Russ Kissel is excited for the coming season and the potential of using some new ride promotions in Kentucky, where his carnival plays about 10 fairs.
Kissel Entertainment, owned by Russ and his wife Tammy, kicks off the 2017 route in Clanton, Ala., not far from where the show's winterquarters are situated. The 50-ride carnival's corporate address is in Ohio. The show covers a lot of ground, playing dates in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
At the Kentucky fair convention in mid-January, Kissel had discussions with officials from multiple fairs about the potential for implementing MegaPass and FastPass promotions. The majority of fairs in the Blue Grass State are already pay-one-price events with gate admission and midway rid
es folded into one price.
The MegaPass, in addition to covering the cost of rides over the duration of the event, could also maybe include some perks toward food and games, Kissel said.
The FastPass, an upcharge for access to an express lane for rides, is also under consideration. Wade Shows and North American Midway Entertainment are two carnivals using the FastPass model over the past several years. The promotion originated at theme parks such as Disney World.
"We won't make any final decisions until we get it all figured out," Kissel said. "We've danced around it a few times but have never used it. Kentucky's a little tougher state. It's not a rich state and we're not looking to outprice ourselves but we want to show them it's available."
During the offseason, the Kissel crew has kept busy refurbishing a Chance Thunderbolt. They're stripping it down to bare metal and changing the theme to the snowy Matterhorn, similar to the Himalaya model.
"It's going to be amazing when we get done with it," Kissel said.
In addition, the carnival recently purchased a used Sea Dragon from Midwest Rides that it plans to re-do as well. Nick Seibert, Russ Kissel's son-in-law did the deal.
Kissel Entertainment is still waiting for delivery of the KMG Speed it bought two years ago. It's not expected until 2018 due to a large backup of orders, Kissel said.
When it's finally delivered, Tammy Kissel wants to put a back wall and install some extra lighting to give it a more European look and feel, her husband said.
"We're still working it out with KMG," he said. "It would add an extra axle" on the trailer.
To this point, the total cost for the Speed is undetermined because the Euro keeps going down in value, which in turn, makes the exchange rate with the American dollar more attractive, Kissel said.
"We're waiting for it to drop some more," Kissel said, laughing. "But if Tammy keeps adding lights, it might not make a difference."
Kissel will pick his spots for using the spectacular piece and may "farm it out" to other carnivals, similar to what he does with the show's Nemesis 360, another KMG product. It's also known as the Inversion. The seats rotate and it takes riders all the way over on a 360-degree turn, Kissel said. Last year, Kissel Entertainment rented it out a half-dozen times, bringing in some additional revenue.
Seibert, manager of the first unit, married Kissel's daughter Savannah in December and he brings new blood to the show. Last year, he served as show manager for Crescent City Amusements. His parents book food concessions with Kissel Entertainment
"He's a good young man and I believe he's going to be a shining star in this business," Kissel said. "He had the Thunderbolt that was originally a Blue Grass Shows piece."
Madison Kissel, Russ and Tammy's youngest daughter at age 19, is no slouch either. She runs the second unit with 22 rides, and owns 12 games and a pizza stand.
"She's a machine," her father said.
The two units combine forces for about six events every season, mostly at some of the larger regional fairs in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
The Northeast Alabama State Fair in Huntsville and the Magic City Fair in Birmingham, Ala. are two of Kissel's bigger fairs. Some of the smaller festivals in Ohio and Indiana bring in attendance that rival some of Kissel Entertainment's better county fairs, he said.
Help is not a problem, Kissel said. He hires 50 international workers every season, a mix of Mexicans and South Africans. This will be the ninth year he's tapped into the H2B program.
Kissel Entertainment had its ups and downs last season. The show lost a week around Savannah, Ga., due to the effects of Hurricane Matthew, but Kissel is not one to whine and moan about the weather.
"I never understood a carnival owner who complains like that," he said. "You have to expect bad weather and budget for it, otherwise you're not doing your job. We're looking forward to getting out on the road."
Russ Kissel has owned the show since 2005, after purchasing the company from his parents, Fred and Mary Kissel. They are both deceased.
The family business dates to 1932 when Kissel's relatives booked a pony ride at the old Coney Island amusement park in Cincinnati.
Over time, there have been about seven carnivals that sprouted up among the extended Kissel family, two of which remain in operation in addition to Kissel Entertainment.