Burger King isn’t an enigma. You order, hold the pickle and lettuce, and your special order doesn’t upset the people behind the counter if all goes to plan. Nevertheless, a mystery about a specific restaurant in the chain took up a Whopper-sized chunk of real estate in my brain: for the last quarter-century, I was convinced that the Burger King my grandparents took my brother and me to had a playground encapsulated by an inflatable dome!
We all know Burger King. It was founded in 1953 by Keith Kramer and Matthew Burns, who visited the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, California. The company -first known as Insta-Burger King based on a particular broiler the two acquired- grew exponentially. A Burger King on Maplecrest Road in Fort Wayne opened in October 19851. According to the newspaper, it was one of the first fast-food restaurants in the Midwest to feature a playground2.
When it opened, the restaurant featured a “brilliantly-colored, tri-level complex of tunnels and rope bridges,” and a “trampoline-like” ball pit manufactured by the Soft Play Company of Charlotte, North Carolina3. The playground featured in advertisements for the place, and my brother and I spent hours and hours burning off our Cini-Minis by zooming through the tubes with Kid Vid and the Burger King Kid’s Club during the mid-1990s!
The playground was fun, but it wasn’t that unique or memorable on its own because 90’s kids like me were spoiled with places to climb on or slide down by then! McDonald’s opened their first PlayPlace in 1979, but Muncie, Indiana-based Mister Fifteen beat them to the punch by eleven years when it installed playgrounds featuring picnic tables, swing sets, a “large climbing turtle,” and “stepping stones” next to their stores4.
Mister Fifteen was long gone when I was old enough to play at a fast-food playground, but a dizzying array of options were everywhere. I think the reason I remember the Burger King playground so fondly is that trips were a chance to spend time with my grandma and grandpa before they died. There was also that dome. It was an anomaly! Most Burger King playgrounds in my area were enclosed by simple two-story boxes, not air-supported fiberglass.
My memories are hazy since I mostly stopped going to the playground dome after my grandma died when I was six. I can’t recall how it connected to the building, but the area featured a concrete floor. The climbing structure was similar to the one pictured above, and the roof was made out of a translucent white material that encapsulated the playground but made it easy to see silhouettes of people outside. I don’t know if it was inflatable, but I assume it was since I distinctly recall a ceiling fan connected to the top and maybe some circular vents to air the place out.
A couple of other things stick out to me beyond the dome. The Burger King on Maplecrest also touted a solarium decorated with plants and a fountain. Uniquely, the main dining room was furnished with a 350-gallon saltwater aquarium5! From the outside, the restaurant was typical of a design I’ve seen called BK 25006, which had a hipped roof, the solarium, and angular side entrances covered in wood siding. The Burger King in Valdosta, Georgia looks exactly like it.
Over the years, I asked my cousins and brother if they remembered the playground dome. No one did, so I questioned whether or not I’d made the whole thing up in some sort of fictional fusion of memories. Burger King had morphed into Burger Tyrant, and it felt like he was gaslighting me! Years later, I lived in Fort Wayne in college and used my proximity to try and track the place down starting from my grandparent’s old house at 3427 Courtwood Drive on Fort Wayne’s northeast side.
The closest Burger King sat at 3710 East State Boulevard, about a mile south of their house. As far as I could tell, it never featured any type of playground, but was otherwise identical to the Burger King from my childhood. Aside from the dome, of course.
Memories of Burger King’s playground dome percolated back into my cerebral cortex four or five years ago, and I asked a Facebook group that focused on Fort Wayne history if anyone remembered it. Most people who replied thought I’d conflated memories of a McDonald’s PlayPlace with trips to a waterpark called Diamond Jim’s that once sat nearby at Coliseum Boulevard and Columbia Avenue. I wish I had- the place looks badass! Unfortunately, I was two years old when Diamond Jim’s closed. Today, an abandoned Home Depot sits on the site.
I spent time errantly googling ignorant chains of keywords like “Burger King dome Fort Wayne,” but nothing helped. I was facing the stark possibility that, somehow, I’d made the whole thing up and, disheartened, I gave up the search until I woke with a start last week in the middle of the night. Out of nowhere, I was determined to finally put the mystery to rest.
I have access to better research tools than I did during my previous efforts, and I made note of all the Burger Kings in the area that shared the BK 2500 plan. I only knew about one that had a playground, the Burger King at Maplecrest and Stellhorn, but it looked nothing like the building I remembered. It was significantly further from my grandparents’ house than the one on East State, so I’d never bothered to check out its history.
It was as good a place to start as any, though, so I shelled out $40 to get a day pass to the archives of Fort Wayne Newspapers to research the place. Nothing mentioned a dome, though, and I couldn’t find any photos of it. Mid-90s satellite imagery from Google Earth and elsewhere was too blurry to be of much use, but then I stumbled across Allen County’s iMap database and its bevy of historic aerials. First, I found an image from 1986, a year after the restaurant was built. The Burger King sits near the center of the picture. It’s hard to make out, but something juts out from the north side of the building. We know it to be an outdoor playground from the advertisements I found.
The next image I scrolled to seemed to seal the deal. Here’s the same site as depicted in 1995. Stellhorn Plaza had been completed by then7, and the area had really grown. It seems clear that the playground was surrounded by a light-colored, pillow-like enclosure within the confines of the 1986 sidewalk, but it took another round of imagery for me to confirm.
Aerials from 1999 were the slam dunk: they’re clear enough to obviously show a dome surrounding the playground. Evidently, it was replaced at some point before 2003 when the entire restaurant was updated to its current appearance. I was absolved- the tyrant had been vanquished! Thanks to a pair of twenty-five-year-old aerial photos, I could finally focus on other things.
But could I? Here’s how the Maplecrest Burger King appeared in 2019, thanks to Google’s Street View cameras. It looks a lot different from when I last set foot in that playground around the year 2000! Although I finally confirmed that my childhood memories of the Burger King playground dome were real, I wish I could find a photo of the dome from this angle, or some corroboration from other people who spent time there.
I still hope to learn more about the old playground dome. Birthday parties at fast-food restaurants were still a thing when I was a kid, and I’m sure someone out there has a couple old 35mm shots that their mom or dad took inside. Maybe someone else worked there as a teenager in the 90s and has some photos. I hope they reach out! Until then, I’ve done my part in memorializing Burger King on Maplecrest Road’s old playground dome on the internet. It really existed!
1 Just Opened! (1985, October 29). The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. p. 68.
2 Zuber, C.H. (1985, November 5). Eatery features ‘small fry’ extras. Fort Wayne News Sentinel. p. 46.
3 (See footnote 2).
4 Bigger, R. (1968, January 5). Mr. 15 Hits Headlines in Trade Paper. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 17.
5 (See footnote 2).
6 3 Daly, S. (n.d.) Evolution of BURGER KING: Restaurant Designs Through the Years. Franchise Matters. National Franchisee Association. Web. Retrieved May 8, 2023.
7 New shopping center opening near Northwood (1985, October 22). The Fort Wayne News Sentinel. p. 58.
5 thoughts on “Fort Wayne’s Maplecrest Burger King: a childhood mystery solved”
Ted, you sir Have a dogged determination in your quest for the truth. I like that!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, Greg! The ability to brute-force my way through a conundrum has served me well!
This is fantastic! Congratulations on solving this mystery!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you! A real weight off my shoulders, lol. Hopefully someone with some pictures sees this post!
I can offer no help on this. BK seems to always have located its locations in places inconvenient to me, so I have rarely gone there.
LikeLiked by 1 person