The price of a foot massage went up 300% at theSan Diego County County Fair. Photo by Chris
The price of a foot massage has gone up 300% at the San Diego County County Fair. Photo by Chris Stone

In 1990, the late Larry Himmel of KFMB-TV reported that his favorite ride at the Del Mar Fair was the Footsie Wootsie massage chair. The cost: 25 cents.

Fairgoers for generations could count on a quarter giving them a minute’s buzz of lower-leg relief.

No more.

Beginning Wednesday, the San Diego County Fair’s ubiquitous Footsie Wootsie massages cost $1 — payable only by credit card, Google Pay or Apple Pay.

Online reactions included “Outrageous!” “What!” and “Wow. An arm and a foot!” But one said: “Nooooo! However, it’s still worth it.”

Gene Edick, the vendor who operates the Footsie Wootsies via his Oceanside-based Brogdon Concessions, says recent changes at the fair and economics forced him to raise the tab.

Fairgoers pass by Footsie Wootsie foot massage at the San Diego County Fair. Photo by Chris Stone
Fairgoers pass Footsie Wootsie foot massage chairs at the San Diego County Fair. Photo by Chris Stone

“If this wouldn’t have transpired this way, the Footsie Wootsies would no longer have been here because the revenue had declined so much,” he said Thursday in a phone interview.

The 54-year-old Edick, who also handles ice service at the fair, says 25-cents-per-massage revenue from the 72 machines left no money to restore, repair or insure them.

“That’s just the evolution of it,” he said. “It had to come to this unfortunately.”

Last year, after he bought the Footsie Wootsie business in March, was the last to see a quarter charge. Edick introduced the $1 fee at last month’s Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona.

“I had one person in Pomona say it’s sad and the end of an era. But they understood it,” Edick said.

Old Footsie Wootsies chairs were upgraded from coin operation to credit card late last
Old Footsie Wootsies chairs were upgraded from coin operation to credit card late last year. Photo by Chris Stone

Other factors in the 300% increase included the fair’s pivot to credit-card payments for everything — and fairgoers not carrying change in their pockets.

“It went from like 30% to 40% to 60% to 70% (plastic charges),” he said. “I think now we’re about 80% credit card on the fairgrounds.”

Most fair vendors are “on the dollar,” he said. (He says it wasn’t possible to set the charge at 50 cents.)

Labor costs also have risen.

“Having to run around and check all the machines for jams and nickels in them and all that fun stuff,” he said. “With the credit card readers, you don’t have to do that because they work or they don’t.”

Edick is proud that his plastic chairs look brand new — in a rainbow of colors.

He says he retrofitted all six dozen machines and found a company that made credit-card readers work with his equipment.

“We had an electrical engineer involved,” he said. “We went through and waxed and buffed and cleaned and fixed and painted and restickered. They look almost like new, yeah. But they are the original machines.”

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He’s not certain when the machines first appeared at the fair, but knows the first set were made of wood — to be stackable.

At the Pomona fair in May, revenue from the $1 charge wasn’t four times that of 2022, he said, but was a little less than double.

He chalks that up to the public not being “clued in to how to do them yet.”

But he’s hopeful that “there’s a future where people can get educated on how to do it” since many know how to pay with their iPhone.

Edick recalls seeing a father with three or four kids last year confronted with the quarter-in-the-slot demand.

“He couldn’t do anything because he didn’t have quarters,” he said — but would gladly have used a credit card.

Edick takes the Footsie Wootsies to about a half-dozen fairs in Southern California and Arizona. (Fairs across the country also have them, but under different vendors.)

He bought the molds from the previous vendor — whose name he didn’t immediately recall — who “actually owned the whole deal, the brand.”

(The original owner was Nancy Duncan, who in the 1990s fought a court battle all the way to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to punish a would-be buyer who she accused of stealing her trade secrets and marketing his own Footsie Wootsie. The first use of trademark was in 1983.)

Longtime Footsie Wootsie operators Sylvan “Sil” Brander, 83, and his wife, Carol, live in Riverside County and weren’t reachable Thursday night for comment and history-retelling.

But history means change. And according to a Labor Department cost-of-living calculator, 25 cents in 1973 is worth $1.69 in 2023.

Some things never change, however. Edick says people will ignore warnings and stand on the metal vibrators.

“I can’t control what anybody does,” he says. “I’ve seen people put their thighs on them — try to get a whole body massage.”