, which sells on eBay for around $20,000. According to Francesco La Rocca, New York’s rep from the International Flipper Pinball Association, Sunshine has “all the top titles and great machines,” and is “the best public venue around.”
Even the bartenders are pinball pros. Bartender Alberto Santana is ranked 88th in the world by the International Flipper Pinball Association and is happy to share some advice on how to up your score. Up front the washing machines and dryers still spin, as the laundromat is fully functional.
PELHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE
This arcade isn’t much to look at from the outside: it’s a large boxy building in a 1970s strip mall off Route 38, near Pelham, New Hampshire. However, hidden behind that bland facade is the Northeast’s single greatest pinball bonanza. What makes the Pinball Wizard unusual is that the condition of the machines is impeccable, each one restored to near perfect condition.
Any owner of a serious pinball operation has to be part mechanic, part antiques collector, part vintage restorer, and part museum curator. The owner of Pinball Wizard, Sarah St. John, fits the bill perfectly. Despite the machines sometimes being worth five figures, they aren’t kept behind glass, and every single one is meant to be played.
ASBURY PARK, NEW JERSEY
A retro hub of flashing bulbs, mechanical bells, and cartoon figures shines brightly on the Asbury Park boardwalk. The Silverball Museum Arcade is home to more than 180 functioning pinball and arcade machines that transport the beach-goer to a 1960s diner.
The various interfaces evoke multi-generational nostalgia. Take a look at Beat Time, the pinball machine created at the height of Beatlemania, or the 1979 KISS and 1980 Mohammed Ali games. The younger generation might enjoy taking a whack at The Sopranos or Simpsons games. The museum reflects the evolution of American pop culture through the arcade’s display of celebrities, sport teams, and dance moves.
After besting the high score of a favorite game, celebrate at the Arcade’s café with a hot dog, funnel cake or New Jersey’s classic salt-water taffy.
The Roanoke Pinball museum opened its doors in 2015 and is home to over 50 pinball machines, ranging in date from 1948 to the late 1990s. In this case, every exhibit is also playable. One of the oldest pinball machines in the collection is the Screwball, which dates to 1948, and is one of the earliest machines with flippers.
Many city officials believed that if you could “win” at pinball by letting a silver ball bounce around some bumpers, than it was gambling. The industry’s solution was to add flippers, which came about in the late 1940s. Still, in many places it took decades before the bans were lifted.
The museum recently celebrated its one year anniversary with pinball competitions and a bar area.”
ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
The Asheville Pinball Museum has over 30 vintage tables and more than 20 classic video arcade games to admire, but that’s not even the best part. Located in the old Battery Park Hotel in downtown Asheville, the Museum offers its visitors a pretty sweet deal: one entry fee gets you in the door. No quarters are required to visit this buzzing, flashing pinball playground.
Each machine in the collection features a plaque with its date of production and its place in pinball history. The Museum’s home, the old Battery Park Hotel, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
The Pinball Hall of Fame is a treasure trove of bright flashing lights, dinging bells, and furious button-pushing. Located not far off the Las Vegas strip in an unassuming building, the Pinball Hall of Fame is beloved by locals and travelers alike.
More than 200 games fill the warehouse; mostly pinball, but there are a few sports-themed games, some great get-the-ball-bearing-in-the-right-hole games, and one strange safe-breaking game, dating from the 1940s era to the modern day. A few games cost 10 cents per play, most cost 25 cents, and the newest pinball games cost 50 cents.
The seed for Pinball Hall of Fame was planted in 1972, when a 16-year-old boy in Michigan purchased a used pinball machine and charged the neighborhood kids to play it. Tim Arnold grew up to operate a number of arcades in Michigan, and did well enough that he was able to “retire” to Las Vegas in the early ’90s. The Pinball Hall of Fame opened in its current location in 2009, and Arnold donates the profits to charity.
If pinball was born in a pizza parlor, raised in a bar, and went to school in a bowling alley, it has grown up and gotten a real job at the Pinball Museum.
The museum, opened in 2013, claims the title of the largest pinball arcade in the world. It is set up inside a warehouse once used for aerospace and defense manufacturing. While it may seem like a step down to go from aerospace to pinball, the industrial set up of the warehouse turns out to be quite useful for the museum. The 600 pinball machines and 300 other arcades draw a huge amount of power but the building, which can supply 480 volts of electricity, has no trouble keeping up.
The space was created by one-time arcade owner John Weeks, who began collecting machines in 2004 to open a new arcade and bar in LA. After struggling to make it work, Weeks set his sights higher, he decided to build the biggest arcade in the world. Among the hundreds of machines are some particularly novel ones. These include a Hercules, a huge pinball machine that uses cue balls in place of pinballs, and Joust, which is a two person head to head, player vs. player pinball machine.
The oldest game in the collection is from the 1840s and contains literal pins. There are also numerous “electro-mechanical” machines which combine mechanical pinball workings and video game like displays. The museum isn’t currently open for drop-ins, but opens for numerous events and competitions throughout the year.
During the Depression, a coin-operated pinball machine sold for $17.50, so saloons and drugstores quickly made back their investment on this table-top game.
The Pacific Pinball Museum offers over 90 “playable, historic pinball machines” with the signature lights, bells and whistles of the greatest models. Like most museums, the PPM owns a much larger collection—over 400 machines—but only some are available for the public to see.
Located in Seattle’s Chinatown are 54 classic pinball machines collected by a married couple with a passion for the game. Some of the machines date back to 1963, others are unique versions created by artists, and all of them are playable. Clearly a labor of love, both the owners continue to hold down regular jobs while running the pinball museum on the side.
The museum has an admission cost of $13 but once inside all the machines are free to play.
Inside a cavernous 10,500 square-foot former dollar store, a huge collection of over 400 vintage arcade games and pinball machines awaits. An astonishing 1,200 more machines are in storage awaiting repair and restoration.
In addition to having many machines, the Pennsylvania Coin Operated Gaming Hall of Fame and Museum, or PinballPA for short, also has some very rare machines. The collection spans over 70 years and includes a machine called Thunderball, of which only 10 were ever produced. Today only four remain, and just one is playable: The machine at the Pennsylvania Coin Operated Gaming Hall of Fame and Museum.
After your cross-country pinball roadtrip you are ready for the big time.
Twice a year the doors open and the greatest pinball players in the world stream into the World Headquarters of the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association (aka PAPA). Here in the massive, century-old warehouse space the best pinball players go head to head to see who is the most talented, most determined, and in some ways, the luckiest pinball player in the world. It is here where the one and only “World Pinball Champion” is crowned.
Longtime pinball fan Kevin Martin began using his own collection to stage tournaments in Pittsburgh. In 2004 he staged the first new pinball championship in its Pittsburgh home. Five days after that first competition, his entire facility was destroyed by hurricane Ivan. But Martin still had one ball left.
Slowly over time the collection was rebuilt, to over 500 machines. In 2013 PAPA began streaming the tournaments and other pinball events over Twitch. They made three times their $20,000 goal. While the PAPA headquarters isn’t generally open to the public, during the twice-yearly pinball competitions anyone is welcome to come play and even compete, in the Rank D division.
The next championship is April 5-9, 2017. Who knows, maybe you’re the next “Pinball Wizard.”