A Decade of Challenge and Change:
Trends in the Traveling Amusement Company Industry
Midway amusement companies and traveling fairs have secured an iconic place in American culture. As part of an industry where multi-generations of families owning the same company is the norm, traveling fairs have undergone a great deal of change, especially in the past decade. While some change has raised the bar of professionalism, other changes make it more difficult for companies to operate.
Webster, N.H.-based Miller Amusements is a family run enterprise that operates 17 rides, food concessions and games. Miller’s fair season starts in April and ends in October with most of their engagements in New England.
“We have been in the business for more than 30 years,” said Joanne Miller, who runs the operation with her husband, Scott, and daughters Ashley and Kate. “We book mostly fairs and fundraisers throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.”
Joanne Miller has witnessed a great deal of change in the industry in the last decade, especially when it comes to regulation on both the state and federal levels.
“I applaud what New Hampshire has done, especially when it comes to new electric code. Before, states used to focus only on mechanical issues, but now New Hampshire is a model state for others in electrical inspection. This is good regulation in that it makes our rides safer and raises our reputation with those who come to fairs and festivals,” she explained. “Safety inspections have done a lot of good in weeding out fly-by-night operations. The companies that are still in existence are safety-conscious and professional in every way because they must adhere to a lot more in rules and regulations. Regulations can also cause challenges for operators who accept bookings in different states. We are expected and required to know and abide by each state’s regulations and inspections, which usually involves a great deal of paperwork and preparation.”
Another challenge that faces amusement company operators is labor force issues. With a push to hire American workers instead of documented foreign workers, Miller said it’s sometimes difficult to get American workers who pass all drug and background tests.
“Our workers, no matter where they come from, become our family. We want to make sure we have the right people always on the job. It’s seasonal work and hard work, and not everyone is cut out for it. We are lucky in that we have great workers in our company.”
Warren S. Myers founded Durant Amusements in 1934. Equipped with a single projector and a popcorn machine, Myers would travel from town to town showing free movies and selling popcorn. Now, the Dupont, Ohio-based company includes 50 trucks, 30 amusement rides, 20 food trailers, games and live acts.
“This company has been in our family for more than 70 years,” said owner Bill Prowant “The industry has changed a great deal, some good, some not so good, but it is truly a part of our family.”
Durant Amusements books about 45 events annually, mostly in Ohio but some bookings are in Michigan and Indiana.
“We try to stay within 250-300 miles from home as fuel is very expensive,” he noted. “The price of fuel has become a big challenge to us in recent years.”
Prowant also sees the positive and negative aspects of regulation.
“I think regulation has raised the bar for all of us in this industry. Some over-regulation on small things might be going on now, but overall, regulation turned out to have mostly a positive effect. The industry is safer and our guests are safer. Those who have adhered to the changes have made this industry more professional all the way around.”
While the less reputable companies have been drummed from the profession, Prowant still sees massive changes in the industry down the road.
“Most of these companies are family run, but not as many children want to follow in their parents’ footsteps here,” he explained. “It is hard work, a lot of hours, and this type of work does not seem ‘fashionable.’ But some of the younger generations do come back to run these companies. Both my wife and I went away to college and came back and instituted changes that we learned in school and made the company better. We don’t push this business on our children, but if they want to come back after college, that’s OK too.”
Another change in Durant Amusements is how they manage their bookings. The company has two trucking units that go to their events. In the past, they would set up two rides at one event and three rides at another, but now they concentrate their efforts on one or two events, putting up 10-15 rides at each event.
“The economy has changed how we operate a great deal,” he explained. “These rides are expensive. They run between $80,000 for kids’ rides to more than $250,000 at the minimum for the ‘spectacular’ rides. It’s like having a mortgage. We have to make money and at the same time a lot of counties are struggling financially, so they can’t do the fairs anymore. It’s very challenging right now, but this is a great industry and the people in this industry are good people too. We will adapt to changes and find ways to make our money and move the industry forward.”
