Friends at the birthday party for 8-year-old Dylan Ceslak (upper left corner in blue cap) are vested, equipped with their lasers, and ready for action in the Solar Eclipse Laser Tag arena. (Photo by Sarah Unger.)

By Sarah Unger

In the fun and games industry, it takes the right balance of business know-how and an abundant menu of good times to eclipse the competition.

To hear owner Manuel Ortiz describe it, Solar Eclipse Laser Tag (on Pennington’s Reed Road) is doing just that with meticulous attention to detail that appeals to everyone from young birthday party guests and teenagers blasting their way through an all night lock-in, to corporate team-builders and hard-core tournament players.

Annual memberships of $15 pay for themselves quickly with a free game each week. And members who go by code names can keep a year-long tally of their scores: “We have The Assassin, we have Dude Man, we have Sponge Bob,” Ortiz said, adding that during a game, The Assassin might read on his laser tag gun display that he just got tagged by Sponge Bob Square Pants. Ouch.

While games can get ruthless, the ramped arena is laid out for maximum fun and access for all ability levels, he said.

“We don’t want anybody to be left behind, whether a kid is in a cast or getting around in a wheelchair,” he said.

And though the system is designed to be simple enough for younger kids, he said, “At any point in the game I can tweak the computer and make it a lot harder for experienced players.”

That comes in handy for the national laser tag tournaments that caravan across the middle Atlantic states.

At the Armageddon tournament, participants fire their first beams on a Thursday and continue over a weekend at 13 laser tag locations, ending with an all-nighter at Solar Eclipse.

“I’ve played with them,” Ortiz said. “It is exhausting.”

For teens, Ortiz said he offers a safe place on Friday and Saturday nights, which generally end up with all 45 laser vests in use at once. One option for teens is the lock-in, when teens are signed in by their parents, play all night, and are signed back out the next morning.

In addition to the laser arena, party rooms, and arcade, there’s a bounce room and a black-lit room that was just retrofitted to meet party demand for teens and adults.

On a recent Saturday morning, signs on party room doors wished Happy Birthday to Dylan, Jay and Sebastian. After they had made the rounds on the arcade game consoles, and after they had been briefed and vested, the 12, 8-year-olds at Dylan Ceslak’s party headed for the twists and turns of the darkened laser space.

“You guys ready? Go play!” Ortiz’s mic’d voice announced, Wizard of Oz style.

And with a “Yee Haw!”, Cousin Dean flung open the door and ran in to supervise the action.

Located at 1595 Reed Road in Pennington, Solar Eclipse Laser Tag is open weekdays from 4 to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, Friday from 4 p.m. to closing, Saturday from 11 a.m. to closing, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. To learn more, call (609) 737-0127 or go online to solareclipselasertag.com.