Howard site is a key player for shows like Disney on Ice and Monster Jam

Monster trucks, wild animals and figure skaters draw millions to Feld Entertainment's live traveling shows each year. But some of that magic comes from an unlikely arena — an industrial complex in Jessup.

Thousands of stuffed toys, flashing light sticks and elephant-shaped snowcone cups move annually through Howard County, restocking concession stands at Feld's numerous events. The company produces such popular shows as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, Disney On Ice and Monster Jam.

"If you went to the circus and you didn't have the snowcones, cotton candy and popcorn, it wouldn't be the circus," said Feld spokesman Stephen Payne. "The investment in the new facility in Jessup is of critical importance to be able to fulfill each of these touring shows."

The family-owned company announced last week its commitment to a 10-year lease at a new custom-built warehouse to consolidate the two it currently occupies in Howard County. The complex, expected to open in November, will employ about 60 people and serve as the company's main distribution center. The company currently employs 50 people at the two existing warehouses.

Feld Entertainment, which has had a licensing agreement with Disney since 1981, runs about 20 tours each year, putting on 5,000 shows for 30 million people in 70 different countries, according to the company.

Payne declined to disclose financial information, but the company generated about $1 billion in revenue last year, according to Forbes magazine.

Merchandise and concessions produce about 25 percent of the company's revenues, said Thomas Higgerson, vice president of logistics and transportation.

"We call it the power of the mouse," said Higgerson, referring to the popularity of the Disney shows, which travel 22 million miles annually — the equivalent of about 10 trips to the moon.

Born in Hagerstown and raised in Baltimore, company founder Irvin Feld became a Ringling Bros. promoter in 1957. He bought the circus in 1967, transforming Ringling from a tented production into an arena event.

Today, Feld Entertainment, which is finishing a multiyear move of its headquarters from Vienna, Va., to Ellenton, Fla., employs about 3,000 people, including the founder's three granddaughters, who work for the company as executive vice presidents.

It also has a staff of designers who dream up the products, which get manufactured in China and shipped to the port of Baltimore, which Higgerson said receives about 400 containers of Feld toys each year.

"Stuffed animals, ball caps, whatever Disney's doing, we're right behind them," said Higgerson, adding that Disney signs off on the merchandise.

Feld also works out agreements with arenas about the concessions, allowing them to sell its own food items, such as cotton candy, at its shows in addition to the venue offerings, Payne said.

The new warehouse, which is built by Chesapeake Real Estate Group LLC and Atapco Properties, has narrow aisles and 32-foot ceilings, as well as separate loading and unloading areas, allowing for speedier deliveries. The center also has room to hold the company's touring trailers during the 10-week offseason.

At a news conference Friday, brightly colored Feld elephants and princess dolls graced a table in front of the construction site.

"Thank you very much for investing, for bringing jobs, for bringing stuffed elephants, for bringing — oh wow! I didn't even see the Disney On Ice," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, adding: "I'm just glad my two daughters aren't here."

Feld's relationship with Disney is set to deepen this year when Feld debuts its Marvel Universe Live touring show, featuring characters from comic book franchise Marvel Entertainment, a Disney subsidiary since 2009. A Feld Disney On Ice version of the hit movie "Frozen" also will go live this year.

Marvel Universe Live will be Feld's biggest production yet, and the company is hoping it will turn into the kind of franchise that helped propel CEO Kenneth Feld, who inherited the business from his father, to this year's Forbes magazine list of billionaires.

"The Marvel Universe, there are literally thousands of characters so we're hoping that this inaugural tour is just the beginning," Payne said. "Only time will tell."

nsherman@baltsun.com