Timed Open-Play Sessions Vs. Drop-In Play: Which Is Right For YOUR Indoor Playground Business?


When I first entered the family entertainment and indoor playground industry, the “norm” was for play spaces to just have set open-play hours where customers could come-and-go as they please without reservations. Our open-play hours, for example, typically from 8am-4pm on weekdays and 8am-12pm on Saturdays. During the weekday evenings and weekends we of course did classes, parties– all that good stuff– but here I want to focus JUST on open play hours. Especially since our first location did NOT have a separate class or party room- so we did not mix open-play with our other revenue streams like classes or parties.

During the pandemic, everything shifted, though.

Play spaces had to adapt. We had to really control and monitor how many people were going to be in our spaces at any given time. So many spaces switched to play sessions- meaning people could book a 2-ish hour time slot, the business would sell a very set amount of tickets, and they would close in between these 2 hour-ish sessions to clean.

And this worked really well for a while and allowed many of us to stay open even with the covid restrictions. So they definitely served their purpose, I will say that for sure.

But NOW, the question on many owners’ minds is, “should we KEEP the timed play sessions, or should we just fling the doors open in the morning and say, come what may, we’re open all day?” 

Or… something like that

I even did a YouTube video a while back sharing some trends that came about in the indoor play industry as a result of the pandemic, including some I think should stick around. Now that video was a few years ago, so we were still at the tail end of the pandemic, but I was kind of on-the-fence and I just couldn’t decide which model would emerge as the clear winner once all the restrictions were truly lifted.

And while I do have a personal preference, the truth is, there really IS no clear winner here.

Like so much of what I discuss in my content, it all really comes down to what feels right for YOUR business. We are all working with different sized spaces, different ages we cater to, different revenue focuses, we are all located in different areas– and therefore, our businesses are all UNIQUE and each has a very unique set of needs. 

So today, instead of pitching you on what I think is best– I want to lay out all of the pros and cons I have come across for BOTH scenarios so you can make your own informed decision. And I really wanted to do this episode because this is something that has really become a “hot button” topic. 

Now, before we dive in, there are a few things I want you to keep in mind.


1) There are MANY different versions of reservation-based play. 

I realize that. 

I know that many spaces do “timed sessions” but on a rolling basis– meaning they don’t actually close between sessions, but people do still need to book a 2-hour ish slot and show up at a specific time and leave at a specific time. There are also more lax reservation systems where people need to choose only an ARRIVAL window, and then can stay as long as they like.

There are so many ways of doing reservation based play, that I can’t possibly touch on the pros and cons of every single one. So today, we are going to examine the 2 most extreme business models– 

  1. Completely open open play hours
  2. Timed sessions WITH a strict end time and closing in-between sessions

I think it will become clear why I’m structuring the conversation in this way, it just makes it so much more clear and concise. 

And a lot of places are still currently operating at both ends of the spectrum as well as everywhere in between. But, it’s important to keep in mind that there ARE middle-ground options here– so if you’d like me to do a part 2 on how some of those might work in practice, send me a message, I’d be happy to do that.


2) You’re ALLOWED to try new things, and pivot when stuff doesn’t work

One of the most common things I have been helping my 1:1 clients through lately is the transition from timed sessions or reservation-based play to a more open, no-reservations-needed model. 

So just know, this is NOT something you need to make a FIRM decision on before you open. You are allowed to adapt and change as your business needs. 

One of my members in Play Maker Society, for example, Kristina from Busy Bee Play Cafe– had no intentions of doing reservation-based play. 

However, she was blown away by her community’s response to her business and the demand she faced for open play. So she had to make a quick decision EARLY to start requiring reservations, at least temporarily, to prevent any negative experiences or having to turn people away due to overcrowding. 

In my business, we used reservations ONLY during break weeks- when we KNEW we would be extremely busy. We didn’t always have the luxury of knowing when we’d be busy- like if it rained unexpectedly, or something like that– but luckily we had the school calendars WELL in advance and we could plan accordingly.

And because like I said one of our WORST case scenarios was turning people away– reservations for break week were a great temporary solution. And if you want to hear more about how we got ready for our busy season and school breaks, I go through all my tips in episode 47 of the Profitable Play Podcast.

