Friday, August 31, 2012

Time-strapped beach vacationing families getting help with sand castle construction

New niche company will build castle for you. Stone Harbor, N.J.--It is Labor Day weekend. It's hot. The ocean waters here in the northeast are a comfortable and refreshing 73 degrees. The last jelly fish spotted was back in July, and the ocean breeze has kept the green heads at bay-side--where they belong. With the end of summer looming, families all over the country are attempting to squeeze in last minute vacations before the kids head back to school. Oh, the chaotic month of August and the holiday celebrating labor.

The South Jersey beach towns are no different. Young families blanket the sand with umbrellas and pop-up canopies as far as the eye can see. The patch of ocean directly in front of the lifeguards is packed with swimmers, the waters edge lined with book-reading, low beach chair sun bathers. Ocean winds carry the dull thud sounds of tensely played paddle ball tournaments to the hotter sands near the protective dunes. A futuristic velcro ball game complete with "mitts," plays out where the wet sand ends. New games, such as Disk Dunk, where teams of two dunk a frisbee into a cylindrical container, or washers, a horseshoes-like game, have stormed onto the beach recreation scene.

So much going on during shore (beach) vacations, where has the time usually dedicated to building sandcastles gone? The fact is that sand castle building as recreation is plummeting! Studies have shown that castle building is down 34 percent over the last six years and 54 percent over the past twenty years.

"Handheld gadgets are mostly to blame," says Dr Phillip Anderson, a sociology professor at Atlantic City State College, referring to time spent on cell phones, ipads, ipods, and smart phones. "Technology has basically killed sand castle building as a pastime." Dr. Anderson did recognize the rise in popularity of beach sports--paddle ball, disk dunk, wiffle ball, for example--as possible reasons behind the drop in castle creation, but ultimately blames technology.

Anderson also pointed out that the U.S., which has placed fifth or higher in the Sand Castle Building World Championships from 1973 to 2004, hasn't claimed a spot above 25th place in the time since and didn't even enter a participant in last year's competition. Though competitive building, it speaks volumes about where the hobby has landed on the list of entertainment and tradition.

Enter Relax-a-Castles, LLC, a startup Jersey Shore company aiming to help busy, exhausted vacationing families construct top-notch, contest-worthy sand castles. Relax-a-Castles wants you and your kids to talk on the phone, scroll the ipad, or swim in the ocean and let them take care of the sandy mess that is building a sand castle. Their award-winning team (the only nominee in the category) recognizes the hard work and time needed, while holding a deep passion for creating a sand castle. The designers and laborers, surprisingly, are mostly from the landlocked Mexican state of Puebla. But do not let the lack of beach access fool you.

"Listen, the kids are tired, they're either in the water or playing video games or paddle ball or on the phone, and the time just isn't there to build a castle like it used to be. But, we build a castle every year, it's tradition. And by God these hard-working guys are helping to keep our family tradition alive," said Walter Lloyd, an oral surgeon from Ardmore, Pa, vacationing with his three children in Avalon, N.J. "We had a blast watching [Relax-a-Castles] build it and then taking photos of me and the kids around the castle posing with shovels and buckets as if we were the ones who built it."

"They're great with the kids, even though the kids are off doing their own thing sometimes. They have reasonable rates, they do quick and quality work, its just a great experience all around," said Gloria Harris, from Exton, Pa., renting a condo for the weekend with son Paul, 8, and her husband Carl, in Wildwood. "We all got ice cream, gathered on our towels, and watched them make our castle."

Prices vary but typically fall between $400 and $500 for a basic design. Ornate concepts can easily surpass $800 and deluxe packages, which include meals for five people and five ipads, can run over $5000. 

Beachgoers are strictly forbidden from participating in the construction of the castle; however, they may submit their own design a minimum of two days prior to "sandbreaking." Other restrictions include: no photographing the workers; no asking the workers to "watch your stuff while you go for a walk on the beach;" coupons cannot be combined with any other offers; Relax-a-Castle reserves the right to cancel project due to weather; Relax-a-Castle reserves the right to "smash castle to bits if the situation calls for that sort of thing;" if castle-building draws a crowd, workers may exercise "New Jersey-approved" crowd-control methods; and certain "castles of exceptional quality" may be packed up and taken away by the Relax-a-Castle crew, where a full refund will be granted.

Brad Goebel, the president and owner of the company, says business has been bustling all summer long. The company currently boasts forty-five employees after opening on Memorial Day weekend with just eight employees. "This summer has been a bit of a whirlwind for us. People told me, 'You're crazy, people want to build their own castles.' And I told them to go do a particular thing to themselves. I knew there was a market for this kind of thing, I just knew it, but it was risky." Goebel says the company is booked solid through the end of September and has already began scheduling "castle appointments" for next summer.

What happens to the company during the winter months? Goebel says he's toying with the idea of making ice sculptures out of sand. "It's just an idea, but it would keep us going through the offseason."  

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