Most entrepreneurs use their passion to try and make a buck. John Yates is only looking for your quarters.
Yates is the creator of the Arcadia Playable Arcade Museum in McLean, less than 20 miles southwest of Bloomington-Normal. Yates has turned his massive collection of vintage arcade games and pinball machines into a destination for nostalgic visitors.
There you can pump quarters into 100 or so games in Arcadia and Yates’ newly opened Pinball Paradise just down the street. Those games are just a fraction of the nearly 1,500 machines that Yates has collected—and found a way to store—over the past two decades.
“There’s something magical happening down here with Arcadia,” Yates said. “I’ve been in this business, this hobby since the late ’80s, and I’ve never seen this kind of magic happening, where people are coming together and really enjoying playing games.
“It’s really like a window into the 1980s,” he said. “It’s like a time machine or something.”
The museum is open to the public on the weekends. There’s no admission, and all the games run on quarters. (And yes, there are coin machines so you can break a dollar.)
Most of the visitors are people in their 40s, Yates said, many who are eager to show their kids what video games were like before smart phones. Some of those young visitors—accustomed to unlimited play on their Xbox or Wii—are baffled by how the games work.
“You have an investment in the game when you drop that quarter in,” he said. “You actually care about how you do. You really try to make that game last as long as possible. It may sound like a subtle difference, but I think it’s all the difference in the world.”
Desire to Play Games
Yates grew up in Bloomington-Normal. His conservative family was a bit tight with money, so while he hung out as a teen at arcades, he rarely had the money to play the games. Still, the arcade was the go-to destination for Yates and his friends.
“That created in me this pent-up, unfulfilled desire to play games,” he said.
While in college at the University of Illinois, Yates started buying old arcade games. That hobby turned into a collection over the years—even an obsession.
Yates is a computer programmer by trade, and he was involved with several Internet startups that didn’t pan out. He never strayed far from his collection, and in 2009 he opened museum in McLean. He saw it as a hobby then, not a viable moneymaking business.
But Arcadia has only grown in popularity in recent years, especially since Yates launched his Facebook page two years ago. The new Pinball Paradise location opened in December 2016 in a remodeled bank building, also in the middle of sleepy downtown McLean.
People drive from all over the Midwest to visit. Travelers can even stay at Hotel Arcadia, the companion game-themed room that’s available on Airbnb. Yates plans to add three new rooms to Hotel Arcadia later this year.
Arcadia has its share of regulars too. One of them is Kevin Bolton, who lives in nearby Atlanta and visits Arcadia with his wife and son.
During a recent visit, Bolton walked in carrying his usual plastic bag full of quarters. (His family usually goes through $20 or $25 if everyone is playing.)
“I really enjoy watching my kid’s eyes light up when he’s doing well on a video game. It is different than sitting and playing on your cell phone or a Wii. It’s a different experience for kids. It’s a good experience for (my son).”
You can’t miss the neon Arcadia sign in the middle of McLean, population 815. Every week someone tells Yates he should move to Bloomington-Normal, or Chicago, or New York. But he’s staying put.
“Everyone has their idea of where this would work better, but I think it works best here,” Yates said. “If I was in the middle of Bloomington-Normal, and there were 500 other things to do, it would be easy to keep on driving. There’s something special about being in a unique location where there’s nothing else, and when you go there, you’re there to play games and experience the arcade.”