Thumbs-Up for Rear-Seat Entertainment

“There are two classes of travel – first and with children,” wrote humorist Robert Benchley.

If your travel falls into the latter category and often involves a minivan or an SUV, you might consider a rear-seat entertainment system to keep the kids happy (and quiet) on long drives. A movie playing in the backseat can even make you a better driver – happy kids let you keep your attention on the road where it belongs.

Some parents fear that putting a video player in the backseat will turn their kids into brain-dead zombies. Of course, there’s always room for TV/video abuse, as with any form of electronic entertainment, but parents can control the quantity and quality of what their children watch. Yes, it’s overkill for kids to plug in to games and movies every time you take a short jaunt around town. But for long trips and bumper-to-bumper commutes, nothing can save the day – or the vacation – like a rear-seat entertainment system.

Plus, there’s no law that says you have to play mind-numbing junk. You can tape your favorite Animal Planet or PBS shows or play documentaries to educate your kids on the way to the Grand Canyon. Just think, Jenny and Michael can learn about the Kaibab Plateau before ever setting eyes on it. Used in this way, video systems can actually enrich family vacations, rather than subtract from them.


Systems for Everyone

Mobile entertainment systems come in all shapes and sizes. There are ceiling-mounted flip-down screens, seat-back screens and floor-mounted center console screens. DVD and videocassette players (VCPs) can be installed in the dash, in the trunk or under the second- or third-row seat. Most systems include wired or wireless headphones and plug/play compatibility for video games such as PlayStation. Others offer remote controls and some even have TV and FM radio tuners. VCP and DVD systems range in price from $1,000 to $5,000, often bundled in with a new vehicle’s options/accessories package.

Since the first mobile-entertainment system debuted in a 1998 Oldsmobile Silhouette, entertainment systems have been the domain of minivans and SUVs. Saturn is the first automaker to offer DVD systems in cars – specifically in 2002 Saturn L-Series Sedans and Wagons. Honda is the first automaker to offer a factory-installed integrated DVD player in a minivan, in the 2002 Honda Odyssey. The Odyssey’s entertainment system allows for a DVD, CD, radio, cassette tape or video game to be played in the back seat while the front passengers listen to a different audio source.

Entertainment systems have become so popular that some automakers might mislead you by claiming a vehicle has a DVD system when what it really has is a navigation system that can play DVDs only when the vehicle is in “park.” A lot of good that will do you on a long trip – “Hey kids! Let’s pull over and watch Bambi!”

For people who want the flexibility of being able to move their video system from car to car, a portable infotainment system is the way to go.

One such system is the Traveler, made by Rosen Products of Oregon. The Traveler is a complete, self-contained video system that features a 5.6-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) screen and built-in speakers. It can easily be secured with a seat belt. Cost for the Traveler is $399 to $499. Rosen, a leading manufacturer of mobile entertainment and communication systems for the automotive and aviation markets, makes rear-seat entertainment systems for the Cadillac Escalade, Oldsmobile Silhouette, Toyota Sienna, Chevrolet Venture, Mercedes M-Class, Land Rover Discovery and the Mazda MPV.

Families who want to add a rear-seat entertainment system to their existing vehicle can always order an aftermarket system and have it installed by a dealer. Makers of such systems include Rosen, Alpine Electronics and Clarion.

The advent of in-car multimedia systems needn’t mark the end of traditional games like “license plate bingo” and “spot the cop.” These games will endure. But when you have a rear-seat entertainment system and your kids ask, “How much longer ’til we get there?” you can answer, “One Shrek and half a Tarzan,” and they’ll understand. Better yet, if you engage the kids with Shrek you might not hear that question. And you won’t have to say: “If you ask me one more time, I’m going to stop the car!”

Click here for a rundown of rear-seat DVD and VCP systems offered in 2002 models. (Information was provided by the auto manufacturers -- visit their Web sites or your dealer for updated price information.)

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From United Parenting Publications, May 2002.