But now that you know that it does NOT have to be an all-or-nothing thing, you CAN find a middleground, and you CAN pivot if needed– let’s dive in.

And let’s talk first about the pros and cons of just being completely open all day– whatever your hours may be.

And let’s start with the pros.

PROS of Non-Reservation Based Open Play:

  • Preferable for Parents Of Young Children. If you’re a parent and you’ve gone through the infant and toddler stage- you already know it can be difficult to predict how any given day is going to go. While we always try and time naps, bathroom trips, feedings, errands– ALL of that perfectly– it doesn’t always go the way we hope. If your space is going to focus on kiddos younger than school-age, timed play sessions can make it extremely difficult for parents to work your indoor playground into their daily schedule. One of the biggest pros of reservations is being able to plan and schedule your staff in advance– but I have found that somewhere around 80% or MORE of the reservations for spaces that cater to these younger ages are made last minute or come in as walk-ins if that’s allowed. Since you can’t really take advantage of one of the biggest pros for reservations, you may want to consider simplifying and just opening up your schedule.  As a parent, even though my kiddos are older, I absolutely LOATHE timed play sessions. It’s almost a surefire way to ensure I never visit a business, in fact. It just makes it too complicated, honestly, from a planning perspective. I am OK with rolling reservations that just ask you to secure an estimated arrival time (as LONG as its not too strict!), but the places that have inconsistent hours where you have to double or triple check that they’ll even be open when you arrive or chunks of time during the day where they close- its a big NO from me as a customer. 
  • Higher Cafe Sales. This one’s pretty simple. If you have a cafe, the longer people stay at your place, the more they’ll spend on food and drink. If they know they can only play for 1-2 hours max, they will likely just plan their meals AROUND their visit and not splurge on extras at your place. But if they have a more open play window and they think a snack or a treat will extend their child’s ability to play and enjoy themselves, they usually WILL be just fine with the extra spend. 
  • Greater Staff Productivity. This is probably #1 for me. And it's one of those things you have to really experience to understand. I get how closing to clean and re-set seems like a good idea on paper, I really do. But from a business perspective, it means your staff will essentially be performing your entire closing list, or close to it, multiple times a day. This is an efficient NIGHTMARE. When a business is struggling with staffing cost and staff member dissatisfaction, taking away timed slots is the absolute FIRST thing I have them change, and they are ALWAYS happy with the results, at least, with the dozen or so people I’ve helped transition thus far. Just think about it- if you’ve ever worked in retail or at a restaurant- closing is the WORST. So why would you make yourself or your team go through that multiple times a day? No, no, NO. It’s a big giant NO from me if you want to save on labor costs and keep your team happy. Instead, have a mid-day task list so they can MAINTAIN your space, while STILL GENERATING REVENUE. And that brings me to my next PRO.
  • Lower Expectations Of Guests Throughout The Day. When you are open all day, customers do not have the expectation that they are going to walk into a pristine play area, especially in the afternoon. But if they are arriving for their session and it’s an absolute mess when they walk in, they are not coming’ back. Timed sessions sets the expectation that your space will be tidied, re-set, and sanitized in most-cases. And in my opinion, that is setting yourself up for burnout and just outright failure. It’s TOO hard to maintain and it’s just not necessary. The downsides FAR outweigh the upsides in my opinion.
  • Works Better For Selling Memberships. If memberships and recurring revenue will be a focus for you, which I hope you understand now from listening to this podcast that it should be, you will have a MUCH easier time selling unlimited open play memberships if your play is more casual drop-in style. If you have listened to my podcast series on memberships, you already know that members use space DIFFERENTLY. They come more often and stay less time per visit because there is no direct cost per visit for them, depending on how you structure your memberships of course. Because they are familiar with and comfortable in your space- they are just fine with dropping in maybe before or after an appointment, as a treat for their kids tagging along on errands, or just to grab a quick snack and drink. If you make it too complicated or them to visit and drop by, they simply won’t buy your memberships or stay members because they won’t get as much value from your space. 


