When SwikaS Amusements opens its 2017 route in March, one of the longest running and most respected regional carnival companies will begin a new chapter. SwikaS Amusements is the latest iteration of S&S Amusements, founded in 1957 by the father and son team of Stephen Swika and Stephen Swika II and - although the family's roots date back to the 1930s, when Stephen Swika started in the carnival business.
Stephen Swika III, founder of SwikaS Amusements, grew up in the business s and was running it with his father when Stephen Swika II passed away in August. S&S had about 32 rides, 50 employees and played about 26 dates per year, a combination of small fairs, fund raising events for civic organizations and churches as well as subcontract work with larger carnival companies at larger fairs.
During the more than half century in the midway business, S&S gained a reputation for safe and fun rides and industry respect for their mechanical acumen and ride recondition and maintenance expertise. The untimely passing of Swika II was followed by legal issues with the estate, forcing the company to lose more than half the rides, jeopardizing the future of the company.
As Stephen Swika III tells it, he planned to completely dissolve the company and was looking for potential buyers at an industry event when he met with Amusements of America. S&S Amusements subcontracted with the Vivona Family for fairs and other events.
Instead of making an offer, "Morris Vivona said I had too much to give," said Stephen Swika III. "He said I was a good ride guy and I should stay in the business."
Swika took the advice to heart, realizing that "I love the carnival business, I love the people in the business."
Restructuring & Downsizing
On the plus side, although some rides were lost, Stephen Swika III retained ownership of the company's winter headquarters in Scott Township, Penn.
Swika decided to switch course, resurrecting S&S Amusements as SwikaS Amusements, a slightly down-sized version, with 15 rides and 20 employees, although it is still a family business, with his wife Paula as office manager, and Adam Swika, a nephew and now the 4th generation in the business. Swika said nine of the rides were from the original S&S Amusements complement, which includes an original Allan Herschel Merry Go Round from 1946 and the Helicopter ride that went on the inaugural route back in 1957. Augmenting this well-maintained vintage rides are new additions, including, a "brand spanking" new Back Spin Roller Coaster, Tea Cup ("with bigger cups,"), Dark Ride, Baja Buggy, Kite Flyer and Ferris Wheel. "We have the rides and are ready to go, and we have anew front Marquee sign."
Probably the most significant evidence of the S&S reputation was that the vast majority of the S&S Amusement events renewed with SwikaS Amusements. Most notably, the larger of the small fairs - Luzerne County Fair and Jessup Firemen's Carnival - as well an array of events hosted by civic organizations, little leagues, Lions Club and other smaller events - in addition to subcontracting with Amusement of America and Powers' Great American Midway, augmenting their midways at a handful of larger fairs. The 2017 SwikaS Amusements route begins in March at the Indoor Amusement Park held at the IX Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
But it's the regional fairs - mainly in Pennsylvania and New York - that Swika calls, "my bread and butter. I love them, you really feel part of the community. They need a company that will work closely with them, and you really customize your midway to meet their needs."
Swika said that while some competitors made offers to organizers of the events, the fairs all were willing to wait for the estate situation to be cleared up. They welcomed the news that Swika would be continuing the S&S Amusement story. "I met with and talked with our sponsors and boards, I told them what we would be doing and they all were very receptive," he said. Some contracts were renegotiated, and for the most part the terms will run through this year.
"We supply clean wholesome fun for families," he said. "We do not want to over charge, what we want is the people to see us more than once, come back to the fair. We keep the fairs affordable for the family. There are a lot of hands wanting the entertainment dollars, movies and sports and everything, but going to a fair is once a year tradition, and it's the most value for those entertainment dollars."
SwikaS Amusements may have somewhat downsized from the former S&S Amusements, but that also reaps other rewards. "You can manage control over the operations much better, and we work on all our equipment in our winter headquarters."
Like many carnival owners, Stephen Swika III worked for his entire life in the family business except for 2000 to 2009, when he was a Ride Inspector for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, giving him insights on the other side of the business. The experience made him more conscientious about the entire process.
"One thing is that it made me better at paper work, and documenting everything you do," he said. "It also helped me improve my communication skills. You have to keep your eyes and ears open, and it's more than just performance maintenance mechanics. Inspectors look at things a little differently than the ride operator and it was very good experience."
But the call of the family business proved irresistible. After leaving his government job, Swika returned to the family business, working alongside his father. SwikaS Amusements may not exactly be starting over - Swika is intent on carrying the Swika tradition -- but the fact is it is a new company. "We are working on our website and Facebook page, which we hope to have up in the very new future. We have a monumental task ahead of us. Last year, we lost our patriarch and founder and there were other complications. It was a bad year, a rough year. But a new chapter for S&S begins, and we have the same commitment to safety and quality of the amusements and the overall standards of the sponsors we work with."
He added, "it was a tough decision, but I love this industry, and the people in this industry, and looking to continue and keep doing what I've been doing."