Carousel painters at Chance Rides add artistic touches

Carousels have always relied more on whimsy than thrill.

Horses, lions, dolphins and pandas, both silly and noble, bob after each other in an endless parade.

It’s the daily work of Watt Rettanavongsa, Julie Bowman and Dana DeCicco to create that whimsy for Wichita’s Chance Rides, the country’s largest maker of carousels.

They spend their days with brush and airbrush bringing fiberglass to life.

It’s production work, of course, but their jobs leave room for artistry. They generally have a free hand to do whatever they want, as long as it gets done on time, they said.

Jewels in the bridle? Geometric designs on the saddle? How about armor plates or a gold fringe on the blanket?

One day last week at the Chance Rides Horse Barn, Rettanavongsa was painting a seahorse subtle greens and grays. Then, with quick grace, moved on to the detail work of the face and the saddle.

The process is similar. Other workers sand, finish and prime the unpainted animals. Then the three have a go at it.

Rettanavongsa works on several animals at a time and can do more than 100 in a week.

He estimates that over his 25 years at Chance, he’s finished tens of thousands of plastic and fiberglass animals.

They generally work on animals made from the company’s existing molds, which are carefully cataloged in a warehouse. But, when a customer requests it, they will design a carousel creature from scratch.

This week, the company will ship a 50-foot-diameter carousel – with 60 animals and benches designed to look like coral and sea sponges – to giant Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, an amusement park near Macau, China.

The park asked Chance to create six new ocean-themed animals, including a swordfish, sea turtles and clownfish.

The carousel also includes seahorses, which Rettanavongsa first sculpted out of foam years ago.

He’s so good, he makes this look off-handedly easy, said his boss, paint manager Andy Larson.

“If I were to try it, it would take me a week to plan and do it, and it still wouldn’t look good,” he said.

Bowman said the job does allow her to stretch her artistic muscles a bit.

“We get to make toys,” she said

300 carousels

Chance has built more than 300 carousels since it went into the business with the acquisition of the Allen Herschel Co. in 1970. In the early 1990s, it started designing its own styles. Today it sells a range of sizes, and even double-decker carousels.

It’s the artistry that makes a carousel unique. The St. Louis Zoo is proud of its red panda, so it ordered a red panda in fiberglass for its carousel.

The custom work does add to the cost.

A no-frills 36-foot-diameter carousel can run $400,000 to $450,000, said Jeff Roth, vice president of administration for Chance. Customization can raise the cost over $1 million, he said.

“We built one for the Detroit Tigers that only had tigers on it,” Roth said.

Costs can be lowered by choosing plastic animals that come from an outside vendor. The fiberglass animals are made at Chance and can be custom designed or tweaked. For instance, a polar bear made from a long-time Chance mold got a scarf added. It takes 80 to 100 hours to prepare, sand, smooth, prep and paint the animal figures.

There is a steady demand for carousels, Roth said. Every amusement park has one, and they are in demand for other venues, such as zoos and shopping malls.

The export market has been growing in importance.

In the past, Japan and South Korea were among the larger markets overseas. But in recent years, more of the carousels have been shipped to China, Malaysia, Russia and Abu Dhabi.

The supply of work is enough that, for the artists, it’s more or less constant. It’s a chance every day to try something new.

DeCicco, who has only been a staff artist there for two and a half years, said she was excited to get the job.

“When I got a chance to come here, it was ‘unh huh!’ ”