Growing up, my family’s house and my aunt and uncle’s house were on the same plot of land on the old family homestead. According to Google Maps, the distance between our back door and my aunt and uncle’s front door was about 400 feet, so pretty close together. My aunt and uncle’s house was a special place for me. I would visit their house often, because I had older cousins who let me play with their cool toys from the 1960s and 70s, like a wind-up Evil Knievel or a Super Jock Super Toe.

They also had an Atari, which I never had despite begging my parents for one, so I could often be found at their house playing Frogger or Space Invaders. As an added bonus, my Aunt and Uncle had satellite TV, so every once in a while my Aunt would invite me up to watch some kids’ movie that was on HBO. Their house was also a convenient place to grab a drink of apple juice or get a Ding Dong out of the oven (Was this a thing or just something my aunt and uncle did?) when I was running around the farm. Needless to say, I was a frequent visitor.

One windy autumn day when I was about 4, I was going inside their house to watch a movie that Aunt Pam had invited me up to see. As I opened the storm door, the wind got a hold of it, and violently blew it open. I was knocked backwards, down four concrete steps to the concrete path below. Since Aunt Pam knew I was coming, she saw the whole thing happen from the kitchen and ran out to check on me. The back of my head had a big goose egg on it, but otherwise I seemed fine. Apparently I didn’t even cry.

However, we would later discover that the blow to my head gave me a form of epilepsy. For a better part of my childhood, I’d have regular CAT scans, I’d be on anti-seizure medication called Dilantin, and I was told to avoid flashing lights that might cause a seizure. My mother was especially concerned about that last warning. Which is why, for many years, I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near a video game arcade.

There was an arcade at our local mall, Marketplace Mall in Champaign, Illinois, called Track 5. I have no idea why, but it had a railroad theme, complete with fake tracks that ran diagonally across the wood siding entrance, which was also flanked by railroad crossing signs. Whenever we’d walk by it, my mom would make me look away so that I wouldn’t get entranced by any flashing lights.

However, this also meant that, whenever I was old enough to wander the mall by myself, I was obviously drawn to Track 5. I wouldn’t go inside because I’d been conditioned to believe that going inside would mean my immediate death, but I’d walk past and sneak a peek in to see what the regular kids were doing. I wouldn’t stay very long because, again, instant death, but I’d get a glimpse of whatever game was at the front entrance at the time, and wish I could be inside.

I remember one time – and only one time – I disobeyed my Mom and snuck into Track 5. I remember keeping my head down and my eyes averted as I walked through the aisles of games. There, sitting against the back wall was 1979’s Lunar Lander. The game was released probably about 3 or 4 years before I approached it, so it was old enough to have worked its way from the front of the arcade to the back – sort of the video game equivalent of being put out to pasture. I intentionally chose something along the back wall so there was no way my Mom would see me.

I only had a single quarter and I’d never played the game before, so it didn’t take long before I’d wasted all of my lives. When I was done, I made my way back through the gauntlet of flashing lights and safely emerged into the mall, checking to make sure the coast was clear before I came out. I was down 25 cents, but I was exhilarated to have made it through unscathed.

Eventually we realized that my type of epilepsy was not triggered by flashing lights, but by a lack of sleep. If I got overly-tired, there was a chance I’d have a seizure. And even then, my seizures weren’t the violently shaking kind – I would simply wake up very disoriented with a swollen tongue that would take a few minutes to subside. Thankfully, by junior high, I had outgrown my epilepsy and it wouldn’t be a problem moving forward in life.

Long story short, I had been unnecessarily kept away from the arcade revolution during my early childhood years, meaning I missed out on a lot of the games that everyone has fond memories of playing. I’d get to play them eventually, but I never had the rush of playing Pac-Man or Space Invaders or Asteroids when they were first introduced. It wasn’t until the late-80s, when arcades were dying, that I was finally able to have those experiences.

Aside from Track 5, there were two stand-alone arcades in the Champaign-area around the same time. One was Space Port, an arcade franchise, that was located on the campus of the University of Illinois. In fact, I found this photo of the exact campus location:

I don’t really remember ever going to Space Port – my family didn’t spend a ton of time on campus, and if we did it was usually to go to one place, so it was get in and get out, without a lot of wandering. Besides, it was on campus and I’m sure my parents didn’t want me hanging around all those college students. But I do remember that distinctive, alluring design of the entrance as we drove past.

The other arcade was Aladdin’s Castle.

According to The Golden Age of Arcade History, Aladdin’s Castle was the largest franchise arcade with 450 locations nationwide. The origin story of Aladdin’s is kind of fascinating, really. Back in the early 1970s, Jules Millman wanted to legitimize coin-operated games. These types of games were typically found in dive bars and carnivals and were oftentimes considered gambling, so kids weren’t able to legally play them.

But Millman had the idea of putting coin-op games in shopping malls, where there would be carpeting on the floor to add a level of style, attendants to control the rowdy kids, and a no smoking/no eating policy to keep the place respectable and clean. And it worked! By the time the arcade boom hit in the late-1970s, Millman’s American Amusements arcades were already in place and primed for success. Unfortunately for Millman, he wouldn’t reap the rewards. He sold his arcade business to Bally, a leading manufacturer of pinball machines and licensed video games like Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Space Invaders, in 1974. Bally would rename American Amusements to Aladdin’s Castle shortly after and would expand quickly.

