East Liverpool Dunk Tank Maker Hits Sales Milestone
EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio — Twister Display Inc. is about to make a splash with its portable dunk tank.
The East Liverpool company is on pace to sell its 10,000th unit before the end of this month.
Twister, which has its headquarters and production facility at 49207 Calcutta-Smith Ferry Road, will make a fuss when it sells the milestone Easy Dunker. Plans call for filming the delivery and producing a video to commemorate the event, says Jay Smith, marketing manager for Twister.
The company has been in the Smith family since 1988 when Harry Smith bought it from Duane Plonta of Fort Myers, Fla.
Smith was an engineer at Westinghouse Electric’s plant in Beaver, Pa., who decided to go into business for himself when the plant closed. He found Plonta’s company through a business broker, bought it and moved to Fort Myers with his wife to run it.
In the early 1990s, Smith moved the company to a business incubator in his hometown of East Liverpool. A few years later, he purchased a former lumberyard property and moved his company there, where it remains today.
“When we started this dunk tank business, my wife said, ‘Nobody’s going to buy any dunk tanks. You’re crazy!,’” Smith says. “And now here we are, 35 years later, and we’ve sold ten thousand of them.”
For the company patriarch, running Twister Display has been a carnival.
“When I go to work, I’m not working,” Smith says. “I’m having fun.”
The company, he notes, makes East Liverpool “the dunk tank capital of the world.”
Jeff Smith, vice president of Twister, says the company’s annual sales for all products are normally between $1.6 million and $1.9 million, with the Easy Dunker accounting for 60% of that amount.
Twister sells between 300 and 400 dunkers per year. “This year has been really good for us,” says Jay Smith, marketing director for the company. “Last year we were hurting, so the rebound has been really nice. There is a lot of pent-up demand for events. Some of the [companies that rent party and carnival items] found their dunk tanks were double booked.”
Both men are the sons of Harry, who remains president.
The story of the Easy Dunker is steeped in carnival tradition and American ingenuity.
It started in 1981 when Plonta, who was a Florida-based inventor among other things, noticed that the dunk tanks being used on the carnival circuit were typically makeshift items made from rusty farm stock tanks. They were unsafe and difficult to transport. So Plonta went into action.
He designed a safe and sturdy and portable dunk tank and had it professionally manufactured. He made it towable by adding wheels and branded it the Easy Dunker. The new product was an immediate hit on the carnival circuit, according to Jay Smith.
After buying the company, Harry Smith relied on his years of corporate experience to find new markets for the dunk tank.
The party rental industry exploded in the early 1990s with the advent of the backyard inflatable, and Smith realized that the Easy Dunker paired perfectly with it to create a lucrative party rental package.
“Plonta sold it primarily to carnivals,” Jay Smith says. “My dad took it to the rental side, and sold it to rental companies. That’s when things really took off.”
To push his product, Harry Smith would visit rental store owners and attend trade shows. Twister Display would become known as the “go-to source for products that made fun profitable,” Jay Smith says.
Over the years, the company refined the Easy Dunker’s design, adding safety features and making it more user-friendly and reliable.
Twister also added an extensive line of carnival games and interactive attractions, such as towable high strikers, portable sports games, and a pop-up escape room.
The company has about 15 employees who weld and assemble products, and about a half-dozen salespeople.
When Twister officials attempted to contact Plonta earlier this year to tell him about the upcoming sales milestone, they learned that he died last summer of COVID-19.
“He was a preacher and dabbled in carnivals,” Jay Smith says. “He developed all sorts of interesting things,” including a trailer on which singing animatronic animals were mounted.
“If you knew him, you wouldn’t be surprised,” Smith says.
Expounding upon the best features of the dunker, Twister Display made a point of “coming up with products that are transportable and easy to set up” for its product line, Smith says.
The sales team used to go to Florida every winter where the carnival industry is based. But now, Twister’s primary customers are “mom and pop businesses that rent equipment,” Smith says. “We also sell to amusement parks, the military for [morale-raising events] and other niche markets that are surprising even to us.”
Easy Dunkers have been seen on a lot of television show and soaked plenty of well-known people.
“NBC Universal asked us to make a special one for the Project Red Nose fundraiser and they had a lot of celebrities on it,” Smith says. “And years ago, we got a surprise call from Michael Jackson’s manager, who wanted one for [Jackson’s] Neverland Ranch.”
Twister has also sold dunkers to television production companies who used them in films.
The TV game show “Jeopardy!” once showed a photo of an Easy Dunker as part of a question. “They didn’t mention our company but they showed a picture of our dunk tank.
“The answer to the question was ‘dunk tank,’ ” he says.
Pictured at top: Harry Smith, president of Twister Display Inc., with the Easy Dunker. (Image: Twister Display)
Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.