- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2007

The weather outside is frightful … , ” so to play inside is delightful. Yes, children still have a need to move and play no matter how dreary the day. So, what better place to visit on a gray January day than a bowling alley? Fortunately, the Washington area has plenty of them.

On a recent afternoon at AMF Alexandria Lanes, several of the 48 lanes are in full swing.

“This is our busy season,” says Lisa Farley, the general manager.

“It wouldn’t matter if I had 200 lanes, we’d still have a waiting list,” adds Wayne Tyree, a shift manager who has been working at the location, south of Alexandria, for 29 years.

They’re not alone in packing in the customers as bowling — nationally and locally — experiences an upswing in popularity. Many new centers are opening, and others are beautifying.

“These past 18 months have been great for us,” says Merrell Wreden, spokesman for AMG Bowling, the largest bowling-center chain in the country.

Mr. Wreden attributes the upswing to a change in approach among bowling centers and a higher profile in pop culture.

“The NBC series ‘Ed’ took place at a bowling alley … and ESPN has re-raised the profile of bowling,” Mr. Wreden says. All this helps, he adds.

Overall, about 70 million people bowl at least once a year, and there are more than 5,600 bowling centers in the country, according to the Greendale, Wis.-based United States Bowling Congress, the national governing body for amateur bowling.

With the increase in popularity, the bowling landscape is changing, Mr. Wreden says. It used to be dominated by league play, and centers had limited food service.

“Now you have places like Lucky Strike, which could be described as ‘a bar with bowling,’ while we’re ‘bowling with a bar,’ ” he says.

Lucky Strike recently opened a center at Gallery Place in Northwest Washington. Another upscale center is Strike Bethesda, which doesn’t offer traditional lane reservations but provides various party packages.

“Corporate America is always looking for interesting, unique venues,” Mr. Wreden says. Upscale or, as it’s sometimes called, “boutique” bowling, has helped fill that niche.

Even AMF centers — more traditional bowling centers — are changing, Mr. Wreden says.

“We’re spending more,” he says. “We’re doing more to improve our food and beverage service. … That appeals to families.”

While league play is in decline, occasional players, among them families, are increasing, he says.

Ms. Farley, who grew up among bowling enthusiasts in Bowie, says the game also has become more child-friendly through the years.

“You’ve got lighter bowling balls,” she says, adding that when she was a little girl, she had to play with adult bowling balls that weighed upward of 16 pounds. Now they can be as light as 6 pounds.

Another child-friendly gadget is the ramp, a contraption that allows children to give the ball a slight push from an elevated spot on a portable ramp. Very little strength is needed to make the ball reach the pins because of its release from an elevated position.

Lane bumpers also are popular, Ms. Farley says. They are raised along the sides of the lane to keep the ball from going into the gutter.

“It’s a different ballgame now, and kids love it,” she says.

She says several day care centers and schools have standing weekly reservations, and there are camps in the summer and during vacations.

Players of all ages are welcome. The smallest shoe is a child’s 9, which can fit a 3- or 4-year old.

So, how do Mr. Tyree and Ms. Farley, both lifelong bowling enthusiasts, explain the bowling craze?

“I hate to be honest, but it’s got to be me,” says the smiling Mr. Tyree, also known as “Moose.”

Ms. Farley nods and says, “It’s true, they love him.”

Mr. Tyree turns slightly more serious and says, “You just get the bug.”

Both he and Ms. Farley play about twice a week and average about 164 to 165 a game. (Best possible, if you roll all strikes, is 300.) They both play at AMF Alexandria Lanes, which, aside from bowling, also offers food service, vending machines and video games.

What keeps them coming back?

“To me, bowling is about having a good time with friends,” Mr. Tyree says.

“It’s like lunch break at high school,” Ms. Farley offers. “You’re just hanging out with friends.”

When you go:

Where: AMF Alexandria Lanes, 6228A N. Kings Highway, south of Alexandria.

Admission: Fees per game start at $3 per person and go up to $5 per person depending on the age of the player and the time of day. Shoe rentals are $4.25 per person.

Hours: 10 a.m. to midnight Sundays through Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Parking: Free parking in lot.

Information: 703/765-3633 or www.amf.com.

Miscellaneous: Other local bowling center chains:

• Lucky Strike Lanes (www.bowllucky strike.com or 202/347-1021) has a downtown Washington location.

• Bowl America (www.bowl-america.com) has 11 centers in Northern Virginia and Maryland’s near-suburbs.

• Strike Bethesda (www.strikebethesda.com or 301/652-0955) is a high-end facility that offers various bowling party packages but not traditional lane reservations.

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