A former astronaut who took three trips to outer space plans to give kids a chance to go airborne in inner space.
The indoor space adventures will come as kids bounce on huge inflatable structures in Andrew Allen's new business, Bounce U. The Pinellas Park City Council unanimously gave Allen the go-ahead last week to open the county's first Bounce U in the new Mainstream Business Park at 72nd Street and 114th Avenue N.
Allen, who spent about three months going through the process to get the council to approve the location in a light manufacturing area, was pleased with the decision. For about a year, Allen and his wife researched possible businesses before settling on Bounce U as the perfect opportunity.
"It was something we could do as a family," Allen said Monday. "It was also a business that was a very family-oriented business. ... It'll be fun."
Allen said he hopes to open in two or three months.
Bounce U, with headquarters in Gilbert, Ariz., is directed at parents looking for an easy, no-mess way to throw birthday parties or other events for their children. The parent sets aside a time with the Bounce U staff, which does all the work from catering to cleanup. All the parent has to do is show up with lots of kids. Once there, the children can have a blast jumping, sliding and climbing on the inflatables. Parents sometimes join in, Allen said.
The idea appealed to Allen who, with four children, has been to numerous birthday parties and other kids' events. He was always struck by the fact that the parents were so busy putting on the party that they had no time to enjoy it with their children.
Although directed at organized kid events, there are also "open bounce" times when parents and children can just come in and have fun.
While the concept sounds simple, Allen discovered that finding a place to actually open the facility was tricky.
"Bounce U does not fit nicely" into zoning codes, he said.
The ideal place tends to be in light industrial or manufacturing areas, which have buildings with large interiors and high ceilings. Bounce U facilities come in single and double size. The doubles have two party rooms and two bounce rooms, with a total of about 9,500 square feet. Ideally, the ceiling should be at least 24 feet high to accommodate the 22-foot-tall inflatable sliding board.
He's now looking for a location in northern Pinellas or western Hillsborough County.
Allen expects his status as a former astronaut may be a pull for the business.
"There's a part of me that always avoids playing the astronaut card ... that shies away from it all," he said. But his wife, Brenda, who will do the marketing for Bounce U, has "already told me she's going to use it anyway, whether I like it or not."
Allen, 51, is a veteran of three space flights. He was the pilot on an eight-day mission on the space shuttle Atlantis in 1992. He also piloted a 14-day mission aboard Columbia in 1994, and was mission commander on a 16-day mission in 1996.
Going into space was a "really humbling feeling because you realize every star, like our sun, is just one of a couple of hundred billion stars in our galaxy," he said. "It's a big place out there and you really get that feeling."
The hardest part about being an astronaut, he said, was saying goodbye to his family. Astronauts are quarantined before every flight. That's when they make sure their wills are up to date. It's also when they write their final letters to their families just in case they don't come back.
"It's really a gut-wrenching process," Allen said.