June 23, 2009

Now About That History Of Soft Play


I just realized it's been two whole months since I learned that those giant foam wrestling mat-style playgrounds are called "soft play," and that the leading design and manufacturer for soft play areas, in malls, anyway, is a Denver-based company called Playtime, which is run by Mike Evans, a former Chuck E. Cheese executive who rather boldly calls himself "The Walt Disney of Play Areas":

PLAYTIME's history is the "History of Soft Play"

How did all these soft play areas sprout up in shopping centers across the country? To understand the answer to that question, you must follow the career path of Mike Evans, President and CEO of PLAYTIME, LLC. Truly, the History of Soft Play is intrinsically linked to Mike's journey.

Bold indeed, and not quite the entire story, as a couple of expert correspondents have informed me. I had no idea Daddy Types had a following among the Historians of Soft Play, but it shouldn't be too surprising if the actual Disney of Play Areas turns out to be, uh, Disney.

[But first, let's just make one thing clear: I know I'm not any good, but I'm pretty much hooked on the Brushes iPhone app; it is freakin' awesome. I drew the picture above today with my finger. It's the foam playground at Tyson's Corner mall, where K2 ran rampant on the seyaiieed. Sound it out, it'll make sense.]

Here's some background on soft play that was missing from Playtime's history, as related by an expert from the amusement industry who wishes to remain unnamed:

A company called NBGS International (sister/building company of Schlitterbahn Waterpark) created one-of-a-kind themed sculpted concrete waterslides and attractions for waterparks. All of the areas that would be touched by people were padded with foam so no one would be hurt. The foam was sculpted and painted as well-- so it was all heavily themed pirate, fairy, whatever.


When Disney was building Toon Town they contacted NBGS to make toon-like chairs and other items for the Minnie Mouse's house and the wet-deck playground part of the Donald Duck themed area. They collaborated extensively with Disney on fabricating all of these play pieces. They did a Honey I Shrunk the Kids...so I think that is where all the "if we make it really big, it will be cool" came from.

Eventually, NBGS started to create these foam play sculptures for their own clients, around 1994. They referred to them as Dry Play, because they did all waterpark industry play features at the time. The malls discovered they could ask for higher rent around the play areas, as long as they were created in a way to encourage people to stay longer.

At the time NBGS was the only company that made these items, and they were all custom. Eventually other companies started to copy the techniques of the heavily themed foam covered items. A few Soft Contained Play companies started to get into the game.

Interesting. The mad genius behind NBGS is Jeff Henry, who's been doing dreaming and development for his family's waterpark business for decades. Henry founded NBGS, originally the New Braunfels General Store, as an in-house service and "foam covered equipment" provider to Schlitterbahn.

Evans' own history, meanwhile, unfolded on the shopping center side, where his previous company, Playtime Entertainment, was a contractor providing malls with "carousel rides, kiddie amusements and high-end vending equipment."

Mickey's Toontown opened in January 1993. According to this article, by April 1998, NBGS had been designing soft play areas for malls for "about three years," and had already completed 25 indoor projects. They pioneered such innovations as "the nation's only talking tree manufactured for a shopping center," which was installed in 1997 in the Woodland Mall's Enchanted Woodlands Soft Play Area in Houston. Ooh, I get chills just thinking about it. It's in front of Mervyn's.

As it turns out, JT New left NBGS early on to found Superior Foam, also of Somewhere, TX. Superior Foam was acquired by Koala in 1999, and Mike Evans was brought in to see help Koala and Superior break into the mall play area market.

In 2001, Evans quit to found Playtime, then in 2005, he bought Superior back from Koala. New was part of the buyout deal and is now an executive at Playtime.

At the big International Council of Shopping Centers expo in 2005, NBGS was going strong, and was seeking to synergize their wet and dry play markets:

Creative themed soft play areas for children have been such a hit with retailers that New Braunfels, Texas-based NBGS International Inc. plans to introduce retail customers to its line of water-themed products that include aqua toys, fountains and splash areas. NBGS is known for its themed soft play areas that range from tiny towns and zoo animals to its trademark castle at the Memorial City Mall in Houston.

