PLANT CITY, Fla. --- Belle City Amusements has made some adjustments to its route this year after the Iowa State Fair made the decision to go with an independent midway.
To plug the gap from losing Iowa, the carnival signed a three-year contract to play the Greene County Fair in Greeneville, Tenn., according to owner/operator Charles Panacek. This year's dates are Aug. 7-13 and Belle City will set up about 30 rides there, he said. In addition, Belle City will book some rides at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus with Amusements of America, which it has done for several years.
Losing a state fair isn't a good thing, but at the same time, it wasn't easy for the Deltona, FL based operation to make the long jump to central Iowa over the past seven years. It didn't come as a surprise to t
he Panacek family. There were rumors Iowa would go independent as its neighbors have done at the Minnesota State Fair and Wisconsin State Fair. It became official in August shortly after the 2016 Iowa State Fair.
For Belle City, which took over the Iowa State Fair in 2009 after purchasing the assets of the old Mighty Blue Grass Shows, it became an expensive date to play. Logistically, it was the furthest west and north the carnival traveled over the course of the season, Panacek said.
Apart from Greene County and the Ohio State Fair, Belle City officials are talking to several other fairs about doing something together in the future, he said.
Here in Plant City, the annual Florida Strawberry Festival now stands as Belle City's biggest event. It typically draws about 500,000 in attendance and ranks among the Top 50 fairs in the country and, along with the Dade County Youth Fair in Miami, the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach and the Florida State Fair in Tampa, it is one of the four largest events in Florida as well.
"They do a good job of providing a family atmosphere," Panacek said. "The town is small but [Hillsborough] county is big. To come behind the State Fair a few weeks later and draw this many people is impressive. They try to be reasonable with pricing so families can come here more than once."
To meet the demand in Plant City, Belle City sets up 90 rides and attractions. This year, there were three Ferris Wheels. Rio Cristiani and Jeremy Floyd were among the independents booking rides here. Amusements of America loaned its Crazy Mouse coaster and Butch Van Hull did the same with his Cyclone coaster.
In addition, Michael Wood booked three pieces in Plant City, including his flashy Magnum. Josh Macaroni of Prime Time Amusements booked multiple rides as well, including a Bunny Wheel, and Nick Pelino featured his Hurricane. Arnold Amusements booked several pieces including the Flying Bobs, Orbiter, and Freak Out, among others. Independents Dave Potopas, Joey Fowler and Chuck Knox booked games here and Richie George had food trailers on site.
On the two Saturdays of this year's festival, which ran March 2-12, officials provided free admission for all kids under age 17. This year, regular gate admission was $10. Separately, Coca-Cola ran a promotion that gave patrons $5 off the cost of a ride wristband if they presented a Coke product at the gate.
Belle City had three county fairs and a church fest under its belt by the time it reached Plant City. All those spots were up due to beautiful weather, Panacek said. Early in 2017, people appear to be spending more money due in part to reasonable fuel prices, he said. The stock market reaching historic highs also hasn't hurt, he said.
The Sarasota County Fair, March 17-26, and the Citrus County Fair, March 28-March 2, were to follow the Strawberry Fest. Belle City has been the only carnival to play Citrus County in Inverness, dating 60 years, Panacek said.
Belle City will close its operation after the first week of April before going back on the road in early June as it heads north to spend most of the summer in Kentucky and Tennessee. During that time off in April and May, the show will refurbish and paint rides that it didn't get to in late 2016, he said.
The Nitro is among those pieces that was renovated after being on the sidelines for a few years. The Italian ride's gear boxes and lighting have been upgraded and it received a new paint job. Separately, the Panacek family bought a new Alien Abduction from Wisdom Industries, two used Dalton kid rides and a used Mario Land, which has been completely refurbished.
On the labor front, Belle City employs 35 international workers, which represents about one-third of its total workforce. The show has had no issues getting those individuals from Mexico. Several are returners, Panacek said.
Charlotte Adkins, Charles Panacek's daughter, is in charge of the show's food operation and she runs two concessions, a popcorn wagon; and a corn dog and fried candy trailer. Her husband, Jesse Adkins, is a ride foreman. Zachary Panacek, Charles' son, is the carnival's general manager.
Other key personnel are Jerry Sears, the show's electrician, and his wife, Tabitha, the office manager. John Manno and Cassandra Eno help out in the office. Webb Eno, Cassandra's husband, works in the maintenance department.
Looking ahead, Panacek sees a strong season as long as fuel prices remain stable. He feels the public still has a positive view about the economy, and as a result, per capita spending should keep trending upward.
Last year, Belle City signed a seven-year extension in Plant City, and this year, the carnival signed another seven-year renewal at the Manatee County Fair in Palmetto, Fla., traditionally its first spot of the year.
"We're blessed to have the fair partners we do," he said.