Having fun with kites is business as usual for Scott Fisher.
Odds are, if you have taken part in, or even just noticed any of the kite-related events going on around town for the past 25-plus years, Fisher has been involved.
The owner of Gift of Wings opened his first flight-related store in 1987 at Mayfair Mall. Back then, things looked a little different, as the pilot's retail focus was aviation-related gifts and merchandise.
"I'm a pilot, and for fun, I like to fly small airplanes. I needed a way to pay for flying lessons, so I started going up to EAA with different products to sell. Somebody from Mayfair Mall asked me if I'd be interested in putting a store at the mall for the Christmas season, and so we started retail."
Fisher had his store at Mayfair for 13 years. As his business grew, people started asking him why he didn't sell kites, since they were related to flight as well. So Fisher decided to expand beyond the aviation niche market into the more widely-accessible world of kite-flying.
Just six months after Fisher started selling kites, he was approached by representatives of the Milwaukee County Parks Department, who said they wanted kites at Milwaukee's lakefront. As Fisher tells it, he started up his kite store at Veterans Park and never left.
Fisher's business plan continued to expand and evolve, with locations in Franklin and Greendale. He also originally planned to just sell kites at the Gift of Wings but realized that the lakefront was a good place to sell hamburgers, hot dogs and ice cream.
The decision to sell food, and recently to expand into selling ice cream cones at his Franklin and Greendale stores, made Fisher realize that he was selling more than just kites. He was selling a family experience.
"When we first started selling ice cream, people questioned me, like, 'Why ice cream in a kite store?' he said. "Well, kites and ice cream are fun. By adding things like ice cream, our store becomes sort of a destination place, like, 'Let's fly a kite and then get ice cream!'"
The Chocolate Shoppe ice cream, which is hand-dipped specialty ice cream made in Madison, has become so popular in its own right that it's become an important prong to the success of Fisher's business.
"It's really good stuff, and people love it. What happened was they would come in and buy a kite and get an ice cream cone," he said. "Now they come in just to get an ice cream cone. At our store in Greendale, we've been just overwhelmed with people coming in for ice cream!"
But Fisher's main focus remains on kites, and he considers his shop, which sells a variety of kites made of high-quality materials, including Delta kites which are manufactured in Milwaukee by Gift of Wings, to be the perfect stop for that first kite.
Fisher said that if a first-time kite is made of lower-quality materials, the lesson may end in frustration. "One of the problems when teaching a child to fly a kite is that people will run out and buy a kite from a big box store. A lot of those are just junk. They're not well-built kites. We've all had one of those kites. They're good for one time out and then they're in the trash."
Also, although a kite from Gift of Wings, where his recommended first kite, a triangle-shaped Delta kite, costs about $30, may cost more than would be paid at a big box store, Fisher explained that it's actually a good investment. He has customers walk into his store and tell him that a kite they bought from him fifteen years ago still flies.
The actual act of flying the kite isn't the only way for kids to enjoy kites either. Fisher said that Scout troops, daycare centers, and even just families are free to come into any of the Gift of Wings locations to take part in a kite-making class where students can use kits to build their very own kites. Fisher also offers a traveling program called "Random Acts of Kiteness where schools and folks having birthday parties invite us in to make kites without telling the children that we are coming."
Once you have your kite, the next step is to fly it, and according to Fisher, Veterans Park, with its "clean" winds coming off the lake and its wide-open, treeless spaces, is one of the best kite-flying parks in the country.
Families can take advantage of this hometown gem on any lazy weekend, or at one of the kite festivals Gift of Wings puts on during the year.
"A lot of people think a kite festival is just a bunch of kids running around with kites. That's sort of how it started, but as it got bigger and bigger, we've brought in professional kite-flying performers to put on shows," Fisher said. "Now the kite festivals have turned into huge events where we have professional performers from all over the U.S., and we have a team that comes in from Canada that flies those giant kites — like the giant octopus kite you've probably seen. We also have an area set aside where we teach people how to fly kites, and a great big area set aside for people who just want to come down and fly kites."
The professional kite-flying teams use stunt kites that are able to be stopped in mid-air, steered in different directions, and flown in coordination to music. Fisher said families love to come out and watch the spectacle at the festivals, which are free to the public.
Gift of Wings also sells the stunt kites, and Fisher has plenty of professional customers. But his bread and butter remains families who just want to have fun together.
"Everybody has flown a kite at some point in their lives. Moms and dads all remember it as a fun experience. So they take their kids out, and their kids love it too," said Fisher. "People are fascinated with things that fly, and kids especially are fascinated. For a six or seven-year-old to get a kite in the air, it's really exciting to watch the look on their face."