In 1974, Bally had 30 Aladdin’s Castle locations. A year later, they had 50. But as video games grew in popularity, they had 221 locations in place by 1980, and 450 by 1982. The video game crash of 1983 hit Aladdin’s Castle hard, though, and they wound up closing around 180 locations by 1986. In 1989, Bally sold off Aladdin’s Castle, and then it sold again in 1993 to Namco, the company that made Pac-Man, and was absorbed into Namco as part of it’s “Cybertainment” division.

The Aladdin’s Castle in Champaign was located at Country Fair Shopping Center, a mostly outdoor mall that featured a Radio Shack, a five-and-dime, an Osco Drugs, and other non-big box stores. The only place that really mattered to me and my friends, though, was the Aladdin’s Castle right next door to the Country Fair 4, a four-screen movie theater.

Country Fair when it opened in 1959. In the 1980s, Alladin’s Castle and the Country Fair 4 were located approximately inside the red circle.

In this 1996 photo of the theater (after it’s expansion to an 8-screen theater in 1991), the Aladdin’s Castle would have been in the empty location to the far right of the photo:

Here’s the same spot today on Google Street View. You can see the box office booths are still there since the theater closed in 2003:

This was a prime spot for us kids to get dropped off for a couple of hours while Mom and Dad did the Christmas shopping or went to a doctor’s appointment. You’d see a cheap movie (Country Fair usually featured late-run pictures), then head next door to Aladdin’s Castle until your Mom’s car pulled up outside and honked. Many a quarter was wasted as you had to abandon your game and run outside before you got in trouble.

In 1986 or 87, my friend Jeremy had his birthday party at Country Fair Shopping Center. In lieu of having a party at their house, his mom bought four or five of us kids movie tickets and snacks, then gave each of us $5 for Aladdin’s Castle afterwards. Of course we all knew we were going to Aladdin’s Castle ahead of time, so we’d also hit up our parents for some spending money, meaning we were a bunch of 11 and 12-year olds with $10 – $15 to blow. I have no idea what movie we saw that day, I just remember being so excited to go to the Castle.

For you youngsters out there, when you went to a franchise arcade like Aladdin’s Castle, you didn’t spend regular quarters on the games. You would exchange your cash for tokens that would only work on the machines within that franchise. So, instead of getting 4 quarters for $1, you got 4 tokens that could only be used at Aladdin’s Castle. Sometimes they’d even have bonus offers, so your $5 in cash got you 25 tokens instead of just 20. Either way, it was kind of a brilliant scheme, because now you’d given them money with value and in exchange they gave you tokens that had no value outside the arcade. If you didn’t use all your tokens, you’d essentially wasted your money, especially if you didn’t make it back to the arcade ever again.

I remember they had a special deal going on when we went there for Jeremy’s birthday – for $7 you got 20 or 25 tokens, but you also got this cool token holder tube that you wore around your neck. The ones we bought were black, but they looked like the one in these photos I found online:

As you can see, you unscrewed the top and stacked your tokens inside. Then you could sling it back around your neck to keep them safe and organized for future games.

Aladdin’s Castle also offered zipper bags for your tokens that were kind of like fanny packs, except you wore them Velcroed around your wrist. This seems like it would be more of a pain than it was worth and would be way too easy for someone to run past you and rip it off your arm. I think the tube necklace design is a lot better, even if it probably didn’t hold as many tokens.

By the time Jeremy’s mom came back to pick us up later that afternoon, I don’t think we had many tokens left. However, I want to say my friend Brett basically had his parents do the same thing for his birthday, so we already had our Aladdin’s Castle token holders ready to go.

I have no idea what happened to my token tube, nor any remaining tokens. I’m sure I threw them away while in high school, especially after the one and only Aladdin’s Castle location closed down. I wish I’d held onto them, though, as they were a fun reminder of the heyday of video games.

For years now, I’ve had an Aladdin’s Castle token on my eBay Watchlist. With shipping it would have cost me about $9 to get it, but I kept putting it off because it was just expensive enough to not be an impulse buy. However, I also held off because I had no earthly idea what I’d do with it once I had it.

A few weeks ago, seeing that token on my Watch List as usual, I decided to do a search and see if I couldn’t find one cheaper that I could justify spending the money on. I wound up finding a similar token for only $2.80 including shipping. That’s less than the price of a snack at the gas station. I pulled the trigger and was happy when the token arrived in the mail.

But I couldn’t stop there. No, no, no. There was another design of token that was common throughout the 1980s that didn’t feature the name, but only had an Arabian castle on one side and a genie on the other. Obviously I had to get one of those, too. So, for $3.60 including shipping, I now have that design as well.

Once I got them in-hand, I realized that they’re actually a little bit smaller than a quarter.

Here they are side-by-side…

And here they are on top of the quarter…

After doing a little research, I’ve discovered that the internal coin mechanisms of arcade machines can be swapped out to accept different sizes of tokens. That way a kid can’t use a standard quarter because it’s just too big to travel through the slots in the machine. In addition, certain arcade franchises would use different-sized coins so that you couldn’t use your Aladdin’s Castle tokens at Space Port.

I’ve been looking around online for display options for these tokens and I kind of dig this concept that I found on eBay:

It’s essentially a small frame with two pieces of plastic film that hold the tokens in place, then you stand the frame in the base. I have a few challenge coins friends have given me over the years, so I could see me doing a little display of coins and tokens like this on a shelf.

Either way, I’m happy I finally pulled the trigger on getting some Aladdin’s Castle tokens. They’ll never really be worth anything, but I think they make for a fun conversation piece and a nice reminder of how we used to play back in the day.

A special thanks to for the background info and photos of Country Fair Shopping Center.

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