Mike Doolittle looked past the chipping paint, the fading clientele, the wear and tear, the shaking heads and the shrugs … and saw only smiles of thousands simply having fun at the beach.
He didn’t listen to those who had other ideas or questioned why in the world he would want to take over a go-kart track, bumper cars and an arcade in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Two years later, Playtime Family Fun Center in Ocean Shores has proved his simple business model was a lot more thoughtful than most people ever considered.
Not only has Doolittle succeeded in connecting with the memories of his youth, he has instilled an infectiously positive family experience into an area that sorely needed a new shot of enterprise and ingenuity.
Even his Christmas light displays caught on and now there is a growing effort to light up Ocean Shores for occasions such as St. Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day.
“The biggest thing was to make it a friendly environment, starting with the employees,” Doolittle said on a tour of the Fun Center, taking a rare break for an interview in the Peppermint Parlor ice cream shop. “If the employees aren’t having fun, they are not going to be able to help the customer have fun, and that’s the only reason they are here: to have fun.”
Doolittle grew up in Montesano, went to Washington State University and worked for 25 years in Oregon before returning to take over a place he used to love as a boy at the beach. Now single and a confessed workaholic, the business, he said, is well suited for his degree in agricultural engineering with a minor in economics.
“You’d be surprised how much I use my education. Any degree in the sciences teaches you about problem solving,” Doolittle said. “You can apply that to any aspect of life.”
Solving problems now can involve making sure the Peppermint Parlor ice is well stocked and impeccably clean, the video arcade games are running properly, the engines in the go-karts are properly overhauled or the vintage, original 1960s era bumper cars have good connections to the electric field that powers them.
He’s sort of the ringmaster who fixes all things that need fixing and sets the tone with a positive, quiet vision about how to simply get things done right. His success has not gone unnoticed around town, leading to Playtime Family Fun Center being named business of the month for March by the Ocean Shores/North Beach Chamber of Commerce. “Mike and Playtime are great supporters of events and non-profits in town and the growth and success of Ocean Shores is a primary motivating factor,” the chamber noted in honoring Playtime. “He strongly believes that the success of his business depends on the success of the surrounding business community and he works toward that goal.”
CREAM AND CROP
Out of college in 1982, Doolittle went to work for the wood products company, Crown Zellerbach, which at the time was raising cottonwood trees along the Columbia River for pulp. The operation was located in Clatskanie, and Doolittle was hired when the tree farm was going from the experimental stage to the operational stage.
The job used a mixture of forestry practices and agricultural practices, and seemed to perfectly match Doolittle’s background.
“My job was to develop all the procedures for planting, harvesting, fertilizing, and all the equipment that went along with it to harvest it,” Doolittle explained. “It was a dream job.”
Unfortunately, the job lasted fewer than four years and the company was bought out by a British investor that ended the division Doolittle was in.
“We didn’t have any income yet. It was going operational, but we really didn’t have anything to harvest. So we were all just terminated,” he said.
To stay in the area, Doolittle took a job with a livestock feed company as a sales representative traveling all over Washington and Oregon and most of the West Coast.
At the time, he was married and raising a daughter, so the stability kept Doolittle in Oregon, but he “decided to get a wild hair” and opened a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store in Albany, Ore. A couple years later, he bought his second Baskin-Robbins in Corvallis.
“That all started because we got an ice-cream freezer to make homemade ice cream as a wedding gift, and I loved doing that,” Doolittle said. “So there is my passion for ice cream.”
That’s a good passion to have since a key part of Playtime Family Fun is the Peppermint Parlor ice cream shop, conveniently located between the bumper car facility and the game arcade.
At WSU, Doolittle said, he developed more than just a taste for good ice cream from the pure product produced on the campus dairy.
“We would get the straight cream right off the dairy there as poor college students and then make homemade ice cream,” he recalled with a glint of satisfaction just thinking of the taste.
“Blueberry was probably the most popular that people liked,” he said.
He got into the ice cream business full time the same way he ended up in business in Ocean Shores: simply out of curiosity and a desire to follow his heart. It started with a dinner-table conversation that Doolittle followed up with a simple phone call to a local Baskin-Robbins. He was impressed to find the owner there and willing to talk to him, as was the next such owner he phoned right after that.
In all, he owned the Baskin-Robbins franchises for 17 years, starting in the early 1990s.
