- Daria Bishop
- Devonte Brooks driving a virtual motorcycle
Even on a weeknight, Spare Time Entertainment serves up an onslaught of sensory stimuli: the thud of bowling balls on the faux-wooden lanes. The clatter of knocked-down tenpins. Pop songs piped in over the loudspeakers, while music videos play on giant screens spanning the lanes.
In the adjacent Game Zone of the Colchester center, arcade games beep and buzz, boom and blast. Lights flash, strobe and blink on machines equipped with high-resolution graphics, virtual reality headsets, and vehicle simulators that weave and spin. Many stand 15 to 20 feet tall.
This isn't your parents' bowling alley. With its business offices next door to its 45,000-square-foot center on Lower Mountain View Drive, Spare Time has declined to stay in its lane. The company aims to appeal to today's amusement seekers with high-tech effects and vivid distractions. And it's going into its peak winter season — when some folks hit the slopes and others seek indoor entertainment — with more cold-weather diversions than ever.
Spare Time shut down from June to mid-September for an interior overhaul that increased the number of arcade options in the Game Zone from 40 to 90. Three new games incorporate virtual reality technology, costing as much as $40,000 each.
The Game Zone also features two escape rooms, enclosed areas that players can only exit by decoding a series of clues hidden in the décor, and a two-level laser tag arena. To make room for the games, Spare Time's owners removed six bowling lanes, bringing the total down to 30.
Burlington native Dick Corley, who founded the company in 1968, pointed to the upshot of all these changes. "You used to go to the bowling center, and you would bowl a few games and then maybe have a hamburger or a hot dog or something, and your visit would be an hour, an hour and a half maybe," he said. "Now, our customer comes and spends three hours."
Since Champlain Lanes on Shelburne Road closed in 2019, Spare Time has been the only bowling alley in northwestern Vermont, with Rutland Bowlerama to the south and Stowe Bowl to the east. The landscape might change soon, though, with a proposal to bring a new bowling alley to Pine Street in Burlington.
While bowling businesses have shuttered across Vermont in the past decade — St. Albans, Essex and Milton all once boasted their own — Spare Time has quietly grown by embracing a societal shift in the way people gather to enjoy themselves.
The venue is part of Corley's Colchester-based parent company, Bowl New England, which has 20 entertainment centers in 10 states and about 1,400 employees. As of 2021, the Vermont family business has opened two to three new centers each year, including its first in Iowa at the start of 2022. Next summer, two more locations are scheduled to open in Madison, Wis., and Omaha, Neb.
- Daria Bishop
- From left: Heather Provost, Dick Corley and Tim Corley
Corley, a Saint Michael's College graduate and former U.S. Air Force pilot, remains closely involved but has turned over the operation of Bowl New England to two of his three children, Heather Provost and Tim Corley. Provost is vice president and chief operating officer; Tim Corley, president. According to the family, it's the largest privately held bowling and entertainment company in the country.
Nationwide, the number of bowling enterprises has dropped by 1.8 percent annually over the past five years, according to an industry report released in June by research firm IBISWorld. Worth $2.9 billion in annual revenue, the industry has been consolidating under major players such as the Bowlero chain, which has swallowed competitors such as AMF Bowling and Brunswick.
The bulk of the bowling business still consists of small, traditional alleys with an average of 20 lanes, said Frank DeSocio, executive director of the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America. That makes Bowl New England a unique player — as much for its size as for its approach, said DeSocio, who has known the Corley family for more than 30 years.
"They've been known for reinvestment in the business," DeSocio said. "They've been known for going out on the ledge and saying, 'Hey, we're gonna go try this, see if it works or not.'"
For most of Bowl New England's history, knocking down pins accounted for 70 percent of the company's revenue, with games and food sales making up the rest. About 15 years ago, the business began to shift as the number of bowling leagues dwindled, Dick Corley said.
Those leagues were once the bread and butter of a center. "Customers' lifestyles changed, so we made a conscious decision to change our whole model," Corley said. "The new model was a family entertainment center."
Today, the arcades, bowling, and food and drink each contribute about a third of the company's revenue, he said. In Spare Time's new bowling area, cushioned seating surrounds central tables and digital scoreboards overhead, interspersed with screens showing football games and ESPN highlights. The lanes are no longer wood but a slick synthetic laminate that employees carefully oil.
"We tried to enhance the whole entertainment value of the experience by putting in the couches and coffee tables, so it's more like you're in your living room," Tim Corley said.
- Daria Bishop
- Chris Hernandez bowling
The wall-to-wall video screens over the pins provide a constant sense of motion, while colorful overhead lights swirl blue and orange across the lanes. As Tim put it, "There's something going on all around you — the light show, sound system. It's like sensory overload. But it's fun."
