With 238 pinball machines and over 200 additional games, Hillsboro’s Next Level Pinball Shop & Museum bills itself as Oregon’s largest arcade. It may help make it the best pinball spot in the world after being named Favorite Pinball Venue at the annual TWIPY Pinball Awards held in Frisco, Texas on Saturday.
The TWIPYS are the pinball world’s audience awards organized by This Week in Pinball, a popular website for pinball enthusiasts. Last year Next Level not only won Favorite Pinball Location but also the TWIPY for Favorite Pinball Tournament.
The arcade’s size and unique payment model make it a fan favorite. All Next Level pinball and arcade games are set to free play, so no coins or magnetic cards are needed. Visitors pay $20 for a day pass for unlimited play.
Next Level opened in 2017 with a relatively modest (but still respectable) 100 games in 10,000 square feet of storage near Hillsboro Airport. Over the years, the collection of games and memorabilia has grown to encompass the entire 20,000 square foot building, with plans to add another 6,000 square feet over the next year.
“We have a big 10-year plan,” said co-owner Jordan Carlson. “If you think of Disneyland, we’re trying to build arcade land. We will eventually hold nearly 1,200 arcades and pinball machines.”
It’s not just the games that set Next Level apart. There are thousands of pop culture memorabilia found throughout the arcade, from movie posters to life-size superhero statues. Both the arcade and museum are the result of years of pop culture collecting by the Carlson family – first by Fred Carlson and then by his son and daughter-in-law Jordan and Whitney Carlson.
Fred bought his first pinball machines in the 1970’s with the intention of creating a small family playroom. This personal collection grew like a snowball, eventually overtaking a barn and becoming an arcade. Fred passed his love of arcade games to his son, who continued to buy and fix broken pinball machines over the years.
When Fred first started collecting games, he curated a bit of everything: VHS tapes, bubble bath dispensers, TV trays, Pokemon, vinyl records. Every inch of Next Level’s wall space is covered with a dizzying array of pop culture items, stacked to the ceiling in approximately 200 custom-built crates.
In Fred’s words, he collects “everything but money”.
Most impressively, he owns what is believed to be the world’s largest collection of lunch boxes, of which around 3,146 are on display in the Next Level. These include some of the first character lunchboxes marketed for children, such as Aladdin Industries’ Hoppalong Cassidy lunchbox in 1950, which changed the lunchbox game forever.
“Usually you get people to come to the museum once or twice to see it, but how do you get people to come three, four, five or six times a year?” Jordan said. “We’re really trying to cater to all generations, so someone can come in, find a piece from their childhood that brings back happy memories, and have a good time. Then throw in the 500+ games as a bonus.”
The Hillsboro community has also begun donating items, including several hundred loosely displayed Star Wars figures and hundreds of vintage Time magazines.
“Some people come here for literally three hours and just look at everything on the walls and not even play a single game,” Jordan said.
For those who want to play, Next Level offers many options, especially for pinball fans. The oldest pinball game on the floor is Night Rider from 1977. The rarest? Sega’s Golden Cue from 1998, which was never officially released. Only 10 tryouts have been created and you can play one of them in Hillsboro.
Next Level features popular pinball games like Medieval Madness, Attack from Mars and Stern’s new Godzilla, as well as the most produced games of all time like Addams Family and Eight Ball Deluxe.
Next Level hosts weekly pinball tournaments every Friday and is also a distributor of new pinball games, selling items from Stern, Jersey Jack, Chicago Gaming and American Pinball.
“The pinball community is so big in Oregon and in Washington,” Jordan said. “I think it’s because of all the rain we get here.”
The Carlson family owned a landscaping business for 13 years before Fred retired and Jordan devoted full time to the arcade. Whitney, who runs the day-to-day operations of the arcade with her husband, has always liked arcades but has come to appreciate them more and more.
“My husband is a big dreamer, so it’s amazing to watch him put something like this together and bring it to life,” she said. “I was also very committed to it because we decided that this is going to be our life. We have to make the best of it, we have to get to the next level. And that’s the name. We are the next level.”
Next Level Pinball Shop & Museum
Next Level is about to enter the second biggest week of the year: Oregon Spring Break. (The busiest time is the Christmas holidays.)
Spring break opening times: noon-9pm Monday-Wednesday 27-29 March; noon-11pm Thursday-Friday 30-31 March; 10am-11pm Saturday, April 1; and 10am-9pm Sunday, April 2nd.
In all other weeks, Next Level is closed Monday to Wednesday.
Next Level is located at 1458 NE 25th Ave. at Hillsboro. Visit nextlevelpinballmuseum.com for more information.
Looking for more spring break activities? Check out our list of 36 spring break adventure ideas in Oregon.
— Samantha Swindler, [email protected], @editorswindler