Ride is ticket for mall patrons

Carousel a big draw for parents, children

A `must-do' for shoppers

Attraction is second to Santa in popularity


December 08, 2003|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

In the thick of the holiday shopping season, the No. 1 stop at The Mall in Columbia for parents with little ones in tow is Santa's knee.

But the Italian-made carousel is a close second.

The multicolored confection of a ride with hundreds of twinkling lights, hand-painted scenes of Venice and bobbing horses is a required stop for many parents on a holiday mall outing with the children.

With more children in the mall to visit Santa, carousel manager Dawn Goode said the horses are working hard.

"For me it's easier when it's busier," she said. "I love the children; it's nice seeing the kids smile and be happy."

Goode estimates that the number of daily rides - a ticket costs $1.50 for three minutes - more than doubles at this time of year, sometimes topping 700.

On a recent visit to the mall, Karen Locander and her 2-year-old daughter Sarah found themselves at the carousel a second time after a visit to Santa.

"I have two more tickets, but I don't want to spin in a circle anymore," Locander told Sarah. "Mommy's done spinning.

"She loves this carousel," said Locander, who bypasses malls closer to her Olney home to let her daughter ride the carousel. "We go at least five times when we're at the mall."

The carousel is one of 32 that Florida-based Island Carousel operates in malls across the country. The company - which has had a carousel in Columbia for three years - imports them from Italy and contracts with malls to rent space and sell rides.

The carousels are shipped in hundreds of pieces, and Island Carousel employees set up the rides on site.

"This is a major part of the year for us," said Bill Christ, co-president of Island Carousel.

Made by the company Bertazzon, the Columbia mall carousel is a reproduction of a 19th- century Venetian model. The $175,000 ride can carry 30 patrons and features horses - with tails made from real horsehair - a teacup spinner and a dolphin chariot.

Hand-painted murals of Venice depict gondolas and the Piazza San Marco. Lights the size of golf balls - 570 of them - illuminate the ride, and decorative touches include gold-colored cherubs and curlicues in pink, green and blue pastels.

Although Island Carousel's ridership on all of its carousels gets a boost during the holiday shopping season, Christ said that Columbia's carousel is a top producer, ranking fifth in ticket sales.

"It's a real good spot for us," he said.

Goode said the ride has many repeat customers.

"Every time we're here, it's a must-do," said Tricia Walls as she watched her son and a friend - both 4 1/2 - circle past her on their horses.

Walls used the promise of a carousel ride to get through haircuts and lunch without too much fussing.

"It keeps them behaving," she said. "It's that little dangling carrot."

Working in shifts, Goode and two assistants operate the carousel from a small ticket booth that houses the control panel. Before she starts the ride, Goode pops in a compact disc of carousel music, sounds the warning bell and they're off.

She has been running the carousel for nearly a year-and-a-half and has regulars who call her "Miss Dawn."

She has seen the kids who get sick from too much spinning on the teacup, and the begging and crying when the ride stops and a parent tries to remove a child from a horse.

"Nine times out of 10, the parent gets more tickets," Goode said.

Tony Sumners, the mall's retail marketing manager, said the carousel fills an entertainment niche as malls continue to expand their offerings beyond shopping and eating.

However, Sumners said that mall management has rejected repeated requests from business owners to add children's rides and photo booths.

"It's a more tasteful way to add an entertainment piece that complements the design of the mall," he said of the carousel.

For the ride to succeed in a mall setting, Christ said, the shopping venue must serve a large number of families.

"You have to have a strong child population," he said, adding that a region's economic demographics is not a factor in ticket sales.

"Rich kids like to ride, and poor kids like to ride," he said.

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