The Ultimate Traveling Show
Tips From and Trends For Successful Carnival Companies
It started out small in 1947 when Mannie and Melba Davis – along with Mannie’s parents Joe and Martha – leased their first five rides from the former Eyerly ride company in Salem, Ore. Building on those five rides, a family business was created, traveling along the West Coast from California to Texas for several decades. They even operated along the Mexican border, setting up shop for kids and their families to enjoy rides and games for two generations. Just three years later, the Davis family would purchase their first property in Portland – thus launching a family business now known as Davis Amusement Cascadia.
Today, the company’s manager Michael J. Davis runs the operations in the Great Northwest with a few notable changes coming for the 2014 season.
“We are reintroducing the Chance Zipper to our lineup of rides, and somewhere between two and 10 new game and food concessions,” he said. “While the purchase of new equipment has a value of modernity, and carries a particular weight when submitting proposals for new contracts and renegotiating existing ones, we believe that it is often better to reinvest into the framework of the existing show.”
For example, a new thrill ride today can easily run between $500,000 and $1,000,000. “When the price of a single piece of equipment reaches this kind of level,” he said, “some thought must be put into its real versus perceived value. The question today is, ‘Will an expenditure of this size be worth its actual return?’ For a traveling show with enormous over-the-road expenses, huge insurance premiums, obvious hurdles with doing maintenance in the field, and an often frustrating talent pool, it is not hard to see that it could take years to recover these kinds of price tags with what has become a low return on investment within the structure of our business.”
His biggest decisions are how to invest in the business his family has built over two generations. That same half-a-million dollars could just as easily be used to refurbish rides already in use with elbow grease, upgrades and new paint jobs.
“New canvas and tarps can be bought for nearly everything. L.E.D. lighting can be purchased and installed in many places, seating, shade tents, garbage can toppers, and other infrastructure can be added and improved,” said Davis. “The bottom line is, when you already have a large complement of machines, as most shows like ours do, it may be time to stop falling into the ‘what did you bring us that’s new this year’ trap and refocus on the quality of our presentation.”
This isn’t to say that Davis Amusements won’t be bringing new attractions to the business in time for the next busy season – and for good reason. He’s been paying attention to the guest experience for years, something that has helped shape how the company has evolved under his leadership in more recent years.
“I believe that the new generations of consumers are more in tune to the overall experience,” he said. “It takes a great deal of marketing and promotional effort to get people through our gates today. When we get them there we will ask them to spend $100 to $300 for the average family of four. That is a lot of money for today’s working family, and in order to get it we have to earn it with things like customer service, housekeeping and added-value amenities.”
Companies like Davis are also competing with the big chain amusement parks with enormous budgets and corporate tie-ins to Hollywood and other major film and entertainment branding. That can pose many other challenges staying successful as an independently owned family business. But Davis still has a few tricks up his sleeves.
“I think many shows miss the mark on something as simple as comfort,” he said. “That is to say if you want your public to come early, and stay all day to ride, play, and eat, giving them a place to sit down and be out of the sun for a few minutes can increase the length of the stay.”
Minimizing stress and confusion, as well as making the experience comfortable for parents as well as kids has proven to be a secret to Davis’ success for years now.
“If mom and dad have been on their feet all day, tripping over our wires, struggling to find our ticketing booths, ATMs, offices and management, and generally becoming irritated with the kid working the funhouse that just started yesterday, then mom and dad will pack it in and go home,” he said. “They will take their children and their money with them. Simple and inexpensive investments into a customer’s level of comfort are priceless.”
Davis said that over the years, the carnival business has also changed quite significantly in two major ways. “The first is positive, if not also overwhelming,” he explained. “There has been a vast improvement in the level at which we run our businesses. It was not too long ago that many shows were turnkey family operations, classic in their style and character, yet lacking in corporate fundamentals. Today, the traveling carnival is still almost always a family affair, but the smartest operators are the ones who saw the changes on the horizon and embraced them – everything from transportation regulations to mountains of recordkeeping, permits and the training of an employee pool that turns over faster than one of our rides.”
He admitted that it can be a struggle maintaining the classic elements – features that parents may expect to share with their kids, the things they remember when they themselves were children, while still keeping up with new trends. “There are times that it can be difficult to retain that old carnival style when you can’t see over the top of your stack of paperwork, yet still, it’s an overall improvement to the industry to always look to the higher standard,” Davis said.