The changes, particularly the striking of six lanes, have bothered some of Spare Time's devoted bowlers, including players in the Tuesday Night Ladies league, who roll at 6 p.m. from September to April.
"It was kind of a disappointment," said Carolyn Cota, an Essex resident who has played in various leagues at Spare Time since 1994, when the center barely had a game room. Now a member of the Tuesday Night Ladies, Cota said she understands the financial reasons for the changes: "Business is business."
None of the owners is a bowler, Provost noted, but they haven't abandoned the bowling side of the business and still consider it the "anchor" of their centers. After leagues wrap up their games at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, groups of young players descend on Spare Time for "open bowling." It costs $36.99 per lane for an hour on those nights and $42.99 from Friday to Sunday.
Other young customers prefer the Game Zone. Carol Duong, 15, punched a button on the Monster Drop X-treme game, releasing a ball inside the ceiling-tall chamber and trying to shoot it into the highest-value holes. She and her 24-year-old sister, Hau Duong, live in Winooski and visit Spare Time most Tuesday nights, when the games are half price.
"We're not really big bowlers," Hau said. "We're more gamers."
At a kiosk in the Game Zone, they load money onto a Spare Time card that they swipe at each game to play. The points they win translate into "tickets," which they collect on their cards to trade for prizes in the Win Zone redemption room. They have their eye on a vinyl record player that requires 22,000 tickets.
"It's like the adrenaline of winning games," Carol said. "You earn it."
Nearby, two young women sat inside the King Kong Skull Island game wearing virtual reality headsets. "Oh, hell no!" shouted Dylan Fleming, waving her hands in front of her face and screaming. A video screen above showed spiders coming at them from all directions — but they experienced the infestation in 3D.
"They crawl on your hands and everything and drop down," Fleming said as she stepped away from King Kong. She works at Spare Time as the birthday party coordinator. "I came in because all the kids have been telling me about the games."
Before Dick Corley slung bowling balls, he peddled hot dogs out of a small stand called the Dilly Wagon on Williston Road. In the 1960s, he added a second shop at the Ethan Allen Shopping Center in Burlington's New North End. In 1968, Ethan Allen Lanes went up for sale at the other end of the strip mall, and Corley bought it.
The Ethan Allen alley had 26 lanes — both for tenpin bowling and candlepin, a version of the game that involves a palm-size ball and straight pins. Corley said he didn't know the difference when he first walked in.
"We made it into a heck of a business," he said. "It grew like crazy."
In 1978, the Corleys incorporated Bowl New England and built the Colchester center with 18 lanes and a snack bar. That location was first dubbed Yankee Lanes, before the company switched all of its centers to the Spare Time brand in 2008. It has expanded at least three times, doubling the number of lanes before recently reducing them again. The family shuttered Ethan Allen Lanes in 2000.
- Daria Bishop
- Clockwise from left: Jacey Rivers, Zachary Davis, Joe Wilcox and Leah Markt playing Hungry Hungry Hippos
At one point, Bowl New England had 21 centers. When it transitioned to the family entertainment model, the company converted about 11 of them to the new format and sold the rest, mostly those that were too small and prohibitively expensive to update. It also began to expand beyond its predominantly Northeast footprint, moving into the Carolinas, Tennessee and Alabama. It now builds most of its centers from scratch or takes over big-box stores that have closed.
During the 2020 pandemic shutdown, Bowl New England laid off 800 employees across the country and furloughed 200, Provost said. Another 200 remained on the payroll.
Tim Corley, who started setting pins at Spare Time as a kid, described that period as "devastating." The company checked on its workers, making sure they could pay their rent, he said. It sent computers to those whose children needed them to attend school from home.
"We can build the most beautiful box in the world," he said. "The people are the ones who really make it work."
There was one silver lining for the company, according to Provost. "Never does a business get to pause and look at their company internally," she said. "We took the time, and we refocused and reexamined everything."
Business was slow to recover when Spare Time reopened, but it has since bounced back.
"Post-pandemic, there was pent-up demand to go out and socialize, so we benefited from that tremendously," Tim Corley said. "Our whole industry did. Everybody had banner years the year after the pandemic. And that just continues to grow."
Since the Air Force, the elder Corley continued to fly his private planes for 20 years. He was also a rally car driver and hunted big game. Some of his trophies, including a Kodiak bear and a large caribou head, overlook the dining area of the newly refurbished Spare Time restaurant.
What does a veteran of so much real-life adventure think of the popularity of activities such as escape rooms? “People are just really into that kind of stuff,” he said, adding that he tried one during a trade trip. “I thought it was really a hoot.”