City of Fun's brand new Vertigo has paid off handsomely for the Utah carnival. The ARM swing tower ride drew long lines at the recent Strawberry Days festival in the show's hometown of Pleasant Grove, which is among the state's longest-running celebrations.
This year's dates were June 14-17.
"We couldn't fit any more people in the park," said Pam Zoeller, the company's vice president and general manager, whose family has owned the carnival for 57 years. "We just got the Vertigo [about a month ago] and so far it's been received very well by the public."
The hometown event helped City of Fun gain some momentum after a rough spring in which the carnival did not get its typical allotment of international workers through the federal government's H-2B Visa pro
gram. To date, City of Fun has had to "rent" some H-2B employees from another show to help keep its operation fully staffed, Zoeller said.
"It's the only way I could get workers," she said. "We've been bringing the same men back for about 20 years. For this year, we got everything approved. We started getting the paperwork done last August. We passed every step and somebody dropped the ball."
Zoeller said, "It doesn't help that the [program] is capped at 66,000 workers. Last year, we got delayed a few times but got them by summer. This year, we got a lot of help locally but those people don't always want to travel. It's just not the life for everyone."
One employee, though, found something missing in his life without the carnival business and returned to the show this year after a 45-year absence. John Jennings and Zoeller are partners in Lucky 13 Concessions, a new game operation. The name reflects Jennings' cat-like ability to survive multiple life-threatening incidents, according to Zoeller.
Jennings worked for Zoeller's parents, Lou and Lois Melendez, many years ago before leaving the business. Over the past four decades, Jennings has been struck by lightning and suffered a motorcycle accident in which he was taken off a ventilator in the hospital that was keeping him alive. But he made a miraculous recovery and later re-connected with the carnival through Facebook, Zoeller said.
In another fascinating twist to his life, Jennings, who turns 62 on the Fourth of July, was born in an Arizona jail cell. A big storm prevented Jennings' mother from reaching the hospital in time and she settled for delivery by law enforcement at the correctional facility, Zoeller said.
On her own, Pam Zoeller displays her own sense of survival. Her late husband, Jim Zoeller, handled the carnival's maintenance duties and filled the role of mechanic for the company's trucks and generators. Jim Zoeller died suddenly in 2005, leaving a gaping hole in the operation.
"We were hurting, but we survived," Pam said.
Her family has helped pick up the pieces. Brad Melendez, Pam's brother, serves as the carnival's president and runs its safety and inspection program. He owns the Spinout and manages the show's corporate office and winter quarters.
"I'm the only one crazy enough to travel," Pam said, laughing.
Brad's son, Bradley, helps his father with maintaining the show's fleet of about 20 trucks. He has a college degree in automotive technology from Utah Valley University and secured his license in safety inspections of those vehicles.
Lou Melendez, the show's patriarch, died in 2011. Lois still keeps her hand in the business by taking care of all the paperwork. She keeps a close eye on expenses and determines whether the show can afford to purchase a new attraction, her daughter said.
Pam's daughter, Shannon Cummings, a dental assistant and hairdresser over the past 20 years, helps out in the summer. All told, the show is four generations strong.
Apart from the family, Frank Morales fills the role of general manager. He recently turned 40 and has been with City of Fun since he was 14. Morales also books three games with the show.
The carnival's route covers Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico and Nevada, in addition to Utah. It's an efficient and economical route, considering the show doesn't move more than 50 miles during its Utah run from June through August.
City of Fun's season starts in early March, booking Arizona fairs, and returns to the state in September to play one of two Native American events, the Western Navajo Nation Fair in Tuba City.
The second one is the Northern Navajo Nation Fair in Shiprock, N.M., and huge four-day event and the oldest fair tied to the local tribe, Zoeller said.
In Parker, Ariz., home of the LaPaz County Fair, a spring event, fair officials allow the carnival to store equipment at the end of the season before setting it up in March at the fair, she said.
All told, there's stiff competition in Utah and neighboring states between City of Fun, Brown's Amusements and Frazier Shows.
"Danny Brown jumps in and out of Utah, but I've got a clamp on most of the good fairs," Zoeller said.
The history behind City of Fun dates to Lou meeting Lois when they were students at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Lou Melendez studied to be an accountant, but in the end, he preferred the outdoor amusement industry. He gravitated to the East Coast where he worked at amusement parks in New York and New Jersey. Melendez ultimately purchased a few rides of his own and went back to Utah where he started the carnival in 1960.
Fifty-seven years later, City of Fun owns about 25 rides and attractions and travels with about 20 pieces, she said. In addition to the Vertigo, recent acquisitions include a teacup ride purchased from a park in Texas that went out of business.
"We're the smaller carnival [mentioned by rivals]," she said, jokingly.