By Hilary Danailova
From carousels to bumper cars, traditional rides remain the top draws for nostalgic carnival-goers, according to a Tourist Attractions & Parks (TAP) survey of amusement operators. “People are more creatures of habit,” observed Gus Mitchell, whose fourth-generation family business, Mitchell Brothers Amusements, has been providing rides to the Louisiana and Texas carnival circuit for nearly a century. “Your family rides, the old traditional rides — they’re as equally popular today as they ever were.”
Family rides remain the top attractions at most carnivals, where two, three, and even four generations often attend together. But while the roller coaster and the Ferris Wheel remain the biggest draw, Mitchell said his Slidell, La., business thrives by adding rides to the mix. “Every few years, I’ve got to bring something new and exciting to the fair,” he said. “That’s why we’ve stayed around so long.”
This year, Mitchell Brothers will introduce two of the so-called pendulum rides, which swing back and forth for a vertiginous thrill. One, called “The Extreme,” has proven to be a hit at other fairs; another, “The Rocket,” swings a dizzying 360 degrees, Mitchell said.
Scott Inners, who owns Majestic Midways in York, Pa., said his most popular rides vary from week to week, depending on the audience. “Some carnivals are predominantly teens, and others tilt toward kiddie and family-oriented rides,” said Inners, whose 30-ride Mid-Atlantic route circles New Jersey, metro Philadelphia, Delaware, and Maryland.
Majestic’s top rides are those that appeal to all ages: the Rainbow, the Zipper and the Himalaya, as well as Cuckoo House Fun House. “They cater to pretty much every member of the family, except for the very youngest kids,” said Inner. “Teens like to ride ‘em, adults like to ride ‘em. They’re right in that sweet spot.”
For the 2018 season, Inners recently purchased a “mini-breakdance” ride called the Crazy Cap, made in Italy and aimed at the whole family. “If it runs full-speed, as an adult, it wears me out,” he laughed.
In a competitive carnival circuit, operators can feel pressure to offer the most popular attractions, said Peter Joseph, president of Annapolis, Md.-based Jolly Shows. “People will say, ‘Hey, where’s the Gravitron, the Zipper?’” Joseph noted. “Certain rides, you just have to have.”
For 2017, Joseph bought a new, Czech-made ride called the Avalanche, which has proven a winner with its ski-and-mountain theme, bright colors, and rotating seats that accommodate families. Jolly is also refurbishing the Zipper, the Speedway and other popular thrill attractions for the coming season.
But it’s the all-ages classics that keep fans lining up at carnivals. That hasn’t changed since Joseph’s grandfather started the business in the 1950s. Today, his 26 rides delight carnival-goers throughout Maryland and Northern Virginia, and now as then, the gondola wheel and bumper cars rule. “They’re the ones everyone likes to ride — kids with their parents, teenagers, older people,” explained Joseph.
A 1957 carousel is still charming families around the Milwaukee area, one of nine classic rides offered by Lake Enterprises. With increasingly stringent state-by-state regulations, Owner Mark Lake said his business thrives by staying small and sticking to the company and church picnic circuit.
The business, founded in 1931, has weathered nearly a century by offering the things people love: Tilt-A-Whirl, the Roundup, and that carousel. “They’ve been popular for 60 years, and they’ll be popular long after I’ve turned to dust,” said Lake. To stay profitable, he buys second-hand rides that are easy to assemble and disassemble, require little electricity, and have a track record of reliability, with limited digital parts. “The old staples have been a blessing to us,” Lake said.
Jerry Chirichella, the long-time business director for New Jersey-based Amusements of America, has a theory as to why each generation of children clamors for the classics. “They see merry-go-rounds on television, in the commercials, and they want to go do it in person,” Chirichella said.
The merry-go-round and a huge Ferris Wheel are the main attractions for his audiences, Chirichella said. Several years ago, the business acquired the wheel — a slightly smaller version of the iconic wheels that define the skylines of London and Paris. “But it still takes four trailers to move it,” Chirichella said.
He’s considered upgrading to one of the mega-versions, but they require eight trailers. That would be unwieldy for Amusements of America’s two carnival routes, which span Georgia and the Carolinas into Ohio, with stops in the Caribbean, as well as New Jersey and New York State to the Canadian border.
Each winter, Chirichella surveys the trade shows to determine which new rides to add to his family-friendly lineup. In recent years, investments have gone toward what he calls “kiddie stuff,” the children’s rides that cost upwards of $200,000 but pay off by attracting the firm’s family demographic. “Kids just love ‘em,” he said.