Tampa couple's businesses find niche: kids' birthday parties

CARROLLWOOD — Alfredo and Sandra Medina seem to thrive on a challenge. When someone tells them an idea is crazy, it makes them want to chase it even more.

Take Gator Fred's, the indoor play place they opened in July on Ehrlich Road. Friends said they were insane to open a new business in this economy.

Add to that their failed attempts to get a business loan.

Still, the Medinas remained undaunted.

"A bad economy is synonymous with opportunity," Alfredo Medina said.

In a different economic situation, he points out, the West Village Commons where he leases space might have gotten a bigger, corporate tenant, and may not have been willing to take a risk on an unknown, independent business owner. And he figures the rent would have been much higher.

With the space empty for two years, however, Gator Fred's was able to move in. For the third time in their lives, the Medinas poured their entire life savings into a new venture.

The family moved to Florida in 2001 from Venezuela where they owned a dollar store and a small party venue.

They had visited Miami frequently to purchase merchandise for the store, another exercise that friends had told them was too costly and crazy. But the Medinas made it work.

They fell in love with the United States and the everyday advantages that they say most Americans take for granted: respect for traffic laws and relatively short lines in banks and post offices.

In the city of Valencia, where they lived, "You can't leave a GPS or CD player in your car," Alfredo said. "Your windows would get broken, and it would get stolen. Or someone on a motorcycle would drive up beside you and tap on your car window with a gun and rob you."

After Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was elected, the Medinas said their businesses suffered.

They already had a 4-year-old, and Sandra was pregnant with their second child. They lived with fear of crime and an uncertain economy and political climate. "We wanted a different life for our kids and our future," Sandra said.

They found hope in Florida and decided to sell their businesses, home and car.

They chose Tampa because a friend who lived here agreed to let them stay for a few weeks, then helped them find an apartment in Lutz. They knew no one else and spoke no English.

They immediately applied for visas and got driver's licenses. Alfredo worked three jobs, getting up at 3 a.m. to deliver newspapers, then proceeding to a used car dealership where he did everything from sell cars to wash them. At night, he cleaned offices.

Even with three jobs, their savings dwindled fast, after buying a car and legalization fees.

Once down to their last $7,000, Sandra had an idea. She would buy inflatable bouncing machines and rent them out for birthday parties.

Again, friends doubted them, but the Medinas spent the last of their savings on three bouncers and opened Happy Jumping, a rental equipment company that they operate out of their home.

"I was crazy," admits Sandra. "My English was terrible and I didn't know anyone."

They put fliers in coin laundries, day care centers and party stores. Customers had to leave messages on an answering machine and Sandra's neighbor would translate.

The company soon had parties booked every weekend. Now, the business boasts 48 inflatables, including moonwalks and water slides, and can accommodate large events such as company parties and school carnivals.

Alfredo, now 45, found a stable job as an independent contract installer for Verizon, and he helped Sandra, 38, manage Happy Jumping. They learned English, got green cards and bought a home in Meadow Pointe in Wesley Chapel.

Things were good until work for both of them tapered off toward the end of 2008.

"You can't sit around and complain about a bad economy," Alfredo said. "You just have to keep working."

So, for the third time, Alfredo and Sandra took a leap into the unknown. They dreamed up another business, Gator Fred's, a play space with inflatable jumpers, as well as a preschool area called Gator Town, which includes a play kitchen, fire station, movie theater and other areas.

Unlike other inflatable play places, which usually only open a couple of times a week and for private parties, Gator Fred's offers open play every day.

By the end of 2009, the business was booked with kids' birthday parties every weekend, and with field trips and play groups during the week, the Medinas said.

Now, despite the long hours and responsibility of taking on a second business in addition to Happy Jumping, the couple say being entrepreneurs in America is worth the trade-off.

"It's something we have inside us," Sandra said. "It gives us more freedom."

Elizabeth Miller can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

If you go

Gator Fred's is located at 5360 Ehrlich Road. Admission is $8 age 2 and up; $6 age 1. For more information, call (813) 264-1700 or visit gatorfreds.com. For more information on Happy Jumping, call (813) 263-9306.

Tampa couple's businesses find niche: kids' birthday parties 01/28/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 4:04pm]

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