Let the good times roll
Chico-raised businessman provides the community with a place for fun
For Mike Seko, buying Cal Skate nearly a decade ago was more than a business venture.
The Chico-raised Seko (pronounced like the watch company Seiko) has a long history with the roller rink, going back to its early years more than three decades ago. He was just a kid then, and going skating was the thing to do in town.
On Friday and Saturday nights, the joint was packed. It was the place to be and be seen.
“Those were the days of disco,” Seko recalled, “and it was more of a teen hotspot.”
The business opened its doors in 1978, long before the construction of the Chico Mall—or, as locals know it, the “new mall.” In fact, Cal Skate was built before there was much of anything in that area. Seko, a regular at the rink, remembers the business being surrounded by open fields. The closest things he can recall being nearby in the early ’80s were a Sizzler restaurant (now the home of Original Pete’s) and a gas station (now the site of Dutch Bros. Coffee).
“When you drove to Cal Skate, it kind of seemed like you were going out of town,” he said.
Seems like a lifetime ago to many locals, including the 43-year-old Seko, whose first job as a teenager was as a DJ and floor guard at Cal Skate, a person who would monitor the rink. (He would escort those who were skating too fast into “the penalty box,” essentially a time-out area.)
Today, Cal Skate is in the same location adjacent to Highway 99 and East Park Avenue, only it’s now surrounded by other companies, including the Marriott Residence Inn to the south.
Longtime patrons will notice that much of the facility appears the same. The outside of the rink looks a lot like it did when it opened, and the batting cages, known as the Dugout, built a couple of years later, still ring each day with the whap of bats hitting baseballs.
The business is still the site of first dates, birthday parties and other celebrations, but there are notable differences.
Seko was living in the Bay Area, working as an air-traffic controller, when he heard that the business was up for sale. The timing was perfect. He was just starting a family and jumped on the opportunity to move back to Chico to raise his daughter. He and a partner purchased Cal Skate in 2001 and shortly thereafter began revamping it into an all-out entertainment facility with something for everyone.
It’s under this new ownership that the business took on its more appropriate moniker: Funland.
One of the first things Seko noticed as an owner was that the patronage was seasonal. The place would get slammed during inclement weather, and it would dwindle down on days when it was pleasant outside. Seko knew getting things to pick up would take transforming the facility into a destination.
“That’s when we went with miniature golf,” he said.
He constructed Putters, Chico’s only miniature-golf course, in 2004. It’s a big draw at Funland, comprising an 18-hole course and a nicely appointed modern entertainment facility complete with games, including air-hockey tables, a party room and an ice cream parlor. During a recent pleasant early evening, Putters was hoppin’ with kids.
Most people probably wouldn’t guess that Funland is locally owned, because of its beginnings as part of a chain of Cal Skate locations. Plus, when Seko first meets people and is asked what he does for a living, he talks about his day job, which is still as an air-traffic controller (he commutes to Sacramento).
Seko is proud of the company’s local ties, though, and he sources all of the business’ food fare from other locally owned businesses, including Chico-based Danielsen Food Co., and franchises Round Table Pizza and Baskin-Robbins.
“It keeps the money local, and that’s very important right now,” he said.
Funland employs about 40 local people, three of whom work full time, and Seko is proud that the business has managed to avoid layoffs during the recent economic turbulence.
Seko was happy to give a tour of Funland, starting with Cal Skate, during a recent interview. As he talked about his time spent zooming around the roller rink, both as a customer and an employee, a small group of elementary-school-aged artistic skaters practiced their techniques to music. Seko pointed out that for decades the rink has been home to clubs that consistently produce champions at the state and national levels.
The youngsters are just one of a number of competitive teams that use the facility.
In the mid-’90s, an adult hockey team took shape. These days, the business is home to adult and youth leagues.
More recently, the business became a home of roller-derby competitions. The Nor Cal Roller Girls formed in 2006 and have been competing every year since. Seko said the league has had its ups and downs, which is typical for a fledgling group, but that the all-women team sport has settled into a nice groove, bringing in an average of 700-800 fans during home games.
Opposing teams on this season’s schedule include Redding and Tahoe. The next home game, on May 1, is against Mendocino’s Mendo Mayhem. Seko acknowledged that roller derby is a whole other animal, bringing in an entirely different clientele. The events are all-ages, but organizers cordon off part of the venue to allow the over-21 crowd to drink beer.
The atmosphere is, of course, a little more rowdy than a typical night at the rink.
Still, Funland is decidedly family oriented.
“That’s who we are and what we do best,” Seko said.
In its 32 years in Chico, he estimates the business has organized more than 35,000 birthday parties. Even without a party, Cal Skate is about as kid-friendly as can be. The colorfully carpeted area just outside of the rink is filled with all sorts of games, ranging from modern varieties to popular old standbys such as Skee-ball (that game where you roll a ball up a sloping platform and try to make into holes of differing point values). It’s kind of like a casino for kids.
Activity inside the rink during a recent Wednesday evening started picking up as the business prepared for a PTA fundraising event for a local elementary school. Seko, who attended Rosedale Elementary, Chico Junior High and Chico High schools, gives local schools use of the facility at a discounted rate for their events and shares revenues from the evening. He estimates the partnership gives about $10,000 back to Chico schools each year.
As he surveyed the bustling around him, Seko noted how the rink changes over the course of a day.
“It’s always strange how the building sits empty in the day and then comes alive,” he said.