Owner Jake Inners grew up in the midway amusement industry. Based in York, Pa., Majestic Midways was established in 1909 by Inners’ father.
“I have seen a lot of changes in my lifetime,” he explained. “Some are good; some I wish were not around, but the people in this business are the best.”
As with other owners, Inners sees the biggest change to the industry also resulting from regulation.
“The regulation has its good and bad points,” he noted. “The safety is very good; Safety regulations raise the industry’s reputation and it got rid of operators who were not professional, but you can over-regulate anything if you try.”
Inners said that the toughest part of the regulations is that they differ from state to state and for an operation like Majestic Midways that travels to county fairs, clubs, organizations, corporations and churches throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware, the regulations can be overwhelming.
“We adapt to the different regulations because we are experienced and have the size to withstand changes, but the smaller companies can go by the wayside because it’s too expensive to deal with so many.”
Other challenges that Inners’ company faces are the weather, the economy and the struggle to satisfy fair customers.
“The weather is always an issue because we cannot control it,” he said, “and the last two years, the weather has been bad with hurricanes and storms, just bad. People don’t come out in the rain and wind. The economy has also made it slow for us. People have been reluctant to spend and they do not think they should have to spend. What they do not understand is that the rides cost between $700,000 and $800,000 to buy and we have to pay for them.”
Despite the obstacles facing owner-operators, Inners is confident the industry will persevere.
“It’s a great industry and we will all find a way to be successful. With the regulation, people trust us so much more and want to enjoy the carnival fun, but we need the economy to help us out and maybe the weather this year. That would be good.”
Anderson Amusements of Greenville, Ohio, covers about 22 events annually in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. Owner Chris Anderson was born and raised in the family business.
“There were always problems or challenges to running this type of business, but the economy has really made things tough,” Anderson noted. “The price of fuel has put a damper on many things including how far I am willing to travel for a fair, festival or event. I now confine myself to a 60-to-70-mile radius.”
Finding suitable help has also become harder, according to Anderson, but he does have a core group of workers that like to travel and come back season after season.
“It’s hard work and it’s a few months per year, but for people who like to move around a bit and do physical work, it is a great job. They make a good wage, and it’s never boring.”
While the more stringent regulations make life tougher on the industry, Anderson has not noticed his company suffering from the added regulations.
“We were always very strict with our own inspections and ride maintenance, so we might have been ahead of the curve with that. We wanted to be above the bar, but it is tough on the operators to now have to deal with individual state regulations and inspections. That takes a lot of time, but if it keeps customers safe and if it instills more trust in us, then it’s OK as long as they don’t regulate us out of business. What good would that do?”
Anderson has a comfortable niche in the amusement industry. He does not book large events. Instead, he concentrates on smaller fairs, church festivals and charity organization events.
“I run a tight ship and I have my set bookings each year and there is no reason for me to step on the toes of large companies. This is a great business; the people are good people. I enjoy it, and I don’t see me doing anything else.”
Keith Campanello’s grandfather started Campy’s Blue Star Amusements of Woodland Park, N.J. Having grown up in the business that is now owned by him and his sister Karyn Pampanin, Campanello has witnessed many changes.
“The industry has become a bit more technology oriented,” he noted. “For example, we take plastic everywhere. Debit cards and credit cards are now welcome. This used to be all cash, but if you want to be successful, you have to welcome plastic.”
Another change coming for the company, which offers about 17 rides and rents games to the organizations running events, is an automatic ticket window.
“Up until now, there was a manned booth where people could buy their tickets. Next year, we will have an automatic ticket machine. This will be more convenient for the customer and the people running the fair or event.”
Campy’s has regular crews who work for the company each year from April through October.
“We stay in New Jersey, so it’s not as much traveling as some companies. The one-state limit also helps us avoid the different regulations that each state is implementing.”
While stricter federal regulations require more work, Campanello sees them as a positive change.
“At one time, our industry suffered from a less-than-stellar reputation, but regulation has weeded out the bad seeds and those who are left are the companies who have built this industry, the companies who are proud of their tradition and proud of their professionalism.” -