Easy riders on toy animals zip around mall

Judging by the smiles and double-takes from shoppers, the sight of a middle-age man zipping around Mayfair Shopping Centre in a candy-apple-red Angry Bird with wheels is as bizarre as it sounds.

Heads turned repeatedly during a test-drive of a particularly popular Stuffy Rider, one of 14 colourful motorized stuffed animals pitched as a way to draw more shoppers into malls during an era of online competition.

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Since Feb. 21, children and adults have been able to ride through the mall in one of a menagerie of mobile choices. They can be rented for $8 for 10 minutes, plus 50 cents for each additional minute.

“The panda is pretty big and the wolf — well, a husky, actually — is probably No. 1,” said Stuffy Riders franchisee Paul Keene, who runs the Vancouver-based company’s Mayfair operation.

Keene says project manager Blair Lawrence has five Stuffy Riders lots up and running in B.C., including one at Nanaimo’s Country Club Mall that opened March 1, with many more planned across the country.

“Paul’s the most popular guy in the mall right now,” said staffer Pam Rouleau with a laugh, bracing herself for Friday’s inevitable after-school rush hour at the kiosk near the mall’s Below the Belt and Roots stores.

One-year-old Markcus Fyfe-Wilson appeared mesmerized as he chugged along on the Angry Bird with mom Avril Cross while his smiling dad, Spencer Fyfe-Wilson, looked on.

“It’s fun, but he [Markcus] doesn’t really know what’s going on,” said Cross, who said she’d buy one of the plush, kid-friendly mobile diversions herself if she could afford it.

“It’s a great distraction for parents. If [the children are] older, they can do this on their own and socialize with friends.”

That’s what Abby Barker, 13, and her sister and a friend were doing as business began to pick up mid-afternoon.

“It was really fun, especially going around the corners,” said Abby, who rode Angus the cow. “It’s just something new to do.”

Speeds on the easy-to-operate devices range from what Keene laughingly terms “granny speed” for younger riders and seniors — about two kilometres an hour — to six km/h, which teenagers and adults prefer.

The motorized stuffed animals, which move forward at the push of a button, have motorcycle batteries and the kind of motor that mobility scooters or electric wheelchairs run on, Keene said.

On a recent school-free Friday, the Stuffy Riders kiosk drew lineups and the antics of some overly enthusiastic teenage riders prompted some new rules.

“There were 21 infractions,” said Keene, whose rules include no standing on foot rests, no weaving or circling around mall kiosks or driving through stores or the food court, and no racing or erratic driving.

Since the machines are capable of towing up to 400 pounds, Loomis Express courier Curtis Hollinshead decided to pull a hand cart full of freight.

“I love it. I was doing my deliveries and pickups with Angry Bird,” he said with a laugh.

“It was just for fun.”

Keene said retailers affected by construction at the mall have told him business has picked up since Stuffy Riders began operating. The operation drew 2,000 riders in its first 10 days.

Amber McDonald gave it a whirl Friday with her sons Henry, 4, and Everett, 2, while her sister Sarah Roughley held her infant daughter Violet.

“You can’t really say no to the kids. It was fun,” McDonald said.

mreid@timescolonist.com

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