CONS of Non-Reservation Based Open Play:

  • Less Certainty. With drop-in play, you ARE rolling the dice when it comes to what you’ll make in a given day. There can be upside to this- like for example, if it rains suddenly, everyone may come in seeking shelter from their backyards or parks to play indoors. But it also means less predictability when it comes to your revenue. This one is more prominent, as I mentioned, if you’re planning on an older crowd who doesn’t need to navigate around naps or potty training or bottle feedings. 
  • More Difficult to Close If Needed. If you need to close for repairs, a private event, or because a staff member called in– you need to share that message FAR and wide. And while I do share some really practical and simple systems for doing this effectively back in episode 266 of this podcast, you still might have people show up and be disappointed to see you unexpectedly closed. With reservations or timed sessions, you only need to communicate with the people already booked- then simply block any new reservations from being made. This will give you greater flexibility when it comes to these sorts of last minute schedule changes and emergencies.
  • Greater Need To Adapt Seasonally. When a place has set drop-in hours, it’s a pretty big effort to change them seasonally and requires a lot of customer communication. If you have timed sessions or reservations, you can simply take away certain time slots to adapt your business as needed, which is a big pro in my book, especially because customers, like I said, do NOT want to guess if your posted hours are accurate or if they will change before their next visit. People value consistency, especially parents of young kiddos.

Alright, now that we have talked about the pros and cons of true OPEN play, let’s talk about timed sessions.

And let’s start again with the pros.


PROS of Reservation-Based Play With Time Slots:

  • More Predictable Revenue. As I already mentioned, being able to predict what your traffic will be like any given day can really help with staffing and just revenue projections. If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant that was more reservation-based, you knew you could pretty much predict the flow of a night based on how many reservations there were on the books. But again, parents of young kiddos are NOT known for planning too far in advance, so this is not a big pro for me, since most bookings and reservations WILL be last minute and will come in well after you wrote your schedule.
  • Can Easily Close for Maintenance, Private Parties, Or Events. I already mentioned this, but reservations make it much easier to close last minute for whatever reason because you can Provide 1:1 Communication For Unexpected Closures.
  • Easier To Operate With A Small Team. If you are operating your business yourself or with a very small team, you can prevent big crowds by putting a cap on reservations. This is helpful, but just know, this will also severely restrict your revenue.
  • You Can Segment Based on Age or Ability. This is a big pro for me. If you are planning on sensory friendly hours, or play based on age segments– like baby hour or toddler hour for example, timed sessions can make the logistics of this much easier. If you’re already open, you KNOW– it can be chaotic when there is a huge range of ages playing. So if this is something you’re concerned about, this is one way to address it.
  • May Be Able To Charge More. I put this one on the pro AND con list. So let me explain. It all comes down to who YOUR ideal customer is and what they value. If they value very small crowds and predictability, you may be able to charge more for timed sessions because you can market it as a more premier experience. 
  • Easier To Give Breaks. Again, if you are operating with a very small team and you only have one person working at once, timed sessions can help you comply with labor laws and give your employees required breaks. Again, I preferred to stagger employees to prevent restricting our revenue, but I know not everyone is quite to that point in their business journey yet. 


CONS of Reservation-Based Play With Time Slots:

