As the weather cools, pay-to-play venues offer frazzled parents some inexpensive indoor options

Let 'em bounce off someone else's walls
The weather's vile, the kids wild. What to do?
The weather's vile, the kids wild. What to do?
The weather's vile, the kids wild. What to do?
The weather's vile, the kids wild. What to do?
Posted at 6:00 AM, Sep 07, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-07 06:11:30-04

CINCINNATI -- Rain? Snow? Four-year-old driving you batty? Kid's birthday approaching?

Parents who might want to -- or need to -- get out of the house with their children for a couple of hours have plenty of options in and around Cincinnati that don't cost a fortune.

While public parks, playgrounds and backyards are the recreation venues of choice when the weather's nice, the approach of fall and colder weather means children will soon be spending more and more time indoors.

The question then becomes will they be bouncing off the walls in the family room or the play room or will they bounce off of someone else's walls at a pay-to-play indoor site?

Regardless of the size or location of the facility, or the equipment in the facility, a couple of things are absolute certainties:

The flashy equipment replete with with bells and whistles is designed to captivate the kids for a couple of hours while they burn off some energy. And the comfortable chairs, couches or benches in and around the play area, the Wi-Fi and the coffee are for the parents and/or caregivers who decided they needed to get the kids out of the house.

The website for Red Balloon Cafe + Play in Pleasant Ridge describes itself as "…an escape in the city for frazzled families…," which could be a pretty good capsule summary for all of the indoor play areas in the region.

"We want to create an escape for friends and families to have some coffee and get out of the house," said Cera Dudas, co-owner of the Red Balloon with Caitlin Siegel-Hartzler and the mother of two. "Modern motherhood can be extremely isolating. You can spend the entire day without seeing another adult."

Kristen Johnson, general manager of Jump & Jack's at 7102 Office Park Dr. in West Chester, said, "It's a place where people can get out of the house and spend some time with friends and let the kids burn off some energy."

Best friends Celia Money of West Chester and Chelsea Toerner of Maineville couldn't have agreed more during a recent "play date" for their three little girls at Run Jump-n-Play in Mason.

"We kind of get some adult time, where we can stand here and talk and still watch the kids," Toerner said. "It helps them burn off some energy so they can have a good nap time," Money said.

Based on comments from a couple of people who know the indoor play-space business, it's a good time to be selling this kind of service.

"Our Soft Play business is healthy and growing," said Lynne Vandeveer, chief marketing officer at PlayPower Inc., in Huntersville, N.C., the parent company of Soft Play, which is one of the country's largest manufacturers of structures and equipment for indoor recreation.

Because her company is privately held, Vandeveer said she would not release any numbers about Soft Play's growth in recent years.

But she did point out that Soft Play provided the equipment and the 22-foot-tall structure that was unveiled in March at the McDonald's in Orlando, which is described as the world's largest "entertainment McDonald's." The fast-food giant plans to install Soft Play systems elsewhere in the country, said Vandeveer, who declined to provide any further details about how many playgrounds McDonald's will order.

Many of the indoor play areas in the region provide access to the kind of equipment that's in place at some McDonald's restaurants.

Vandeveer suggested that the only organization that might have precise data about industry growth would be the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in Alexandria, Va. But that organization doesn't break out any numbers for children's play areas in its huge "family entertainment center" category, which includes batting cages, go-kart tracks, miniature golf courses and similar facilities.

The association did say that a survey a few years back showed growth in attendance and revenue in the "family entertainment center" category.

Pete Delois, who owns Pete Delois' Recreation Outlet, offers a huge selection of sports, recreation and play equipment in his showroom at 885 St. Rt. 28 in Milford. He also makes some of that equipment available to children and parents who are willing to pay $6 on weekdays and $8 on weekends for a couple of hours of play.

"It's a revenue stream," Delois acknowledged. "There aren't many retail business plans where you charge people to come in and pay to look at your product."

Delois stressed that the admission fees represent only about 10 percent of his revenue, most of which comes from selling equipment in Milford and at a second store in Columbus.