The second big difference in this industry is also one of the most challenging. “The quality of today’s workforce seems to be in real decline,” he said. “I don’t think this is exclusive to anyone, but for the operator in a road show environment, finding and retaining good employees can be a fierce struggle. When I was a young man growing up on the midway, the show moved on the shoulders of hard-working men who stayed around for years and were loyal to the overall effort. Today, I often see employees come and go within the span of a day or a week because the work is too hard, and frankly, they often don’t seem to place any real priority on retention of a job of any kind, let alone dedication to future opportunity. It is the sad difference between working for the paycheck and working for the company.”
Changing with the times, while retaining the charm of the carnival experience – a true feature of this slice of Americana – also means striking a balance between what modern-day guests want and how the past can still be preserved. That seems to be the equation Davis is banking on for the 2014 season at least.
“When we play an event of any size, those old classic rides are important to that experience,” he said. “We are reintroducing the Zipper ride to our 2014 lineup. Frankly, the ride was retired in the first place for its low rider capacity and high overall maintenance costs.”
So why bring it back? Popular demand.
“It seems a show still can’t go anywhere without people stopping by the office to ask why we didn’t bring the Zipper this year,” Davis said. “Other old mainstays are still the Tilt-a-Whirl, Giant Slide, Carousel and, of course, the Giant Wheel.”
With a few exceptions, these rides are not only midway classics, but consistently post high grosses and lower upkeep than many of the modern pieces Davis features. “It goes right back to those outrageous price tags on new rides,” he said. “Paint your Ferris Wheel this year and update it with new lights. Then put the rest of the money in the bank.”
Playing to the Home Base
Cody Rides in Prior Lake, Minn., is another family-owned and operated carnival company that is working hard to maintain an old-fashioned, family-friendly experience while competing with bigger and faster amusement opportunities in the Midwest.
Owner Mike Cody said that most of the visitors to his carnivals are still attracted to the old standby rides. “They like the Octopus, the Tilt-a-Whirl,” he said. “You get the newer ones and they’re popular at first, but then the ridership slows down. They’re a fad for a bit and taper off.”
For the investment that new rides require, Cody is careful about what attractions he adds to his arsenal. “Fads pass,” he said. “You can only spin someone and twirl someone in so many ways.”
The new 2014 season will follow suit much like other years, with new games and attractions designed to attract new visitors and maintain the interest of regulars throughout the communities where Cody primarily operates.
“I change rides out every year,” he said. “You can’t stagnate; you have to change out stuff. I’ve got a couple rides I had up in the past that I’m bringing back this year. We rotate them a little bit in order to make sure that we don’t do the same thing.”
Rotating the rides is a price-conscious way to keep the experience fresh without necessarily making a huge investment in new equipment. There’s one ride that will make an appearance this year – a new version of the old Sidewinder that Cody said kids absolutely love.
Games like Balloon Bust have also proven to be profitable if managed well. “We seem to do real well with the gold fish and the cork guns,” he said. “They seem to be really popular. All of my games seem to do pretty consistent business, but what helps the most is the prize. We handpick all of our prizes. If you put bad prizes in good games, people are going to think it’s a bad game.”
He also ensures that gamers win more than they lose. “We’d rather have someone win a prize every time if the customer’s satisfied,” said Cody. “That way, we get repeat customers.” He said if they think they’re being taken for a ride, they’ll simply stay away from the games. And that means a lot less profit.
The current economy naturally plays an important role in most of the decisions Cody makes – but interestingly, these downtimes have actually helped business.
“People aren’t traveling as much as they were in the past,” he said. “The money’s tight.” He said he notices more families looking for entertainment for a weekend, like carnivals, festivals and fairs in the local community more so than they were in the past. They’re also looking for a bargain at the carnival and a deal on the rides.
“Now we have to offer a wrist band and a ride package,” he said. “We do different deals in different communities that work well.”
The Cost of Doing Business
Lewellen Amusements, a Kansas-area carnival company, is going through a transition. As the elder family members have retired, owner David Lewellen has been restructuring the business in time for the 2014 season. That means selling off some of the carnival rides to help sustain profitability, a trend he admitted has been hitting this industry hard.
