Building Business
Trends in Carnivals, Fairs and Festivals

At carnivals, fairs, and festivals, business seems to be booming this year, with popular rides and midway games drawing crowds at virtually all locations. Carnival owners and staff offer their opinions on the business climate and their favorite attractions.

A view of a Butler Amusements midway. The company had a great year in 2016.

A view of a Butler Amusements midway. The company had a great year in 2016.

At G&S Shows in Garden Grove, Calif., Owner Tony Guadagno sees the current popularity of carnivals as “an inexpensive Disneyland. A lot of times a family can’t afford to spend $400 to $500 at a minimum to go to a major theme park, but can get some of the same sort of attractions and get a thrill here. There will always be that market for carnivals, as well as at private institutions such as churches, the Lions Club, and city events,” he attested.

There are a few challenges, however, specifically regarding the H-2B program, which permits the hiring of temporary, non-agricultural workers from other countries. “We bring in workers who are very industrious, clean, family-oriented workers from Mexico, and the government fights us tooth and nail. We jump through hoops to get American workers, but we can’t,” Guadagno said.

A fortunate weather situation had crowds staying out longer at Golden Wheel Amusements events in 2016, according to the marketing and promotions manager.

A fortunate weather situation had crowds staying out longer at Golden Wheel Amusements events in 2016, according to the marketing and promotions manager.

Guadagno’s most popular rides are the big thrill rides, he said. “The Kamikazee, the Century Wheel, the Twisters. People love whatever goes up and around, including roller coasters.” For 2017, he plans to add a ride called The Boat. “Rides are very expensive. We’re considering a used ride, and even used it is close to $350,000.”

In Austin, Texas, at the Mighty Thomas Carnival, Owner John Hanschen said his business is at its peak. “We are even stronger than at our last peak in 2008. The last two years, fuel costs have been down, and that’s been very helpful. It’s also been good because we have access to good foreign labor through the H-2B, although Congress is trying to limit that. There is a cap on some of the industries, and we are running out of numbers. That would be a negative in the coming year if we can’t use H-2B labor,” he said.

For Golden Wheel Amusements, the Zipper is a fan favorite, and many of the company’s classic rides have loyal followings.

For Golden Wheel Amusements, the Zipper is a fan favorite, and many of the company’s classic rides have loyal followings.

Hanschen’s most popular ride is the Century Ferris Wheel. “It is our number one. It gets the most ticket sales every year. Other rides that are very heavily ridden include Moby Dick, Thunderbolt, Pharoah’s Fury, and the roller coaster. In the children’s area, our most popular are the monster trucks and the merry-go-round.” He noted that other traditional rides such as the tilt-a-whirl also hold steady. He hasn’t decided on any new rides for 2017 as yet, but has many choices on his mind.

At Butler Amusements in Fairfield, Calif., Marketing Director Andrea Owen, speaking for Owner Rich Byrum, asserted that the company had a great year in 2016. “We had some really great spots, too. We’re the largest carnival on the west coast, so we supply the services for many county fairs and state fairs, and other large events.” Like Hanschen and Guadagno, she said Butler Amusement’s biggest obstacle each year is hiring seasonal workers. “There hasn’t been the legislation we’ve wanted to keep our H-2B employees,” she explained. “These are not brand new employees we’re talking about; they’ve been with us season after season for the past 14 years, they just happen to reside in Mexico. I think that labor is the biggest obstacle, because legislation hasn’t gone completely the way we want it to go.” She added, “As far as the actual industry itself, carnivals are popular. I think people are staying a little closer to home, not doing the big Disney or Great America trips, while at the same time they have more disposable income. They’re not holding onto their purse strings as tightly as three years ago. It’s great to have people come to us to enjoy themselves.”

Games and rides at a Golden Wheel Amusements event. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016, and brought five new rides to its route.

Games and rides at a Golden Wheel Amusements event. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016, and brought five new rides to its route.

Butler Amusement’s most popular rides are those that are the most extreme, and the ones that hold the most people, Owen said. “We have a newer Inversion ride that is super tall and flips completely upside down. That does very well. Every year we try to keep abreast of the new rides. People are going to want to see something new, they’re interested in something different as well as the old favorites like the giant Ferris Wheel and the Dipper.” She related that her company’s giant wheel is giant indeed at over 100 feet tall. While new rides are planned for 2017, they have not yet been finalized.

Michael and Cathy Davis own Davis Amusement in Clackamas, Ore. Cathy Davis offered her feedback on the current business climate. “Carnivals are popular of course, in part because everyone’s looking for a bargain. There’s a lot of places like waterparks to spend money, but carnivals live on. The challenge really is that it’s difficult to find young people to do the physical labor and take on the travel that’s involved working at a carnival. I think many carnivals are doing H-2B labor. This was our first season to do that, and it was very successful for us. Right now everything is on hold with that program, maybe that will change for the better. I don’t think anyone knows right now.”

For Golden Wheel Amusements, a carnival remains a perfect family event as well as an ideal first date and get-together activity for friends.

For Golden Wheel Amusements, a carnival remains a perfect family event as well as an ideal first date and get-together activity for friends.

Davis’ most popular rides are the giant Ferris wheel, the Orbiter, the carousel, the Nitro ride, and the Grand Prix roller coaster, the latter being most popular at the biggest fairs. “A roller coaster and other old favorites like the tilt-a-whirl will never fade from being top-grossers, they’re in stone as a part of a traveling carnival,” she laughed. “They’re part of American history.”

As her company brought out the Nitro just last year, she isn’t planning on new rides for 2017. “We are focusing on new canvasses and LED lighting to brighten up the midway.”

In Chugiak, Alaska, Chelsea Eckert, marketing and promotions manager for Golden Wheel Amusements, said her company has also had a very good year. “We have had a very fortunate weather situation this summer, and we have really seen the crowds stay out a lot longer to enjoy it. And we think carnivals are a lasting attraction – there is something so enduring about having a family day at the carnival, or your first date, or just a good time with friends. It is an iconic backdrop for any of those activities,” Eckert noted. “Our challenge? We have to remind people there is more to experience than their phone can show them.”

A ride at the midway at a Butler Amusements event. Hiring seasonal workers is a challenge for the company.

A ride at the midway at a Butler Amusements event. Hiring seasonal workers is a challenge for the company.

Eckert explained that popular carnival rides in Alaska are slightly different from those in the lower states. “We have a lot of weather to deal with, so our rides are not as large-scale as some. The Zipper is a fan favorite, and many of our classic rides have a loyal following. I’m always surprised people make sure to go on their favorite rides multiple times every year.” As to new attractions, Eckert says Golden Wheel Amusements will not be adding any this year. “We just

celebrated our big 50th anniversary in 2016, and brought five new rides to our route. So we plan to continue to let those rides stay for awhile, with fresh lineup additions planned in the future.”

Overall, carnivals thrived in 2016. For most, labor, and particularly the H-2B is the biggest challenge in a very successful year on the midway.