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Ponies, clowns and magic part of business that entertains kids

May 11, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

SMITHSBURG - A passion for ponies and children prompted Mike and Donna Barnes to launch a traveling children's entertainment business three years ago, they said.

Now the couple's Smithsburg-based business, Children's Party Wagon, is a booming enterprise that offers pony rides and clowns for festivals, birthday parties, company picnics and other events.

"It's a unique business," said Donna Barnes, who doubles as Sunshine the Clown. "We have a lot to offer."

Children's Party Wagon provides clowns and horse rides at parties and festivals throughout the Tri-State area. Riders as young as 2 months and as old as 82 have saddled up at backyard birthday parties and events ranging from C&O Canal Days in Williamsport to the Trolley Fest in Frederick County, Mike Barnes said.

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As Sunshine, Donna Barnes does magic tricks, face painting and balloon sculptures. Donna - who designed her own clown costume and even entertained children in it when she was more than eight months pregnant - attends conferences and practices often to hone her magic skills, she said.

After three years as Sunshine, she can twist about 40 different types of balloon sculptures, she said.

She recently added bunny balloons to her repertoire when she donned a rabbit outfit in April to entertain youngsters at Prime Outlets at Hagerstown, the City Farmer's Market and a number of local day-care centers, she said.

"I must have made 1,000 balloon bunnies," she said. "It was a lot of fun."

The couple, who also run a day-care business in their home and have two young children, found the inspiration for their business at Valley Mall in Hagerstown.

The Barneses were discussing new business opportunities at the mall when they noticed all the children around them, they said. They started thinking about local entertainment options for those children and found a niche waiting to be filled.

"We realized that to have an entertainment business for kids would be the perfect thing," Donna Barnes said. "We really like children, and we love horses."

The couple started their business with one employee, two ponies, two horses and one truck to pull their horse trailer. They handed out business cards at the few festivals they took part in that first year, and relied upon word-of-mouth advertising from party participants, they said.

Children's Party Wagon now boasts five employees, seven ponies, two horses and two trucks - making it possible to book several engagements at the same time, Mike Barnes said.

Business has doubled since last year, with 10 festivals on the calendar for this season and an average of three birthday parties each weekend, he said.

The Barneses credit the dedication of their five employees - Cindy Senft, Amanda Hargett, Kristina Berk, Jen Jacot and Monica Stouffer - with helping make their business a success.

"They all have experience with horses and they're all great with kids," said Donna Barnes, who recently trained one employee to entertain children as Kricket the Clown.

Senft, 18, a student at Wilson College, said her work with Children's Party Wagon fits nicely with her career goal of becoming a horse trainer.

"It's a good deal," she said. "And Donna and Mike are great people to work for."

The Barneses and their employees stay so busy from April through September that many repeat customers book their parties one year in advance to make sure they get the dates they want, Mike Barnes said.

The happiness the ponies and clowns bring to children make all the hard work worthwhile, the couple said.

"Our motto is, 'Making Childhood Memories,' " Donna Barnes said. "You just can't beat the look on the kids' faces when the ponies show up in their backyards. They're thrilled."

"We make the party," her husband said. "We try to make it very special."

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