Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
If you were a kid or had a kid anytime in the last quarter century, chances are you've visited Ross Owen's world. While there, you may have stumbled through a spinning barrel, shrunk from a pop-up monster, or watched your forehead stretch to the length of your torso.
Slushee syrup runs through Owen's veins. He is the second-generation owner of a family business whose prosaic name, Owen Trailers, belies its stature as the market-share leader in mirror mazes. "I have got one in every major carnival in the United States and Canada and Mexico and the Philippines," says Owen, whose factory resides on 2.5 acres in an industrial neighborhood in Riverside, east of Los Angeles.
Owen and his 26 employees build mirror mazes--known in the industry as "glass houses"--inside trailers, which they also manufacture. In 1988, Owen Trailers introduced the industry's first double-decker glass houses; it is still the only company that makes them. The business also builds trailers into two other kinds of houses: fun and haunted. Prices for all the various models range from $350,000 to $500,000.
The company, which produces to order roughly one "house" a month, sells both directly to carnivals and to independent operators who contract out rides to fairs and carnivals. It also makes and sells ticket booths, mobile offices, staff bunkhouses--everything necessary for a peripatetic life traveling from church parking lots to fairgrounds.
Given those venues, Owen's entertainments are strictly G-rated--maybe PG for the haunted houses ("dark rides" in industry parlance). Michael Wood, president of Wood Entertainment, an independent operator, says that family orientation sets Owen Trailers apart. "There are children's rides and there are rides for teenagers and adolescents," says Wood. "There are very few where mom and dad go with the kids. That is Ross's niche. It's one reason his popularity has not waned in all these years."
Owen's rides are also touted for their ease of setup and operation, and for their reliability. Bruce Perelman is the owner of Caprice Entertainment, an independent operator who has been buying from Owen Trailers for 30 years. "Every single amusement ride has built into it a weekend-and-night sensor. They always break down when you're busy," he jokes. "That sensor seems to be disconnected on Ross's rides. They just work and work and work."
A home for people, then games
In the 1940s, California beckoned. The Golden State lured more than half a million people a year during World War II. Post-war, the surge continued. With housing scarce, trailers became popular places to live.
In 1946, Loren Owen, a machinist in Texas, and his wife, Erma, packed up their own trailer and headed west, landing in Monterey Park, outside of Los Angeles. They'd barely arrived when someone offered $2,500 for their home on wheels, which had cost Loren just $500. "My dad took the money and bought another trailer for $1,000," says Ross Owen. "That's how the business started."
For a while, Loren did brisk business selling secondhand trailers, cars, and boats. Then, around 1956, an acquaintance who worked as a carnival operator asked if he could convert a trailer to house a game called Roman Target, which involved shooting projectiles at a spinning wheel. Carnivals had been traversing America since the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, usually selling food and running games out of tents. Around the mid-1950s, "people started thinking about putting this stuff in trailers," says Owen. "Instead of packing it up every time they moved, they could just close the doors and windows, make sure everything was drained, and go."
Rather than convert a trailer, Loren offered to build one from scratch that accommodated game play with, for example, a garage-door-like mechanism along the side through which players could shoot. That led to more orders from other carnival operators--guys with 15 or 18 rides who set up in church parking lots for two or three days at a time. They wanted not just game trailers but also ticket booths, food trailers, offices, and bunkhouses for carnies and other staff.
Back then, the L.A. County Fair was the country's largest. Loren supplied many of the carnivals operating there. He routinely spent much of September hanging around the fairgrounds, offering customer support and pitching products. Ross Owen sometimes accompanied his father. "That's where I saw who the operators were and how they ran their businesses," he says.
In 1971, Ross Owen joined the business, which then employed six people. A few years later, he took it over. "It was around that time the second generation of carnival owners showed up, who saw what their fathers had done and thought they could do five times bigger," Owen says. He thought he could do that, too.
