In the upper reaches of the MainPlace mall in Santa Ana, in a space once occupied by four retail stores, lies a new answer for summer’s age-old question: What are we doing today?
It’s American Ninja Warrior Adventure Park, a shrunken version of the popular NBC show in which contestants try to climb, swing and leap toward a million-dollar grand prize.
Here, though, the main rewards are a good sweat and a sense of accomplishment. Just be warned: the park’s obstacle courses are hard. We learned as much on a recent Monday morning, when I and my three daughters (ages 8, 13 and 16) visited the park a few days after it opened and invented new ways to slip, stumble and face-plant.
The grownup in me wants to nitpick about the park’s funky location or its high degree of difficulty, but my inner kid walked out of the joint too giddy to complain. More important, so did our daughters. With a total price tag of $102 for our party of four, I’ll take that deal any day of the week.
To maximize your first ANWAP experience, consider these tips, in the order that we encountered them:
1. Watch the show
The 14 seasons of American Ninja Warrior are available on many streaming services. New episodes air Monday nights on NBC. Or just check out the show’s YouTube channel. However you watch it, fast-forward through the contestants’ sappy backstories and the cutaways of their clapping loved ones. You just wanna see the obstacles and pick up a few tricks of the trade. Like the veteran move of sprinting across unstable surfaces instead of taking it slow; or the way contestants patiently swing a few times on the trapeze bars to build momentum before hurtling themselves forward. Contestants on the show can make this stuff look easy. It’s not. The new park in Santa Ana isn’t, either.
2. Get a grip
For the more competitive souls among you, I recommend working on your grip strength before you go.
The biggest difference between the ninja warriors on TV and laypersons strolling through the mall isn’t arm, leg or core strength, but the ability to hang from bars and rings and perform one-inch finger-holds for as long as one needs to.
You can have a good time at ANWAP with average grip strength. You just won’t complete all the challenges. Your elementary-schooler may not be able to conquer the easiest course without you lending her a hand.
Out of our three daughters, only our gym-rat high school cheerleader completed the first two of the five obstacle courses, which get harder as you progress.
To have a chance at completing all five, prepare yourself by hanging from a pullup bar for as long as you can. Thirty seconds is good. Sixty is better. Mix in some chin-ups and pullups if possible. My thirty-plus years of regular grip training were the most valuable ingredient in my modest success during our visit.
3. Accessorize strategically
You can walk in without a reservation if you want. But the ANWAP website allows guests to book a day and time in advance, which I recommend. The cost is 20 bucks per guest, per hour. There’s no age minimum, but attendees under 13 need to have a supervising adult nearby. Attendees under 6 must be with a participating adult.
You can fill out the required waivers online too. The website also encourages visitors to prepurchase specially made, rubber-soled socks, to help guests traverse the inflatable obstacle course (which is basically a 10,000-square-foot bouncy house). I recommend the socks and the ANWAP gloves too. We wore both for less than half the time we were there, but on the harder gauntlets, where sweaty hands spell failure, the gloves were a must.
The park recommends wearing long sleeves and pants to protect forearms and lower legs from rough landings. The website doesn’t mention towels, but you should bring one for each member of your crew. Twenty minutes in, we were pink-faced and dripping.
4. Forget that you’re above a JCPenney
The ceilings are too low for the obstacle courses at the mall to mirror those on the massive NBC set. Good thing too. The people on TV have poured months of training into their shot at a million dollars; you’re probably just looking for something to do on a random Tuesday.
The artists and engineers who built the park did an amazing job of re-creating the show’s aesthetic, using black ceilings and walls to create depth and an impressive lighting system that casts a red and blue glow over everything beneath it.
When you go, park near JCPenney, one of MainPlace mall’s anchor stores. American Ninja Warrior Adventure Park is just above it.
