ORLANDO, Fla. - Wade Shows has made significant upgrades to its midway for 2017 through the purchase of multiple rides and some creative customization of customer service spaces.
The carnival's new Midway Sky Eye - a joint venture with independent Michael Wood and among the biggest traveling Ferris wheels in North America - has been grabbing the headlines early in the season, but plenty of other improvements stand out on the show this year, said owner/operator Frank Zaitshik.
"We continue to refine and improve all aspects of the our midway presentation," Zaitshik said at the Central Florida Fair. "The frustrating part of having so many components is finding a spot for everything. Sometimes, we grow our amenities faster than we have a place for them."
As part of stepping up its customer service, carnival officials converted two semi tractor trailer units into guest relations booths with adjoining restrooms and baby changing stations. The design and graphics package provides the look of a permanent building, Zaitshik said.
Gene Chaffee, a longtime Wade Shows collaborator, came up with the idea for the conversion, he said.
In addition, the carnival sets up kiosks featuring phone charging stations tied to lockers for midway patrons to store personal items they don't want to lose while going on the rides. It's an amenity Wade Shows first introduced in 2016.
For Wade Shows, both additions are free of charge to all customers. New automated ticket dispensers and a new show office trailer purchased last September are other customer service upgrades, Zaitshik said.
This season, the carnival made a nice gesture by honoring Jerry Carson, a longtime employee who died in December. As part of the renovation of the Ring of Fire, the show renamed the attraction "Free Bird", Carson's nickname, and installed a plaque on the ride in his memory.
Separately, the show acquired a new Street Fighter 360 from Tecnical Park, 16 new bumper cars from Chestnut and a new Wisdom Starship. The Spider has an all new electrical drive system from Battech.
Plus, the carnival expected delivery of eight new semis purchased from Wal-Mart's fleet by the end of March.
On its own, the Midway Sky Eye, as it was branded in its debut at the Florida State Fair, has been a learning experience, Zaitshik said. Ride crews have spent the past several weeks figuring out the process for "racking" the ride after taking it down in Tampa.
It's a major endeavor for the massive wheel produced by Lamberink, a Dutch company. The ride stands 155 feet tall, weighs 400,000 pounds and contains more than 500 individual pieces with electrical wiring stretching six miles in length. The 36 gondolas can hold up to six people for a total of 216 passengers.
The ride was shipped in January in 14 containers and four trailers. It takes three to four 12-hour days to set up and tear down the wheel. It's transported on about a dozen 48-foot flatbed trucks.
As it stands now, the wheel is expected to anchor state fair midways in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Oklahoma, and Wade Shows officials are talking to a few other events about booking the ride. Ticket prices are tentatively set for $5 in West Allis and St. Paul and $4 in Oklahoma City.
The ride's digital signage gives Wade Shows the flexibility of branding it to meet the fairs' needs, Zaitshik said.
In Wisconsin, the wheel will be setup as its own attraction, separate from the midway. At other fairs, it could be part of the midway or a stand alone. The joint venture's intention is to improve the overall experience for fairgoers and not "further split the pie" in terms of revenue, he said.
"We're looking forward to playing a lot of great locations with it, which will elevate our operation and the entire industry," he said. "This year, our main goal is to get it up and down and fine-tune the process. We want to make money, but most important, we want to do it right."
Michael Wood has played a key role for his role working with the manufacturer on the build and training the crew in putting up the wheel and taking it down. Wood, owner of Wood Entertainment and the son of carnival legend Red Wood, is as "good an operator as there is on the planet," Zaitshik said.
Apart from the equipment upgrades, Wade Shows' Florida run resulted in record years in Tampa and the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach. The carnival had its second-best run at the Pasco County Fair in Dade City. The 2017 Central Florida Fair marked the show's 21st consecutive year playing the Orlando event.
In Texas, the San Antonio Stock Show was the third-best since the event started in 1950, despite low oil prices causing a softening of the economy there, Zaitshik said.
"The timing of the rodeo and some of President Trump's immigration roundups right before we opened in San Antonio caused some hysteria and early pushback [from local residents staying home] ... but we had a strong finish," he said.