  • Can’t Take Advantage of Spontaneous Visits. Again, HUGE downside when it comes to parents of small kiddos. And I don’t mean spontaneous necessarily meaning that someone drives by and pops in. I mean a parent is just having one of those days and needs a change of scenery, so they google “indoor play buffalo NY” and hop in the car. Requiring reservations or having time slots can act as a big buffer or deterrent for these types of visits and can really hurt you in the sales dept.
  • Tough for Many Baby, Toddler, and Preschool Parents. Again, naps and schedules are unpredictable. We don’t need to go through it again. And, if a parent pays for a 2 hour time slot lets say, and their toddler melts down 20 minutes into it, that parent is more likely to feel “cheated” if they have to leave early in their “set” time. Which is again setting yourself up for failure many times, because many babies and toddlers WILL get overstimulated in less than 2 hours. So in my opinion, this is really almost ensuring everyone will feel like they did not get the full value of what they paid for if they left early, spent too much time with their child in the bathroom or eating snacks, or anything like that. Keeping it open and not putting a boundary on time keeps expectations open, if you know what I mean.
  • A LOT Of Wasted Staff Time. Again, this is probably the biggest downside for me. You are essentially closing 3-4 Times Per Day. Which is the opposite of running an efficient business. You can clean and maintain JUST fine while you’re open, and in fact, customers probably prefer seeing staff constantly working to maintain the spaces cleanliness as opposed to keeping all of that to between sessions.
  • Lower Cafe Sales. If you limit peoples time to play- they will likely try to avoid wasting time with food or drink. Plus, they know what their end time will be so they’re more likely to just promise themselves a stop through a drive thru on the way home after the session than spending money while at their visit. Even though most customers with young children wouldn’t stay longer than let’s say 2 hours to play ANYWAY, even given an unlimited amount of time, it’s just a psychological thing that I have found to be very consistent– in both others AND myself.
  • More Staff Overwhelm. Now this one surprises a lot of people because you’d assume that timed play sessions would work to REDUCE staff overwhelm because traffic is more predictable. But based on the businesses who I’ve worked with that have tried this model, it’s often the opposite. This is because people will want to maximize their time in most instances to get the most value for their money– which means that ALL customers who signed up for a given session will be checking in and ordering at once. If you’re a newer businesses and a large percentage of people will be visiting for the first time, this can lead to a LOT of chaos. People will have questions, you’ll need to go over policies- and people will end up feeling like one of MANY and really undervalued as customers. Plus, if everyone’s session also ends at the same time- that means everyone will be rushing to use your limited bathrooms at the same time as well. This seems innocuous enough, but i have seen places really struggle to actually close on time and begin prep for the next event or session because people didn’t plan well, even if they were given time warnings, and now there is a line 15 people deep waiting to change diapers before they hit the road. Again, this can cause staff discomfort because they are now needing to rush people out the door, leading to a really negative LAST impression for your customers, which is something you NEVER want to do. This con could definitely be negated with rolling reservations, where you stagger the arrival and departure times of your guests, but I did feel like this one was important to mention,
  • Lower Perceived Value For Some. As I mentioned previously, this one could go either way DEPENDING on who your ideal customer is. While we discussed that time slots could be MORE valuable for people who really value a more intimate, exclusive experience, it could actually seem LESS valuable to people who value flexibility, which in my opinion, represents a BIGGER chunk of parents. And to be honest, I have found myself in BOTH of these groups, depending on the part of my parenting journey I was in at the time. When my younger son first got diagnosed with autism and we were still learning how to help him interact in public and regulate his emotions and his body– I really valued that predictability and I liked KNOWING there would be a very limited number of people wherever we were going to be. But now that our lives are busier and we are working with multiple schedules and other activities and commitments, timed sessions could just never work for our family. So again, this is an opportunity to take a look at WHO you want to serve, what THOSE people need exactly, and maybe what is needed in your specific area or market- so you can fill that void.
  • Operational Complexity. I’ve alluded to this one, but reservations just make things more complicated. Even though there’s a benefit to that complexity– there’s no denying that it requires extra effort, software, and cost. So this is the perfect time to do a cost-benefit analysis here. IS all of the extra time spent managing and monitoring your reservation system WORTH it in terms of revenue and the other pros discussed in the end? Or is this cumbersome system making your employees days unnecessarily intricate?  And you may want to involve your staff in this discussion, because their answers may surprise you. For example, I thought my team LOVED having a break in-between sessions. However, when I asked them to be honest, I was surprised to hear they DREADED these breaks, because as I mentioned, it meant they needed to go through the laborious closing process for the second third or even FOURTH time that day. And for them, that was much more of a downside to them than any of the upsides I’ve discussed.
  • Tougher to Have Members. Again, the more restrictions and nuances you place on your hours, the harder it will be to sell a substantial amount of memberships. This may not seem like a huge deal on paper- I mean, members just have to go to your website and enter their code and choose a time slot or whatever, right? But in practice, especially when you’re dealing with busy parents who have unpredictable schedules, it IS a big deal. If they’re paying for a membership they will VALUE being able to drop in as needed, whenever time in their day presents itself, whether it’s planned or not. And again I will link to my episodes on why memberships and recurring revenue are so crucial for a sustainable indoor play business if you are on the fence about whether this might be a big deal to your business or not.


Alright that wraps up our discussion on timed open play sessions versus TRUE open play hours, if I missed anything please feel free to send me a message on instagram I’d love your input– and as always if you have any questions you’d like me to answer or topic suggestions for my blog or other content I am all ears so my inbox is open for you as well.



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