The sweet smell of plastic is overwhelming as we enter the Pennsylvania Convention Center, as is the loud whine of a hundred-odd air pumps. Behind the doors of Hall A, a 27-foot polar bear looms over a vast, colorful landscape of giant mushrooms, pirate ships and flying saucers. This, friends, is the AIR Inflatable Road Show, which stopped in Philly last week: the largest trade convention of bouncy castles in the world.
But don’t call them bouncy castles here. “The end user might call them bouncy castles or moonbounces, but the industry calls them inflatables — inflatable slide, inflatable bouncer, inflatable game, inflatable obstacle course,” explains N-Flatables vendor Brian Field. The terminology of “end users” depends, sort of like soda vs. pop: “It’s definitely a regional thing,” says Kari Luther, who’s there with partner Jim Cox Jr. to pick up some new merchandise for their Maryland rental business. Moonbounce and bouncy castle are most common, but “down South, they sometimes call them moonwalks or jumpers, or jump houses — bounce house and bouncy house are more Kentucky/Kansas,” she says.
She and Cox have been testing out the giant polar bear, a pricey slide called the Arctic Plunge. At around $10,000, it’s one of the most expensive models on display. But they’re considering it — business is good. “We’re about 25 miles away from Washington, D.C., so we’re kind of recession-proof with all the federal and government jobs,” says Luther. (Seeing our wide eyes, she clarifies that their customers are federal employees, not some clandestine government bureau.) Cox is dubious about the Arctic Plunge’s weight — around 900 pounds. “And if it gets wet, that’s another 400 or 500 pounds,” he grimaces.
Technological advances have made for bigger, more complicated inflatables. “You look at that stagecoach or that princess palace or that flying saucer — just a few years ago, it was just all four-post castles,” says Field. “Huge changes. We have one over there with a giant octopus pulling the slide down. That wasn’t available a few years ago.” According to Field, the biggest problem for manufacturers isn’t the recession, but Chinese knockoffs, which he describes as “kind of like buying a knockoff Rolex — it may look good on the outside, but it’s junk inside.” It’s not just bad for his business, he says, it’s a safety hazard. Lack of care put into making the invisible internal baffle systems can result in “a blowout,” he says. “You see the rib-looking things inside? There’s pieces of material that are pulling to the other side. And when something lets go, it’s dangerous.”
Sylvia Hurley, who just got into the business last year with her husband as a second job, has brought her two children as scouts. “This is an industry that’s related to kids — it’s kind of about what catches their eye,” she says. Aidan, 7, and Emma, 4, are among a couple dozen kids ecstatically dashing between the hundreds of display models, a contrast to the businesslike adults who make up most of the crowd. (A trade-publication article subtitled “Strategies for the Changing Party Landscape” is a decent microcosm.) The amount of time Aidan’s spent joyously bowling over his sister with a large foam sphere suggests that the Wrecking Ball will be a winner, she says. “Um because — because you get to throw it at people!” yells Aidan when asked what he likes about this particular model. Emma is less enchanted with the Wrecking Ball, for obvious reasons — her mother cuts our talk short to dash after the 4-year-old, who has torn off to check out another corner of paradise.
But even paradise has its limits. On our way out, we squeeze by a few kids, just a dozen yards from the colorful wonderland visible through the doors of Hall A, playing walk up the down escalator.