Emily Ambrus loves to play laser tag in her basement and backyard with her brother Collin. So when her mother, Jenny, suggested having her ninth birthday party at Fireball Mountain, a laser tag facility in Wrightstown, Burlington County, Emily was excited.
“I liked teaming up with other people,” Emily said of her party last week with 11 friends. “I invited people who are very athletic and like to play.”
After donning their gear, Emily’s group played Capture the Flag in the fort and city, two of the park’s 30 unique structures that also include World War I-style trenches and two-story catwalks. Though they didn’t partake in any of Fireball Mountain’s video game-related missions, that’s an area of the park gaining attention from customers who range from college students to corporate executives on a team-building mission.
Always a fan of video games, Robert Peppard, Fireball Mountain president and general manager, recognized a natural tie-in between those games and laser tag. He recently added laser tag games designed to mimic popular video games, including Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Fortnite, to give gamers a chance to act out those missions. Although the park doesn’t have a relationship with any video game company, the missions resemble those in the popular games but aren’t close enough to create copyright concerns, he said.
“Last year we completed a field that sits on about an acre and a half, with 30 buildings, streets, underground tunnels, and a two-story catwalk,” said Peppard, who opened the park in 2012. “There are two boards on Call of Duty that are very similar to it and we created a series of missions that are unique to that area.”
Gaming is riding a long upswing that accelerated during the pandemic, especially among younger people. The global gaming market will reach an estimated $268.8 billion annually in 2025, up from $178 billion in 2021, according to Statista, a market and consumer data provider. North America is set to remain the top-grossing gaming market worldwide.
That trend is one reason why Philadelphia video gamers have a place to call their own — a 35,000-square-foot campus with a public space for 780 people called Nerd Street Gamers, which offers video game tournaments. It formally opened last year at 401 N. Broad St.
Fireball’s riff on the trend appears to be novel. “The idea of providing consumers with play experiences that might be similar to their home gaming experiences can be very worthwhile, because now they can experience it themselves in the flesh,” said Jerry Merola, managing partner of Amusement Entertainment Management in East Brunswick, N.J., which advises family entertainment centers. “This is a fairly unique strategy.”
“We have an entire generation of consumers that grew up on games,” Merola added. “This is what the consumer loves to do today.”
Fireball Mountain may be well-positioned to meld video games with laser tag because unlike most laser tag facilities that are indoors, Fireball Mountain is exclusively outdoors, set on 15 acres amid Burlington County’s farms and woodlands, not far from the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst military base. Peppard touts his facility’s “exertainment” for getting the gamer off the couch and physically into the activity.
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”We downplay the idea of the gun,” Peppard said, given the recent shootings in Buffalo and elsewhere. “In fact, there are missions we run [like Capture the Flag] where you don’t even need to fire the laser tagger because the objective might not require that. It’s all about working with the team on a common objective [while] having fun the whole time.”
That exercise element has been a big draw for the Rev. Doug Cornelius of First Presbyterian Church of Hamilton Square in Hamilton N.J., who’s taken his youth group to Fireball Mountain about a half-dozen times.
“It’s a great opportunity to get our youth in the church outside, playing on a team together and having fun,” he said. “The youth have always loved it, it’s good exercise in fresh air and a positive in-person interpersonal experience.”
His group of 9 kids ages 12 to 18, plus three leaders ages 40 to 45, enjoyed playing Capture the Flag and Find the Escort VIP. The kids sometimes employed strategies that they learned through video game play, Cornelius said.
The game works by pitting teams against each other and giving players specific instructions depending on the game. Some of the options at Fireball Mountain include Team Elimination, Domination, and Counter Strike.
Players are fitted with gear that includes a Lycra cap with sensors and a laser tag unit, equipped with a sling, and given instructions on how to use them. You can wear whatever you want but they do rent camouflage jumpsuits and jackets and sell camo T-shirts if you want to dress the part.
Advancements in technology have allowed for more possibilities within laser tag. Colorful infrared lights, which can now travel up to 1,000 feet, have replaced the red and white lasers that gave the game its name in the mid-1980s. Equipment has gotten lighter and WiFi enables real-time scoring that can tell players who has been hit, by whom, and how many times they have tagged other players.
When players get hit, it makes a sound that determines the type of hit. For example, a groan-type sound means someone is hit but is still in the game. But if players hear “Medic, medic, man down,” sees their lights flashing and their LED screen says “Game over,” they’re out. But that’s not the end of the fun. Depending on the game, there’s a brief break and then a participant can play again.
Fireball Mountain added jello tag about a year and a half ago, similar to paintball but without those spherical dye-filled capsules. Unlike laser tag which shoots an infrared beam, the gun in jello tag shoots a small ball of gelatin.
“When you get hit by a paintball at 250 or 300 miles per hour, it’s going to leave a mark,” said Peppard. “It’s also going to leave a stain on your clothes, which jello won’t. In jello tag, the range is only 60 feet but that’s perfect for our Combat Village,” which has 30 structures.
The game has become so popular that a second field is being built and is to be ready next month, just to accommodate requests. When the game debuted in 2020, about 30 players signed up the first month. This month they are expecting 300 players and once the new field is complete, they anticipate more than double that number.
Peppard was a U.S. Navy veteran in the submarine service from 1982 to 1986 who graduated from Penn State University in 1990 with a major in operations management. He spent most of his career focused on information technology in the drug industry, which helped him envision new ways to play laser tag as the technology has improved.
Although Peppard won’t share specific figures, his company’s revenues were down about 65% during the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021. Even when conditions began to improve, he struggled to find workers, dropping to about eight employees from 14 in 2019. The company’s ranks have since rebounded to 20 employees, and revenues are up about 30% compared with 2019.
“We took those two hit years but they allowed us to finish the second story of the city, which people really like,” said Peppard, whose real estate holding company owns the site. “That was an important part of our strategy. When we do surveys, people especially like the diversity of the fields.”
The park’s largest client base includes summer camps, birthday parties, youth groups and corporate team building. Their biggest competitors are such venues as the nearby Six Flags, along with bowling alleys and waterparks at the Shore. Their only nearby laser tag competitor is iPlay America in Freehold, which is all indoors. Fireball also can provide mobile services, setting up a battlefield for laser tag, jello tag, foam ball and arrow dodgeball at nearby locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In the park, Fireball charges $35 a person, with group rates as low as $20.50 for groups of 100 or more, and somewhere in between for smaller groups depending on the size. Sessions are two hours long, including a half-hour for registration, gearing up, orientation and instruction.
Peppard doesn’t have plans to create additional parks, but he is continually looking to improve Fireball Mountain.
“I’ve been doing this almost 20 years now,” he said. “I love what I’ve got and I’m tweaking it and making it better.”