Ellie Toerner, 1½, and Grace Money, 3½, "play the piano" at Run Jump-n-Play on a floor mat that has built-in piano keys that kids can step on or press with their hand.

David Powell, who owns Run Jump-n-Play and Swings N Things at 8481 Duke Blvd. in Mason, competes directly with Delois on equipment sales and said he introduced a charge for playing on the equipment about nine years ago.

What he describes as his "open play" business has increased by about 30 percent in the last year for several reasons, including introducing a "Toddler Zone" earlier this year and becoming the Cincinnati source for Rainbow Play Systems swings pumped-up walk-in traffic, said Powell, whose huge facility is located in a sprawling office park.

Some of the equipment is expensive.

The Rainbow Kingdom "Double Whammy," for example, was on sale for $27,499, marked down from $42,898.

The elaborate and expensive "Double Whammy" playground centerpiece.

Overall growth in the indoor play industry also was an important factor in the better numbers for his business, Powell said.

Owners and managers who operate play areas in Greater Cincinnati were fairly consistent in stressing that their staffs do everything they can to keep children safe in a variety of ways.

At Totter's Otterville, 4314 Boron Dr. in Covington's Latonia neighborhood, adults and children 10 and younger gets wristbands when the $8.95 admission is paid for children at an entrance and exit counter where staffers pay attention to who's coming and who's going. As is the case at most of the play areas, adult admission to Otterville is free.

"We have one way in and one way out and we patrol that area pretty heavily," Powell said

Holly Dukes, Powell's operations manager, said the "Toddler Zone" helped create some separation between little kids and 10-year-olds.

"The big kids are faster, stronger and rougher," said Dukes, explaining that Run Jump-n-Play wanted to minimize the possibility that an older child might inadvertently injure a younger one when they're sharing a play area.

The weekday price for the indoor playground is $7, and $10 on the weekends. Admission to the inflatables is $12, which includes playground access.

On a typical weekend day, there might be 100 children in Run Jump-n-Play, said Dukes, noting that attendance can triple when the weather is bad.

Like other play areas, parties -- especially birthday parties -- are an important part of the business for Run Jump-n-Play, where the pirate-themed and princess-themed events are popular choices.

The Princess Party Room at Run Jump-n-Play.

Johnson of Jump & Jack's said the play area there has a capacity of 350 children and adults.

Toddlers through age 2 are $4 every day and children 3 and older are $8 during the week and $10 on Friday nights and weekends.

The play area includes slides, mazes, a bounce house inflatable area, an obstacle course and a zipline. But enticing attractions don't guarantee success, Johnson said.

"Cleanliness and safety are make-or-break for us," she said.

She also made it clear that parties are a big part of the business at Jump & Jack's. As colder weather approaches, the weekend party schedule will sell out quickly with 12 each Saturday, 10 every Sunday and three on Friday nights, Johnson said.

While most of the play areas emphasize the size and stimulating potential of their play-area equipment, The Red Balloon Cafe + Play at 6200 Montgomery Rd. in Pleasant Ridge is a little different. It has a bit of a counter-culture feel and one of the owners talked about environmental concerns and support for "The Ridge Revival," an effort to breathe new life into the neighborhood business district.

Visitors enter through a cafe that emphasizes fresh, healthy, made-from-scratch, artisan-crafted food and then find themselves in a small retail area where there's a selection of cloth diapers, "babywearing" carriers and wraps, and other clothing, toys and teethers that you won't find at Wal-Mart.

The play area is located at the rear of the building and much of the equipment is handcrafted, little if anything out of a playground-equipment catalog.

Children under 1 and adults are free. Ages 1-6 are $8 for one child and $6 for additional children.

Some of the pay-to-play facilities also offer classes for children.

But the class schedule at Red Balloon may be one-of-a-kind in the region.

The lineup includes yoga for kids once a week and "Essential Oils 101," which focuses on how adults can use "…essential oils to promote wellness for your entire family."