Franchise offers rolling platform for exercise and play at day care centers
Mia Buckley remembers her 4-year-old daughter coming home singing and talking about how much fun it was to dance and play games all while getting some exercise. "It sounded good enough to buy in," says Buckley, of Middlesex Borough. Buckley described the reaction of her daughter as the pivotal reason she went from client to owner, giving up a corporate career to buy a franchise in Fun Bus USA for Somerset and Middlesex counties. Fun Bus is the brainchild of Kari Denton and her mother, Dawn McGarry, a former loan officer. "I love kids, and kids can make you money because people spend tons of money on children," Denton says." They converted an old school bus into a mobile fitness center and drove from day-care center to day-care center to provide a 30-minute fitness program. The distinctive lime green school bus is adorned with the smiling faces of children playing on a trampoline, playing ball or on a swing. "We owned a day-care center, and we were looking for something more flexible," Denton says. "We bought an old school bus for $1,200. We knew a couple of people, who painted it lime green, took out the seats, carpeted and padded it." She says the original idea was to turn the bus into a fitness center on wheels for their own Somerset day care center. Denton says she has no background in physical training, only the gymnastics she has been doing all her life. But she says that wasn't a drawback because the programs aren't that extensive. A typical Fun Bus USA center is equipped with tumbling mats, trampolines, barrels, ladders, climbing shapes and a rock climbing wall. All the exercises are done to music. "Fitness is something the kids are lacking," says Denton, a former schoolteacher. "They get stagnant sitting there for eight and 10 hours a day." The idea caught on and "people saw it and started calling," she says. Debbie Ostrowski, owner of the Wee People Preschool in Somerset, says she was one of the first Fun Bus customers, drawn by the fact physical education was brought to the children at a reasonable cost. She says she tried several programs during the years, but is so sold on Fun Bus, "this is one we would never get rid of." The concept may be new to New Jersey, but Jim Unger, a former all-American gymnast who operates Jim Unger's Gymnastics School, in Lincoln, Neb., says he has been giving gymnastics lessons in a converted school bus for the last five years. "The bus idea started in the late 1980s out of Omaha," Unger says. He says he calls his bus the Tumblebus. According to the Tumblebus Web site, 190 converted school buses are in use, mostly in the Midwest and parts of the South, and the venture has been rated one of the top small businesses. Denton says growth in her business led her to examine further expansion through franchising. "Here we are in Middlesex County, and we're getting calls from Bergen County, even Cape May County, which was too far to commute," she says. More than 4,000 day-care centers are located in New Jersey, so, a year ago, she says, "we started selling franchises, and by May, we had two sold." Since then, three franchises, including the original operation, have been sold, and all rights to the Fun Bus operation have been sold for Nassau and Suffolk counties in New York. Denton says a franchise costs $25,000, and there is a $25,000 investment required in refurbishing a school bus. "No matter where you are, if you see a Fun Bus, you know what to expect," she says. "Each franchise sets it own fees," she said. "You can make as much as you want. The business is there. We charge $9 or $10 a week per child, and you can do about 100 a week. We make $1,500 to $2,000 a week and only work 44 hours. So, you can make your money back within a year or two." Denton says the franchise fee covers bus-driving school and training. "Insurance is not that high," she adds. It costs about $2,000 a year to insure the vehicle and another $1,000 to $1,500 for liability. There is no special license needed because no children are being transported, she says.