After checking in and stowing your stuff in a locker, put on your gloves and socks and start anywhere you like. That’s the beauty of the place. You can crawl all over the inflatable course or take on any of its five, more challenging tests. Try everything, in any order. “We don’t want a personalized chauffeur leading you around,” Chief Executive Adrian Griffin told me in his jovial Manchester accent. “We’re an adventure park. We want people to have fun and explore.”
The girls and I were standing next to the inflatable course when our safety briefing ended, so that’s where we (literally) jumped in.
5. Keep an eye on your little ones
The park is brand new, and it’s still changing based on customer experience and staff observation. Each of the young employees we encountered was helpful and interested in what we liked and didn’t like, in the challenges we crushed and the spots where we struggled.
Watch your youngest kids (5 and under) when they’re inside the inflatable course. Everything is soft and safe, but there are a couple areas where things can get hairy if there are bigger kids or grownups mucking about. The big swinging wrecking ball is padded, but a college kid trying to take out his roommate with it can accidentally send a kindergartner cartwheeling across the room, which, while hilarious to imagine, carries real-world consequences.
6. Know your physical limits
Each of the five obstacle courses is about 20 yards long and is harder than the one before it. They all start with an unstable path to be traversed on foot. After that comes a smorgasbord of hanging-by-your-hands, followed by tests of grit, critical thinking and dynamic balance.
I breezed through the first two courses. I needed a do-over on three through five, but made it through those as well — with the exception of the rolling log thingy in the middle of course number four. It looked soft enough beneath its black-and-red striped vinyl, but for me it was a vicious adversary. Picture yourself crossing a creek by walking on a log — but the log starts spinning the moment you step on it.
ANWAP is supposed to be for all ages, but this 10-foot, cylindrical section of it was not intended for 50-year-olds with janky lower backs. I could just see my feet flying out from under me like one of the Three Stooges and my lumbar spine snapping in two on the spinning tube beneath me. I tried, but I looked more like a kid testing the pool temperature than a grown man on an “adventure.”
Speaking of all ages, our active 8-year-old, the tallest kid in her class, couldn’t reach the trapeze on course one, even when she jumped her highest. Same with the dangling rings on course two. I’ll wager that some apparatus have been lowered a bit since we were there.
Unfortunately, no adjustment and no exercise can help you with what fans of the show call “spider walls.” Picture two plexiglass walls facing each other, about four feet apart. The goal is to suspend yourself between them by pressing out with splayed arms and legs, while simultaneously inching forward. (You will have ditched your rubber-soled socks in favor of tennies before you hit the five courses.)
Our long pants proved useful on the “warped walls,” which curve up and away from the floor like a skateboard ramp to heights between eight and 14 feet. Our reward for sprinting to the top of the tallest walls was the same as our punishment for coming up short: a rapid slide on knees or butt, back to floor level. I reached the top of all three walls — barely. Our oldest defeated the first two. Our 8- and 13-year-olds ascended the eight-footer pretty easily.
7. Look out for more ways to rise the ranks in the near future
American Ninja Warrior Adventure Park is a good way for families to exercise and laugh together. Or for teens to blow off steam instead of staring at their screens or running people over on their e-bikes. I can envision my wife and I leaving our girls at the park while we wander the mall and bolster the sagging retail economy.
We were hungry when we got done. There’s a food court in the mall (Subway, Panda Express, California Pizza Kitchen, et. al.) and an in-house snack bar that the ANWAP team vows to upgrade in the next eight to ten weeks. (For now it offers candy and chips.) Bring a water bottle for every member of your party.
The next step in the park’s evolution, says Griffin, the Englishman CEO, is the game-ification of the experience so that visitors can compete virtually against one another, or against warriors in the 14 parks across the U.K., or in future locations in the States.
Our family is already looking forward to returning to Santa Ana to improve on our inaugural visit and wage a transatlantic ninja war against strangers. (This technology is still 10 to 12 weeks away.)
Personally, I’m eager to go head-to-head again with our oldest, who talked a little too much trash for her Old Man’s liking. Next time the wife is coming, too. But she’s not allowed to laugh when I give that rolling log thing another shot.