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The Star-Ledger, August 18th, 2006

The Star-Ledger Archive COPYRIGHT © The Star-Ledger 2006

Date: 2006/08/18 Friday Page: 029 Section: BUSINESS Edition: FINAL Size: 554 words

Stuffed animals become endangered species as boardwalk prizes go high-tech

By SAM ALI STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Wayne Cimarelli was 15 when he started spending his summer vacations working the game booths on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights to earn money for college. He earned 90 cents an hour, and the throngs of people who packed the booths along the boardwalk were perfectly content dropping a few bucks on a

game of chance and winning a giant stuffed flamingo or teddy bear. Cimarelli, 53, now owns and operates his own boardwalk and indoor arcade game business, Coin Castle Amusements. And he says times have

changed. Sure, you can still play an indoor arcade game for a nickel or a dime. But this summer, the hottest prizes at the games along the boardwalk are

electronic. Try your hand at the Crane Game, where players have to maneuver a steel claw over a prize and pick it up without dropping it, and you can win a

17-inch, flat-screen television, an iPod, a digital camera, even an X-Box, Cimarelli said.

“I used to joke around and tell people I give away teddy bears for a living,” he said. “My nightmare was what would happen when the day came that no one wanted plush toys anymore, and that year may have arrived. If there was ever a year when people were turning away from winning stuffed animals, the year was 2006.”

For countless visitors to the Jersey Shore, boardwalk games like the Clown Balloon Water Race provide the ultimate summertime diversion. But for the men and women on the other side of the counter, it’s a business – and one that’s grown increasingly challenging in recent years.

Still, adding more expensive prizes means more people battling for a chance to win, which in turn boosts revenues dramatically, he said. Cimarelli estimates his crane revenues have increased 20 percent since he's started offering iPods. In all, Coin Castle Amusements expects to purchase $50,000 worth of technology prizes this year.

The business operates six games, including wheels of chance, and Cimarelli says he has, on average, about $4,200 worth of merchandise and prizes on display at each game.

With his partner Bob Bennett – the same man who first hired him on the boardwalk back in 1965 – Cimarelli said he paid $1.1 million in 1978 to buy the one-block strip on the Boardwalk where Coin Castle is located.

"I was 25 years old, it was for sale and I was at a crossroads in my life," he said.

During the summer season, Cimarelli's days start at 10 a.m. and don't end until 1:30 or 2:30 a.m. "In the summer, one day for us is like a week for a year-round retailer," he said.

Although he hires a lot of teenagers to work at Coin Castle, the bulk of his summertime staff are schoolteachers. He said he pays his employees between $6.50 and $12.50 an hour.

He won't reveal how much money his game booths take in every season, but said operators can gross anywhere from $15,000 to $90,000 depending on their location.

When you factor in payroll, costs for merchandise, liability insurance, utility bills and the cost of renting warehouses to store prizes, an operator who pockets 10 percent to 14 percent of the gross is "doing pretty good."

"People see all the action and think game booth operators are getting rich," he said. "I'm not saying it's a bad business or not a profitable business, but all that glitters is not gold, either."

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