Jolly Shows is plugging along this season despite fighting the red tape tied to the federal government's international worker program.
The Annapolis, Md. carnival has 26 rides and operates within a 100-mile radius in its home state and northern Virginia. The show gets a jump on other carnivals in the Mid-Atlantic by hitting the road in mid-March. So far, people are spending money between the rain drops this spring, said Peter Joseph, the carnival's co-owner.
"Other shows ask us why we open so early," Joseph said. "All we're looking for is 50 degree to 60 degree temperatures on the weekends when we can make some money, and it's worked. Up to now, our competitors have waited until April, but I've noticed a few more shows coming around earlier in the season."
or has been Joseph's big battle this year. To date, unlike the last 12 years, Jolly Shows has not received its allotment of H2B workers, however, the company is having a difficult time finding domestic laborers to work the hours required.
This year, the federal government restricted to 66,000 the total number of H2B visas granted for foreign nationals working in the U.S., compared with more than twice that number in 2016. It's left some carnivals such as Jolly Shows in a bind, leaving them to scramble for local help to make up the difference. Joseph and his agent, James Judkins of JKJ Workforce, have had to refile paperwork twice since the 2017 season started to remain in the mix for H2B workers.
"James did everything the right way ... but instead of being at the top of the heap [after refiling] we got pushed to the bottom of the list," Joseph said. "According to JKJ, we'll hopefully be getting some men by the first week of June. The government supposedly signed some legislation for more exemptions."
On May 4, congress passed a law giving the department of homeland security the ability to increase the H2B Visa Cap, however, since the bill was signed, the Department of Homeland Security has not increased the cap. Like Joseph, this leaves many hopeful carnivals in a bind who were hoping to receive their workers soon after the bill passed congress.
Bottom line, Jolly Shows depends on those international workers to keep its operation on the right track. A decade ago, the carnival used about a half-dozen H2B laborers. The program worked well for Joseph to the point that he expanded that number to 28 workers over the past few years.
As most other carnivals have found out, though, using Americans for seasonal labor doesn't always work out well , according to Joseph.
And it's slowed down their operation. Without the experience of the returning H2B workers, the process for tearing down the midway now stretches from six hours to 16 hours. At the same time, it's better to take it slow and get the job done safely to avoid potential accidents and injuries, Joseph said.
"Even when we're lucky enough to hire U.S. residents, they don't finish out the location," he said. "They tell you they know everything. They need [cash advances] during the week and they're never satisfied. We put ads on Carnival Warehouse and the local papers. Now, we're using local temporary help services to get ride operators and tear down help. We spend a ton of money, and even with those agencies, we get the bottom of the barrel. So, to this point, my expectations are not that high."
On the bright side, Jolly Shows has made some new ride purchases and spruced up some vintage attractions. The carnival acquired an Avalanche, an intermediate piece made in the Czech Republic. It's a one-trailer ride similar to a Wisdom Genesis with two short arms that operate in motion like an Ali Baba, he said.
In addition, the show bought a new Hitchhiker hot dog and french fry trailer.
Several rides were refurbished in winterquarters. Paul Joseph, Peter's brother, renovated the Roundup and re-themed it as the Casino with the look of a giant roulette wheel with red and black cages. The Tilt-a-Whirl has been re-themed as the Atlantis, and the show's Allen Herschell helicopter has been upgraded.
Separately, the Paratrooper now carries a Navy Seal theme in recognition of the carnival's hometown of Annapolis, home of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Peter Joseph takes pride in his operation and isn't afraid to stack his show up against some of the bigger carnivals in the industry. Some of its rides are 50 years old such as the Helicopter and Paratrooper, and the family's hard work and creativity have kept those attractions thriving in 2017.
"You won't see carnival rides like Jolly Shows'," he said. "The Roundup ... I would put it up against the [much newer] Zero Gravity. The Paratrooper competes against the Cliffhanger. My brother does it all, the painting, re-racking, welding and fabrication."
For Jolly Shows, it helps that the route is manageable and the family sleeps in their own beds most of the season. The carnival books mostly shopping centers and fireman's festivals.
It does play two September fairs in Maryland, including the Prince George's County Fair in Upper Marlboro, the state's longest running fair dating to 1842, according to the event's website. The other one is the Anne Arundel County Fair in Crownsville. Ninety percent of its bookings are return dates.
The carnival runs mostly wristband specials priced at $25 during the week and $30 on weekends. Things have changed over the years, Joseph said. Jolly Shows used to promote wristbands for slow days mid-week, but these days, customers don't have the extra money to buy ride tickets, he said.
Joseph recognizes that pay-one-price puts additional pressure on his ride operators with repeat business, but its one that he's willing to take to get patrons to stay longer on the midway and spend money on food and drink as well as rides.
The family operation extends to Peter's parents, Robert and Maryann Joseph, both of whom remain active with the carnival. Peter's wife, Rhonda, runs the five food concessions. Their three grown children, Tiffany, Nicole and Dominic, lend support in the office and concessions.
Jolly Shows has been in existence for 43 years. Frank Joseph, Peter's grandfather, started the business in 1974 after acquiring carnival assets from Bill Enfante. At the time, Frank Joseph already had a few rides that he set up at a small amusement park in Baltimore before heading south to book with shows in the fall. Frank Joseph & Sons carnival eventually developed into Jolly Shows.