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A little after 9:30 on a chilly Saturday morning, kids were scurrying into Niantic Cinemas. They came bearing gifts - birthday gifts, tied up in vivid paper and shimmering bows - because two birthday parties were gearing up inside.
The five-screen movie theater offers morning parties, and on this day, two of the cinemas were abuzz with cheerful youngsters.
As "Muppets Most Wanted" played on one screen, a trio of girls, occasionally giggling, repeatedly scampered from the front to the back of the auditorium, to throw something away - or, it seems at times, just to make the trip. One of their mothers encouraged her daughter to stay sitting, but another mother said, kindly, "This is the only movie they can do that in."
Indeed, that's part of the charm. All those usual movie-going rules can be ignored. Kids don't feel compelled to sit still. Or to stay quiet. Heck, they can even bring in their own food.
While the theater will open the concession stand if people want it, the parents throwing the party usually bring in their own treats - cupcakes, juice, bags of popcorn - and set it out on the tables Niantic Cinemas provides.
Jill Long was actually organizing the fourth birthday party at Niantic Cinemas for one of her children. Last Saturday, it was for Jenna's 7th birthday - and Jenna had donned a sparkly birthday hat for the occasion.
"Do you know what the thing is?" says Jill Long of Waterford. "It's okay if they run around. It's okay if they get excited. Once they run around a while, then they sit and watch the movie, and everybody enjoys it."
And, she notes, the parents can enjoy it, too. They can sit in the back of the theater and not have to worry about making sure the kids aren't, say, talking or doing anything that might bother another theatergoer.
The events happen in the morning so they don't conflict with the public matinees, according to Joe Couillard, Niantic Cinemas' general manager. The cost is $50 and then $7.50 per person.
The number of parties tends to wax and wane. Whether that's because of when birthdays fall or because of what movies are playing, Couillard isn't sure.
But last weekend, Niantic Cinemas had two parties going on each weekend day. Saturday brought the two screenings of "Muppets Most Wanted," and Sunday called for a "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" showing and a "Divergent" one for an older group of youths.
Other theaters offer variations on a birthday party theme. At Waterford Regal 9, for instance, the kids get to watch a movie, but it's a screening open to the public, and they get a small food pack and a tour of the projection booth.
The other birthday party at Niantic Cinemas on Saturday was for Payton Smith of Waterford, who was marking her 8th birthday with friends. Payton had been to other parties at Niantic Cinemas, and her mother, Wendy, says they thought it was something different and fun.
Indeed, Payton says, "What I liked about it was, it's fun because you get the whole theater to yourself - and (otherwise) you never get the whole theater to yourself."
Payton even switched seats to take advantage of the full-theater freedom, with a front-row seat ranking as her favorite.