From spring through fall, traveling carnivals dot the North American landscape appearing at state and county fairs plus regional events and festivals. While they vary in size, many carnivals are still family owned operations that have been in existence for many generations. Carnivals face unique challenges in their operation. Their success depends on factors such as the weather, price of fuel, number of available workers, and changes in state and federal laws. Despite these challenges, traveling carnivals are ready to hit the road with their rides, games and food stands each spring.
Charlie Belknap has been a part of Powers Great American Midways for more than 30 years. Involved in the operation of the traveling carnival as well as its marketing and public relations, Belknap has watched the carnival grow to two units that travel from early spring to November to fairs and festivals in North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The carnival includes 58 rides, food and amusement attractions.
“We have so much to offer customers aside from rides,” said Belknap. “But our reputation is solidly built on safety and value.”
Powers Great American Midways has not experienced a downturn in attendance because of the economy and in fact their attendance has grown. Belknap credited the carnival’s reputation and the value it offers customers for the strong community support.
“Safety has always been our number one priority, but we have also had help from Mother Nature too,” he explained. “We had little rain this entire season, no matter where we went. When rain stays away, the people come to have fun.”
Costs associated with fuel have been a challenge as well, but the carnival has found ways to cut costs and still become more “green” in the process. Powers Great American Midways uses soybean bio-diesel fuels in their generators and has also replaced their standard lights with LED lights on new rides and food stands. With the upgrades, the generators do not have to work as hard and energy costs are kept in line.
“We like the fact that we can be cost conscious and green. We think our customers respond to our efforts too,” Belknap noted. “We do a lot of advance ticket sales and people came from all over to come to our carnivals. Some actually seek us out while they are at the carnival to tell us they follow us from fair to fair.”
Belknap affirms that along with fuel, labor costs are one of the biggest expenses to a traveling carnival; especially as new federal and state laws come into existence. Powers Great American Midways performs background checks on all employees and requires proof that they can work in the United States. Although rules are more stringent, Belknap estimates that 95 percent of the carnival’s workforce returns each year for the new season.
“We believe in treating everyone with respect. You cannot build a business like ours if you don’t treat people with respect and dignity.”
Billy Tucker was manager for Dixieland Carnival Company of Phenix City, Ala., for 17 years until he bought the traveling carnival three years ago. Now with his wife Stacey, he travels through Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi for festivals and county fairs from March through Thanksgiving.
“We were not novices when we bought the company, and we knew what challenges carnivals face each year,” Tucker said. “Two years ago, the fuel prices were really crimping our bottom line. But we made it through that, and this year fuel costs were not as big an issue.”
The faltering economy has proven to be a challenge in certain areas. While attendance at carnivals may not have dropped, the amount of money spent at carnivals decreased, especially in South Georgia and Kentucky. In the northern part of Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, Tucker noticed the economy helping to boost attendance and money spent.
Government regulation and inspections have also affected the long-term viability of some traveling carnivals. Now, when fairs accept bids for carnivals, there are so many with low bids that the carnival that wins the bid may not break even on the event. Now that the government has instituted more regulations on traveling carnivals, Tucker believes that the operations that cannot keep up with those regulations will close down.
“In a way, the government intervention has helped the carnivals and encouraged them to operate at a high-quality level, plus it has helped with the public’s perception of traveling carnivals too,” he noted. “Those carnival owners and managers who are not as careful in how they run their operations will have a hard time making it down the road. They will not be able to bid on fairs and events, and this will open the door for top-notch small and medium-sized carnivals to win those bids.”
Minnesota and South Dakota is the traveling territory for Family Fun Shows of Manitoba, Minn. Owned by Greg and Gail Hughes, Family Fun Shows includes 20 rides plus independently run food and game stands. The carnival travels for county fairs and festivals from May 1 through September. While Hughes is aware that some traveling carnivals have faced challenges with the down economy, he has seen his business grow.
“We have been very fortunate with our attendance and how people have been spending at our carnivals,” Hughes noted. “We are a bit different than other carnivals when it comes to promotion. Instead of some rides costing two, three or four tickets, we offer all our rides for one ticket. With this promotion, we do not out price our customers and they seek out our carnivals because they know they get good value for their money.”
Like other traveling carnivals, Hughes participates in advanced ticket sales, which guarantees income from a fair or event. Customers who purchase advance tickets receive discounts on rides and other attractions.
“With advanced tickets, customers get a great price break, especially on rides. For example, bumper cars, which are normally $3 or $4 rides, come out to be $1.50 or $2 per ride with advanced tickets. That is a great bargain when someone is looking to bring their entire family out to the carnival for a night of fun.”
