A giant leap in fun

Bounce U co-owner Tracy Fischer recently added the spider climb to one of her facility's rooms. Bounce U also has normal bounce houses, basketball hoops, obstacle courses and  slides. Bounce U allows all ages on its equipment.
Bounce U co-owner Tracy Fischer recently added the spider climb to one of her facility's rooms. Bounce U also has normal bounce houses, basketball hoops, obstacle courses and slides. Bounce U allows all ages on its equipment. Mark Ashley

"They're gonna sleep good tonight," is the refrain Kevin Wash hears again and again from parents at the birthday parties, company picnics, and church and school functions where his company sets up inflatable playgrounds.

Wash has a theory about why the giant balloon-like slides, obstacle courses and bouncers held aloft by air blowers have become so popular: Kids love jumping on furniture, and playing on inflatable equipment is the one time their parents encourage them to leap to their hearts' content.

"The appeal of it is just that natural instinct of kids to run and jump and bounce," said Wash, who owns Party Central. "The parents love it because it's a good energy drain on the kids."

Companies like Party Central have been renting inflatables for outdoor use for years, but the latest trend is indoor party centers where a warehouse-sized room full of inflatables is the main attraction.

Two such centers have opened in the Lexington area this year: Monkey Joe's at Hamburg and Air-Time Indoor Inflatables in Nicholasville. Bounce U, a third indoor inflatable center, has been in Lexington for about four years.

All three companies say they're getting big business from birthday parties; daycare, church and school groups; and individual families, and each is working to carve out a niche for itself in the market.

The Lexington Monkey Joe's, part of a national franchise that includes 50 locations across the country, has been a frequent topic of conversation among local moms since it opened in January. Kids can drop in and play any time the facility is open, while their parents peruse magazines, watch flat-screen televisions or tap into the free wi-fi.

Bounce U, which is also part of a national chain, has "open bounce" times as well, but its main business comes from private parties. Owner Jeff Fischer said the appeal is to have a party in which you have the place to yourself and where the emphasis is on service. The company will do everything from provide the cake to carry the birthday child's gifts out to the family car.

Air-Time is a locally-owned center whose owners said they wanted to strike a balance between service and affordability. After operating an outdoors inflatable rental business for eight years, Elizabeth Brockman opened Air-Time Indoor in Nicholasville in January.

"We felt like the other places weren't affordable," said her husband, Steve Brockman. "We're trying to keep our costs down, and that allows us to keep our prices down."

Their son, Josh, runs the outdoor rental company, which Steve Brockman said is still larger by far than the family's indoor operation.

"We are starting to pick up," he said, noting that daycare centers have been scheduling field trips this summer.

While there's certainly competition for customers, the three businesses said they cooperate.

Kelly Van Metre, who owns Monkey Joe's, said they refer people who want to rent an entire facility to Bounce U. It, in turn, sends families that want to just drop in with their kids outside of open bounce times to Monkey Joe's or Air-Time.

Van Metre said she and her husband, Ray, had been attending a backyard birthday party when they got the idea to open an indoor inflatable business.

"We were just talking about how lucky you have to be for it not to rain," Van Metre recalled. "My husband said, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have an indoor inflatable facility?'"

She said another guest spoke up and said, "Well, they do." The couple began their research and bought the Lexington franchise in 2008.

Fischer said Bounce U "seems like it's bounced back pretty well" from the opening of the two new venues nearby.

He and his wife bought Bounce U from its previous owner about three years ago.

They recently installed new equipment such as the Spider Climb, in which kids climb through multiple levels of webbing to reach the top. They're also working to attract a somewhat older audience.

Monkey Joe's only allows children 12 and younger to jump on the equipment, and it attracts younger kids with a play area solely for those 3 years old and under.

Bounce U allows parents to jump and has even had college groups rent the space. It has started trying to tap into the tween audience with Cosmic Bounce nights for only middle-schoolers. Black lights are turned on, glow-in-the-dark bracelets are pulled out and the stereo system is cranked up.

Fischer said those sessions have been a success with kids for whom "it's not so cool just to go bounce like a little kid."

Little kids, though, have become the focus of news coverage lately that has centered on inflatables. The office of the attorney general in California has filed suit against certain manufacturers claiming an excessive level of lead in the vinyl that gives bouncy devices their bounce.

The group behind the testing of the bouncy entertainment has not suggested children stop using them, but merely clean their hands and faces when they're finished.

Locally, many parents haven't brought up the issue, some of the owners said. All said they don't believe their equipment is manufactured by those named in the suit.

Indoors vs. outdoors

Wash said Party Central, which he started as a college student in 1989, was the first company in Lexington to provide inflatable entertainment. Before that, groups that wanted to rent a Moon Walk — pretty much the only kind of inflatable available at the time — had to go through Louisville to get one.

"The thing was just a stunt pillow," Wash said — a big air mattress with a dome on top.

These days, the equipment is bigger and comes in a wider variety, from boxing rings to basketball games.

Wash said the wintertime rentals, which he sets up in school and church gyms, took a bit of a hit when the indoor facilities opened, but his busy season — March to October — is as packed as ever.

During the school year, classes come to the indoor centers from as far as Morehead and Maysville for field trips.

While summertime is the slowest for them because there's so much to do outside, the indoor centers said they still get plenty of traffic.

Karen Albanese, who was visiting Monkey Joe's one afternoon with her son, said it was nice to have a place to play on days when it was too hot to be outside.

"My son came here very crabby," she said, "but there's something about jumping that makes people happy."