"It seems that the trend with the retail sector is going to outdoor venues," says Roxanne Coiner, director of marketing for NBGS. The firm hopes to spark some interest in its water line, which can be either decorative or used to create interactive play areas for children. Products run the gamut from giant fish and turtles squirting streams of water to dinosaurs, planets and pirate ships.

But that plan was shortlived. In January 2007, NBGS got out of the mall soft play and play equipment business and was sold to Water Park Experts, Inc., a small [$1 mm/yr revenue], specialized consulting company. Whoops, also in April 2007, NBGS founder and Schlitterbahn Water Parks designer/scion Jeff Henry was arrested after police "received information that he was in possession of marijuana," just 5.7 oz. Which is a third degree felony?? Harsh.

As of 2008, Playtime seems to have a reported 90% share of the mall playground market. Meanwhile, the rest of the soft play industry is just seven companies. Whoops, spoke too soon; only five of those other companies make foam sculpture playgrounds.

Soft Play, Inc. is one of those Soft Contained Play companies the tipster mentioned, that has been around since 1984. Not sure when they started dabbling in the foam playground game, but it looks like they mix seem to specialize in product/systems that blend foam and scaffolding.

Center Stage Productions Display of New Jersey. And oh, look! A cute little sculpted foam play element shop in Australia!

But why am I suddenly detailing all these tiny also-rans when all I really care about is one thing? Getting my own foam playground? What's it gonna take at the end of the day to get me into one of these custom foam jobbies?

Do I make one myself? Here's the rather messy-sounding process:

After a play area has been designed, its specific objects are sculpted out of foam by one of Playtime's artists.

When the desired shape is made, a hard layer of plastic surrounds the foam. Next, another layer of softer, squishy foam is molded over the hard layer.

Once that creation has its final shape, it is rotated and sprayed with a plastic coating, and when the coating dries, an artist paints and airbrushes the object to bring it to life.


Fortunately, Playtime has an alternative, or at least a sense of what kind of money we're talking about. As you would expect from a mall developer convention held in the still-falling depths of an economic crisis, it seems that no one bought the Garden Themed Little Footprints soft play package, even at special ReCON pricing.

A 4-element play area that looks to be around 2,000 sf is normally $77,000, and was discounted to $62,000 for the show.


The play elements themselves, two climbers and two slides were $42,000, but are available for just $35,700. That's around $9,000 apiece. When I have made progress on my plans for a soft play element version of Damien Hirst's shark-in-formaldehyde, I will let you know.


I really wish PBS would give you a TV show. Be so much better than the History Detectives.

I'd be like that one guy, only with better corduroy suits, no goggles, and no bad combover....aha, James Burke

I want a whole Soft Play version of my house. And maybe something for the boy, too

Forget Hirst, I think Koons is already working on softplay.

I worked on a series of PBS Kids playgrounds a while back, I seem to recall the cost of the big bird sculpture wound up somewhere in the neighborhood of the 4 element playground up there. And *cough* it looked a bit better.

I'll mention it to Koons the next time I see him. My actual original ideas were to recreate the Spiral Jetty and maybe a big, jungle gym-like Tony Smith sculpture. But once you get started, the possibilities are endless.

If you'd like to see that "centerpiece" castle from Memorial City Mall, let me know and I will go down and snap a few pics for you. My son grew up on that thing, we used to take him there almost every night to play when we lived in an apt. It is actually quite impressive - not so impressive, the number of parents that abandon their out of control kids their so they can go shopping and Johnny can rip out Suzie's hair.

There is actually a line to get into it on the weekends. The castle is a good 30+ feet tall. They put the whole thing in about 5-6 years ago when they revitalized that mall.

And I have a hard time believing the first structure like this was in the Woodlands, I'm pretty sure the talking tree's in FAO when I was growing up where basically the same stuff...I think it was FAO, I just remember it was the toy store we could go look in, but never buy from....

Email me if you want those pics.


I think you need to team up with Bruce Barry of Wacky World Studios. They do an incredible job with themed environments and your styles are very similar. I think you would compliment one another. He has a tv show coming out soon. If I'm not mistaken, it airs this Sunday. Go to www.familynet.com for details about the show. They also have a link to his site.

ugh, you're kidding. that stuff looks awful.

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