“There used to be 2,100 carnivals in the U.S.A.,” said Lewellyn, citing a statistic he received from a longtime insurer his family’s worked with for many years. “There’s only 177 now.”
Depending on who you ask, there are many reasons for the decline in companies around the country, whether some merge and others fade away as new generations decide to pursue ventures outside of the family business. But for Lewellen, he said business is dying out because of regulation. “Regulation is a good thing,” he admitted, “but at a certain point you can’t afford to pay people the amount it requires to operate.” He says it impacts everyone from drivers to ride operators and mechanics: “There’s the cost of help, the insurance and the fuel that’s starting to erode the number of shows that are out there.”
But that hasn’t stopped millions of visitors from buying tickets to carnivals, where the popular attractions are still the classic ones – like the Merry-Go-Round, Ferris Wheel and Tilt-a-Whirl.
“For most Ferris Wheels, you get the older crowd with grandkids,” said Lewellen. “They’ll ride a Ferris Wheel, but they’re not going to go on the ones that send you up and around with people screaming.”
He says the Scrambler – also called the Sizzler – is also a popular ride because people can ride it together.
The same goes for games in which people can compete and at least one person walks away with a prize. “Water races and roller-ball, derby-style games are popular,” said Lewellen, as well as Whack-a-Mole.
Primarily, his 2014 business is still banking on familiarity. He said people want to revisit the rides that they have known for years, while they may be more hesitant to try something that’s designed for more of the thrill seeker, a ride that shoots you up hundreds of feet in the air and spins you around.
Safety can also be a concern for carnival goers, though Lewellen is quick to point out the statistics. “We ride millions of people on carnival rides each year,” he said. “But it’s that one in four million who gets hurt that everyone’s going to talk about. The only thing you hear is when someone gets hurt. It’s national news.”
And while he takes every possible precaution to avoid injury, he said, “Amusement rides are machines. And like all machines, machines break down at some point depending on how it’s manufactured, how it’s assembled, how old it is, whether or not it has been maintained.”
As Lewellen prepares for this next season, and the challenges he and other carnival companies face, he doesn’t consider big amusement parks much of a threat to business. “The bigger companies, they can afford those new rides – some that are a half-million or a million dollars,” he said, while most of the rides at Lewellen Amusements are estimated at $100,000 or less. “You buy it run down and repair it yourself and overhaul it,” he said. “It can last years before you have to do it again.”
Amusement parks also haven’t exactly added more destinations either. “As far as I know there haven’t been a whole lot more amusement parks added in the last 20 years,” said Lewellen. “People would much rather not have to travel anywhere when you can have a carnival come to your own doorstep in your hometown.”
Everything Old is New Again
Don’t underestimate the Merry-Go-Round, said Kevin Bissegger, spokesperson from City of Fun Carnival in North Pleasant Grove, Utah. The same goes for the Ferris Wheel. For more than 40 years, the family has been creating a business from combining nostalgic carnival memories with new attractions, like the Gee Whiz and Zero Gravity.
The company started off 58 years ago with a few rides and Lou and Lois Melendez’s vision to create a family-friendly experience that would attract generations of families. Today, there are 21 rides in rotation.
To attract this new generation of thrill seekers, the company most recently introduced Zero Gravity, which Bissegger expects to be a hit in 2014. “It’s kind of a retro line,” he said. “It’s an advanced remake of an old carnival ride called the Round Up.” He said that the new twist on a traditional ride holds a lot of appeal to people who seem to be interested in a more retro experience. Everyone, he said, still likes to see the giant Ferris Wheel lit up and making its round on a summer night.
Classic games are also adding profit, like the balloon shoots and basketball tosses. “Any ball toss is popular,” he said, as well as the water guns and blow-up balloons.
“We consider ourselves a family carnival, although we understand there’s a need for a fast-paced atmosphere for the kids,” said Bissegger. “We have a lot of kiddy rides. During the day and high time we also appeal more to families. And at night, we draw the older kids, the teens.” For the most part they visit today’s carnivals for the same reasons their parents and grandparents have – to meet up, ride the rides and to maybe sneak their first kiss atop the Ferris Wheel. –