“We more than doubled the business in them, but then I started a hobby that turned into another business, and I enjoyed that more than having the two stores,” Doolittle explained of what would seem like another about-face for his career.
He had invested in a portable saw mill, called Logs to Lumber, that serviced private landowners in the area and began to gain momentum by branching out into secondary processing.
“We ended making a lot of flooring and moulding and things like that for people,” he said. “It was more fun than having two Baskin-Robbins, so I sold the store in Corvallis.”
His business could take speciality logs and turn them into flooring or other woodworking, and he ended up producing for some major developers who wanted unique features in their new subdivisions.
“I could go from log to a finished product,” he said. “I could saw it, dry it, run it through the processors.”
When he finally decided to do another 180-degree career change and move to Ocean Shores, he had three people employed with the speciality log business.
Doolittle’s father had overseen the estate of the former owners of Playtime Family Fun Center, which at the time was called B.J.’s, a name that Doolittle knew needed changing from the outset. The go-kart side of the business once was known as Playtime, Inc., so the name change was a natural return to the past.
Doolittle’s father had worked with the original owner, Norval Lawty, who started the facility in the mid-1960s. The Peppermint Parlor had been a cafe that for years bore a distinctive red and white-striped exterior. His father then suggested that Mike should look into taking over the whole operation after a succession of events left it in need of new ownership.
What finally drew him into the decision was as much reward for keeping his word as it was good fortune.
He had a verbal agreement with the owners of the building where Logs to Lumber was located that he would eventually buy the building, so he told his father that he couldn’t do it.
“I did sneak up (to Ocean Shores) one day to just kind of look at this, but I went back and said, ‘No, I can’t, because I have a verbal commitment down there that I need to keep because these people have taken care of me and have helped me as well,’ ” he said.
“Out of the blue, one morning those folks came to me and said, ‘Mike, if you ever want to sell Logs to Lumber some day, don’t count us out,’ ” he recalled.
Days later, he had a new owner for his logging business and began the yearlong process to take over the Fun Center.
“I love Western Washington,” he said of his ultimate motivation in returning. “The Willamette Valley in Oregon is very beautiful, but my roots are here. Dad was raised in Grass Creek. Clam digging kept me out of trouble as a teenager.”
LIGHT THE WAY
Doolittle now is doing more than just about anyone in town to promote the benefits of business in Ocean Shores. For the second consecutive year, he’s had a booth with ice cream at the Razor Clam Festival & Seafood Extravaganza.
“The third generation is starting to bring their kids here,” Doolittle said. H e loves to watch the smiles and the wide eyes of the kids who line up in anticipation of riding on the slick track or challenging their friends in the bumper cars.
He’s been an active participant in a new economic development study commissioned by Mayor Crystal Dingler that sets a course for improving Ocean Shores tourism, and he is actively helping to promote the website, dooceanshores.com.
“I have always liked Christmas lights, and I have always had a dream of putting on a display animated with music. I attempted it a year ago and didn’t make it, but this year I was a little better prepared and did my first one this Christmas,” he said.
Within hours, however, he had a complaint, the police showed up, but during the day he had people outside dancing to the music. For a few days, Doolittle said he felt dejected.
“But then the locals started to tell me how much they loved it and now it’s nothing but people telling me how neat it is,” he said. The effort spread to other businesses, too, and he has plans for Fourth of July and Halloween, too.
“Light up Ocean Shores — it’s beginning,” Doolittle said.
As a single man living in what is largely a tourist, vacation and retirement community, he doesn’t miss the social aspects of a larger city.
“I’ll go a week or so at a time and never even go into Aberdeen,” he said, confessing that he’s always working, always tinkering at the business. “I eat it and sleep it,” he said of his work.
So far, he’s weathered what many felt was a major economic storm over the two years he’s been in operation by sailing ahead far faster than many expected.
“Obviously, to get in and do it, I had to make some very serious projections as to what had to turn around to make it viable, and we have met or exceeded it for the most part,” he said.
With room to expand, possibly bumper boats in the summer, Doolittle’s first goal has been to improve the overall quality of experience. Last year, he added a new fleet of slick track cars, and the place always takes maintenance from the constant wear and tear, exposure to weather, and year-round operation.
Doolittle admits it brings out the kid in him just to be there on some days.
“I get most of my enjoyment seeing the smiles on everyone else’s face. I kind of live it that way. When everybody else is happy, I am happy,” he said.