While getting customers to come to the carnivals has not been an issue, costs associated with running the carnival have posed a few problems, especially the costs associated with fuel.
“It’s not so much the transportation because we run a tight route, but it is the costs associated with running the generators. We have cut down on the hours we run them. And we have been replacing older generators with new ones that network and talk to each other so that not all generators have to be running at the same time.”
Although labor and personnel problems plague some carnivals, Hughes has not had to deal with them. His carnival has a low turnover rate for employees and many come back year after year to work for the entire season.
“Our personnel are composed mainly of local workers who know I pay well, and I do not charge them for living in our bunkhouses,” he said. “They work hard for us because we appreciate their efforts. We are a family, and we take care of each other.”
A pioneer in the Kentucky Ride Safety Program, Kissel Entertainment of Clanton, Ala., is a family run traveling carnival that has been in existence for four generations. Offering more than 30 rides, plus 25 games and food concessions, Kissel Entertainment travels to county, state fairs and festivals throughout Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky from March through November.
“We love the carnival business. It is part of our family – who we are,” observed Savannah Kissel, operations manager and owner of the carnival’s funnel cake stand. “We have 200 employees during the peak of our season, and they are local people, international workers – we like to help people stay employed and as long as they pass our background checks and drug tests, we like to hire them. Traveling carnivals do help people who need a break. The industry is great that way.”
Rising costs of fuel were a challenge for the carnival in recent years, and Kissel has made adjustments. The traveling route is tighter and the carnival has made fewer trips. The generators are not turned on until right before it is time to inspect the rides before the carnival opens.
“We have made changes, but no changes that the customer would notice. Our customers are our number one priority,” she said. “Our goal is to make them want to come to the carnival for a night of fun and food. It’s a great way to get away without leaving your hometown.”
Kissel believes that the future of the traveling carnivals lies in how owners operate. Known for safety and cleanliness, Kissel entertainment is proud of the image they portray for the carnival industry.
“We offer promotions for families. We know times have been tough, but they can still get good value coming to a carnival. We want them to know that carnivals are safe, fun, family entertainment that builds memories,” she explained. “Carnivals have been around forever, and they will continue to be around, but owners and operators have to always put the customer first. Their safety and their enjoyment should always be our number one priority.”
As president of Hildebrand Rides, Inc. of Lighthouse Point, Fla., Harlan Bast provides entertainment all year round with his traveling carnival and a permanent amusement park based in Carolina Beach, S.C. The traveling operation, which consists of 32 rides and attractions, travels throughout Florida between Easter and Labor Day for state fairs, church events, celebrations and festivals.
“My wife, Georgia, and I bought the carnival in 1992,” said Bast. “I grew up in the business, and I have seen a lot of changes, so we decided to make a big one ourselves. Two years ago, with our partners, Robby and Patty Moegerle, we built the permanent amusement pier, which allows me to work all year without the pressures of traveling.”
One of the biggest reasons for altering his traveling schedule is the economy. Bast believes that charging less for admission has helped increase his gross because the lower costs have encouraged more people to attend the carnivals.
“No matter what the economy, people want to have fun, and they want to allow their children to have fun. Yes, there is almost 10 percent unemployment, but that means there is a good 90 percent who are still employed and want to enjoy themselves a bit,” he said. “Sure, they are watching pennies, so we have dropped prices, and they get a fun night without breaking their budgets.”
Along with the rides, Hildebrand offers four to five food stands, 15 games and wrestling stage acts as well. Bast employs anywhere from 50 to 150 people during the season, depending on the location of the carnival.
“We contract out people for certain jobs. Some stay with us the entire season, others just for a portion of the season,” he noted. “We use local people and international workers too. We will employ homeless people as well. In this economic environment, there are a lot of good people down on their luck. If they pass our background and drug tests, we hire them to be a part of our carnival.”
Employees get free housing in the bunkhouses that travel with the carnival. Bast tries to pay his temporary workers as frequently as possible because he knows that they need the money to feed their families.
“Obviously, labor is our biggest cost, followed closely by fuel – not only for transportation but for running the generators as well,” Bast said. “It was the rising costs of fuel that pushed us toward opening the Carolina Beach amusement park. It allows us to stay active in amusements all year without the heavy costs associated with the traveling carnivals.” –
The International Independent Showmen’s Association Trade Show is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 8 through Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011. Included in the over 300 exhibits will be rides, food supplies and equipment, concession trailers, electrical supplies, insurance companies, novelty items, plush toys, jewelry and more.