A moment of reflection
For the next decade, though, many of Owen's biggest customers weren't carnivals but corporations. For more than a year, he worked almost exclusively for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, building dozens of food trailers to sell hot dogs and Coke at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Restaurant chains like Carl's Jr. and In-N-Out Burger hired him to develop customized food trailers for fairs and other events.
But as competition for the food trailer business grew hotter than a bag of fresh boiled peanuts, Owen decided to shift away from edibles back toward entertainment. Since his father's day, "the rides had become bigger, faster, and more glitzy," says Owen. "You started seeing more roller coasters, rides where people were spun upside down and twisted." A trailer man, Owen wondered what thrills and chills could be packed into a portable, contained space.
Mirror mazes had been around for more than four centuries. In the late 1980s, they were still a carnival staple, puttering around the country in 30-foot trailers. Owen thought they needed refreshing. To create new excitement, he went big. His mirror maze incorporates 16 hydraulic cylinders that open out the structure of a 48-foot trailer to 72 feet long by 28 feet high by 13 feet deep. For a while, he built models with back rooms that folded out to double the size.
And Owen's glass houses were double-deckers--the first in the industry. He installed regular mirrors on the lower level, distorting mirrors on top, and a twisty playground slide to exit by. "The key selling point was the massiveness of it--the way it looks, with all the lighting," says Owen. He also benefited from tensions between carnival operators and employees over issues like drugs and hygiene. With good workers hard to come by, "it helped that two guys could set it up in 45 minutes," says Owen.
Owen's glass houses are so cheap to run that, a quarter-century later, they are still among the most profitable rides in the industry. Perelman likes to tell people that, "dollar for dollar, pound for pound, you cannot make a better investment than a Ross Owen glass house. The entire maintenance program consists of Windex and paper towels."
Very safe--and kind of scary
Owen's glass houses were so popular that for a few years he built virtually no other rides. Then, in 1994, he introduced his first fun house, built into the same expandable trailer used for the mirror maze. Owen's fun houses are more traditional than his mazes; after all, there are only so many risks you can take with a product that causes little kids to fall down. "You can't reinvent the barrel. You can't reinvent the shuffling stairs. You can't reinvent the wave floor," says Owen. "You've got to keep it safe."
You've also got to keep it wholesome. Owen Trailers produces a Mardi Gras-themed funhouse, "and I have had guys that don't like it because there is too much cleavage on the girls, and they have to play churches," says Owen. "My original Mardi Gras had a devil on the right-hand side. The buyer was a Pentecostal. He said, 'I cannot have a devil on my ride.' I had to fly with my artist to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to take it out."
There's more tolerance for devils in the company's dark rides. Customers climb into a cart and rocket along a track in pitch-blackness. Light flashes: a condemned man sizzling in an electric chair! Light flashes: a figure chained to a wall! The animatronic haunts are produced for Owen by Distortions Unlimited, a Greeley, Colorado-based company that for three seasons was the subject of a series on The Travel Channel.
"It's scary, but we don't let it spurt blood," says Owen. "It's not so scary it will give someone a heart attack."
Within Owen's product lines, most models are pretty similar on the inside. It's on the outsides that he goes to town. The Tomb of Doom has an Egyptian theme, with a huge skeletal pharaoh's head baring its teeth above the entrance. The Cuckoo Haus has a German beer hall gestalt. One very popular product, the Magic Maze, features a spectacular LED light show. Ten Owen products were among the 80-plus rides at the just-closed State Fair of Texas. All were big earners.
But demand, says Owen, is not what it was. The number of traveling carnivals has declined. State and county fairs, where carnivals may reside for weeks, continue to thrive, and the larger operators who play those fairs buy more of Owen's rides. But his products typically last 25 years or more. There are not many calls for replacements.
Nor has the appetite for nausea-inducing thrill rides abated. But Wood, for one, believes there will always be a market for Owen Trailers' family-friendly alternatives. "It's easy to build an advertising campaign around a multimillion-dollar roller coaster that takes you 90 miles an hour 200 feet in the air," says Wood. "But what we really do in the outdoor amusement business is sell memories. And Ross's products make fond memories."