Birthday parties went head-to-head last weekend behind the doors of a Meridian office suite. Dozens of children and a handful of adults spent the afternoon hunting each other with Nerf guns on a battlefield created by a local business, Dart Warz.
"I like it because it's super safe," said Brian Ramos, whose 6-year-old son, Peyton, attended one of the parties.
The last time Peyton went to a birthday party at Dart Warz, the parents got into it, suiting up in fluorescent vests and goggles, shooting foam darts and discs at each other.
Players are let loose to run, jump, duck and hide. They dodge the other team's foam projectiles while shooting back. It's an honor code system, relying on players to walk off the field after they've been hit.
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"It was actually a pretty good workout," Brian Ramos said. "By the end, I was sweating."
Dart Warz's owners believe their game has enough promise to become a hit like paintball. They are opening locations in other states, and they plan to start selling franchises. They also might open a larger battlefield in the Treasure Valley.
Stanton Wilkerson got the idea to open Dart Warz - formerly known as Dart Zone - while working full time selling cellphones for AT&T.
"I played paintball for 12 years - recreationally, but I took it pretty serious," he said. "And then I found myself playing Nerf wars in my house ... organized well enough that it made the game fun."
Wilkerson, his son, his brother and their friends would play up to six hours at a time. He thought to himself, "If we're having this much fun, other people would, too."
So, with help from his wife, Randi, Wilkerson launched the business two years ago using retirement funds and savings.
"We're getting to the point where we're bursting out of the seams. ... It gets elbow-to-elbow, lines, hour waiting times," he said. "We're needing to expand."
The goal is to have a battlefield in the Treasure Valley large enough to handle two teams of 150 people each.
"When you come into Dart Warz, it's all about having a good time, whether you win or lose," Wilkerson said. "So I'm seeing kids and parents alike coming in, and their demeanor is changing. ... It's not about who's cool and who's not."
The next steps are to open Dart Warz stores in other metro areas, then sell franchises for those areas.
Wilkerson opened a Dart Warz store in Centennial, Colo., a Denver suburb, about four months ago. He plans to open the next store elsewhere in the Denver area or in Arizona.
"In a city the size of Denver, there's room for six or eventually 10" stores, he said.
Wilkerson declined to disclose revenues. He said it took four to five months to turn a profit on the Meridian store, and the Colorado one is already in the black. The company has 25 employees between both stores.
His dream is to make Dart Warz a place for birthday parties, child-and-parent bonding activities and employee parties, eventually bringing more year-round indoor recreation to places such as Alaska. He wants it to morph into a sport.
If that sounds overly ambitious, consider this: The Dart Warz employees in Meridian are so gung-ho that they're flying to Denver today to challenge the Dart Warz employees there.
"Denver pitched in their tips to pay for Meridian to play them," Wilkerson said. "I didn't even set that up. ... All I did was open the store."
Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey