The Business of the Playground
Reported by Kasey Wehrum
A look at the companies that help keep the Lakes Regional Park Playground in Fort Myers, Florida, fun and tangle-free.
During peak season, from February to April, Lakes Regional Park gets close to 15,000 visitors each weekend. Parkgoers can rent bikes, cruise the lake in pedal boats, or take a ride down this inflatable Super Slide, all services provided by the park's concessionaire, Wheel Fun Rentals. Brian McInerney founded Wheel Fun in Ventura, California, in 1999. The company began franchising in 2001 and now has 19 franchises serving more than 100 locations around the country. John Shaffer and Scott Ellington own the Wheel Fun franchise that serves Lakes Regional Park. They have 12 employees and also run the park's full-service snack bar and ice cream stand.
Landscape Structures manufactured this playground equipment using galvanized steel coated with fade-resistant paint and reinforced steel cables designed to be gentle on kids' skin. Steve King, who founded the company in 1971 with his wife, Barb, wrote about playgrounds for his college thesis. The $100 million company, based in Delano, Minnesota, is now owned by its roughly 300 employees, who manufacture the equipment in-house. The company has outfitted more than 50,000 playgrounds worldwide.
"I've been accused of never having to grow up," says J.T. Almon II, founder of Rep Services, the Longwood, Florida, company that designed this playground. Almon and his 17 employees may spend much of their time working with swings and slides, but it's not all child's play. To make sure the company's designs are both fun and safe, six of Rep Service's employees have been certified by the National Playground Safety Institute as playground safety inspectors. Almon left a career in advertising to start Rep Services in 1989. Since then, the company has designed more than 1,000 playgrounds in Florida, including temporary sites for Epcot Center's annual Flower and Garden Festival.
Unsafe surface material is the leading cause of playground-related injuries, according to the National Recreation and Park Association. Wood fiber from Zeager Brothers helps solve that problem. Unlike standard wood chips, Zeager's chips are ground to a uniform size and dimension, which helps them knit together to absorb impact from falls. CEO Charlie Zeager started the company with his two brothers in 1967 to make use of byproducts from their lumber mill. Today, the Middletown, Pennsylvania, company has 53 employees and produces enough chips to cover about 25 million square feet of playgrounds each year.