Robin Whincup, founder of Galaxy America, sits atop a partially assembled mechanical buffalo that the Port Charlotte company built. Courtesy photo / Galaxy America
Published: Monday, October 14, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, October 12, 2013 at 4:54 p.m.
PORT CHARLOTTE – There are jobs and there are businesses, and then there’s what Robin and Mike Whincup do for a living.
The father-and-son team owns and runs Galaxy America, which manufactures and sells mechanical bull rides and inflatable, multi-player games that cost from $8,000 to $20,000.
To date, the company has sold about 5,000 worldwide to festivals, boardwalks, traveling fairs, small theme parks, party supply rental companies and other businesses.
And more sales are in the offing, if the Whincups’ track record of innovation holds.
The family got into the business in 1985, when Robin Whincup, then a carpet installer in England, got into the amusements trade by buying a “bounce house” and renting it out for children’s parties.
Eventually, he invested in a new gizmo featured in the popular “Urban Cowboy” movie that starred John Travolta.
The mechanical bull simulates a rodeo-style bucking bovine that tries to throw its rider. It turned out to be a profitable investment. Mechanical bull riding became a nationwide craze.
But for all the success, the elder Whincup thought the concept needed refinement.
That’s because the old fashioned mechanical bulls were heavy — so much so that they required six people and about two hours to install and break down.
So Whincup set out to “re-invent” the mechanical bull to make it lighter, easier to assemble and safer.
Today, Whincup’s bulls can be installed by just a pair of workers, and in a fraction of the time — 20 minutes.
His re-invented bull involves securing a fiberglass body covered with an artificial hide atop a steel spin motor. A soft foam head with a polyurethane “skin” is then attached. Unlike conventional mechanical bulls, the machine resembles the beast.
Whincup also designed his mechanical bull, which sells for about $16,000, so that it could be converted into mechanical rides with dozens of other custom-made themes.
With a different fiberglass figure placed on top, the ride can become a mechanical shark, dog, jack o’ lantern, buffalo — whatever.
The rocking contraption is centered on an inflated vinyl platform, so riders are not injured if they fall.
The re-invention nearly a quarter-century ago led Whincup to open a factory in Harrogate, England.
As his invention became more popular, Galaxy provided Whincup with an opportunity to stop laying carpet and devote himself full time to his business. In time, that led to an even bigger change.
Made in America
With the U.S. as his biggest market, Whincup decided to open a factory in America.
“I found that Americans wanted to buy stuff in their own country with their own dollars,” Whincup said.
When he looked for a location, he gravitated toward the Sarasota area — a place where his family had vacationed and enjoyed themselves.
“I just wanted to live in the sunshine,” the elder Whincup said.
In 2008, he found a facility to rent in Port Charlotte that met his needs. He began small, with a single employee.
That didn’t last long, though.
“We grew very quickly,” Whincup said. “The business just exploded.”
In the past five years, annual company revenues have grown from $600,000 to $3 million.
These days, with eight employees in England, Whincup’s Port Charlotte enterprise is now the larger of the two factories.
Galaxy America employs 16 and expects to expand. Whincup predicts that, by 2016, he will need 30 on staff.
Displaying his wares at trade shows is the key to his success, Whincup said. Photographs alone do not sell a Galaxy product.
“People have to see it, touch it,” he said.
The mechanical bulls, the company’s most popular product, are bought by bars and restaurants as well as party-supply stores.
Businesses that charge customers about $250 to $350 to rent the machines can earn their money back within months, Mike Whincup said.
A mechanical bull on the boardwalk in Myrtle Beach is reportedly earning its owner about $113,000 a year, the younger Whincup said.
What also differentiates Galaxy’s machines is the ability to customize them to fit almost any specialty. Instead of a bull, a Mexican restaurant wanted a donkey. A tequila company uses a wedge of lime ride to promote its products. Various brands of beverages want customers to ride their drink containers, and a shoe store wanted, of course, a shoe.
When it promoted itself at a Texas event, British broadcaster BBC America decided that, instead of a mechanical bull, its Galaxy-designed ride would be a mechanical British bulldog.
More ideas, more fun
To keep Galaxy thriving, the Whincups are constantly innovating.
Their inventory includes a surfing simulation machine on an inflated “wave.”
The company also offers several inflatable games with moving parts for multiple players.
For example, the four players in “Log Slammer” pretend an upriver mill exploded and they are floating on tree stumps. They have to jump or duck to avoid a swinging log or out-of-control saw blade while also staying clear of the jaws of two imaginary alligators.
The inflatable games sell for $13,000 to $20,000.
The company’s next inflatable game line will be a 100-foot obstacle course, complete with movable parts that will keep players dodging, climbing and jumping to beat each other to the finish line.
Several of the games can be attached to each other to make the course even longer.
Dan Maitland, who has produced a television episode about Galaxy for a Dallas-based digital media company, learned about Galaxy through an international association that represents amusement parks.
“Some of the things they are creating are very unique and cutting edge,” Maitland said of Galaxy.
Now Galaxy also is working on interactive animated videos that will take players to a whole new level. Several people sit in a mock vehicle in front of “a green screen” and a video camera. A director tells them how to react to animation they cannot see as their vehicle sways and turns. The finished video shows the riders and the animated scene behind them.
On one such ride, children join Santa on his sleigh as it takes off from the North Pole, shoots past the moon and descends upon a Dickensian-style city, where the riders toss out wrapped gifts to imagined people below.
In yet another game, perhaps loosely based on the movie “Toy Story,” passengers in a toy car find themselves being pursued by other toys in a child’s room.
Riders atop a sea turtle go on an underwater adventure, dodging creatures of the deep as they search for pirates’ lost treasure.
The Whincups think shopping malls are likely venues for the animated ride booths. Customers will buy DVDs or e-mailed digital copies of their two-minute adventures for a price that has yet to be finalized.
For the Whincups, not knowing what they may still add to their expanding inventory of amusements is all in a day’s work — and they are definitely enjoying the ride.
“It’s a fun business,” Mike Whincup said.