PALATINE, Ill. --- Windy City Amusements is giving away a lot of teddy bears this season and it has nothing to do with the Chicago carnival's game operation.
The plush promotion is tied to the show celebrating its 40th anniversary this season. At each spot this year, Windy City is distributing free teddy bears adorning its logo to physically disabled children on Special Needs Day as well wristband promotions throughout the season. For the Salerno family, the show's owner, it's a feel-good moment and reminds them of all the hard work they've put into the business, according to brothers Tony and Mike Salerno.
Forty years ago, Anthony Salerno Sr., now 87 and retired, founded the show with a few rides, plus food and game concessions. The carnival has grown since 1977 to become one of
the biggest single-family owned shows in Chicago, at one time featuring 60 rides, 30 games and five food trailers spread out among three units, and on rare occasions, a phantom fourth unit. Now, the show has consolidated into two 20 ride units. The first unit is operated by Tony Jr. and Mike Salerno, with Rusty Humphrey serving as the ride superintendent and Samantha Salerno as concession manager. The second unit is headed by Mark Salerno, his son Adam as ride superintendent, and Mark's daughter Annie managing the food concessions. The first unit office is managed by Denise Weinman and Timmy Nelson manages the office on the second unit.
"We were [among] the only companies that at the time we ran 100 percent of all aspects of all three carnival units, and we still do after 40 years," Tony Jr. said. "Not too many carnivals can say that."
At the Palatine Hometown Fest here, a Fourth of July week event sponsored by the local Jaycees, Windy City has been a fixture for more than 30 years, Mike Salerno said. The lot is tight, though. Windy City squeezed 20 rides, three food stands and 10 games at a city park. The main attractions were the Freak Out, Fireball, a tower swing ride from ARM themed the Skyrider and the Zombie Hotel, a re-themed Funni Frite fun house.
On July 3, the night Palatine officials designated for fireworks, the midway was jammed in anticipation of one of Chicagoland's most spectacular holiday displays. Mike Salerno's two sons, Nick, 13, and Anthony, 10, helped their dad count the money in the show office. Overall, business is good this season, Mike said. People are spending money, and halfway through the season, most spots are up.
Windy City Amusements, like most Chicago-based shows, plays a "40 miler" route tied to Geneva, Ill., the western suburb where most of the Salerno family lives. This year, though, the Mendota Sweet Corn Festival, scheduled for Aug. 10-13 and a new date for Windy City, is an 80-mile jump, doubling the mileage compared with most events.
The way the calendar played out this year, the carnival was able to pick up the date without losing a spot, Mike said. Mendota officials signed a multiyear deal with Windy City after first visiting the show in South Elgin in 2016. The carnival will set up 18-20 rides in Mendota and run discount armbands at night, according to the event website.
Single tickets cost $1 and wristband promotions range from $25 to $30 depending on the time of day.
Over the past 15 years, Windy City has revamped its route to the point that it plays just one city of Chicago date. It's a Memorial Day spot at Lane Tech High School, about two miles west of Wrigley Field. The carnival has played the school over the past decade, and a few teachers and coaches provide security. No Chicago police are needed to patrol the lot, which is not the case across the city at other events booking carnivals, he said.
In terms of equipment, Windy City upgraded two attractions, the Zero Gravity and Cliffhanger, by trading older models for new ones. Both pieces are expected to be delivered in August. In addition, the show purchased a new ARM Rock Star, set for delivery next April.
The Freak Out has been a mainstay for three years now. The show's Vertigo (Sky Rider) is in its second season of operation. Separately, the carnival acquired nine new Ford 450 pickup trucks to haul equipment, a long overdue upgrade, according to Salerno.
The Zombie Hotel, meanwhile, is a colorful piece and it was Tony Salerno's idea to re-create the old Funni Frite ride with the Walking Dead characters dominating the airwaves these days. The ride was re-skinned and a new smoke system was installed at the show's winter quarters in Aurora, Ill. Amusement Wraps, a company owned by Chuck Wheeler, completed the graphics package. Chuck also designed a custom front for their second Funni Frite Fun House, themed the Madagascar Fun House, which features a jungle theme with colorful jungle animals. The Fun House was featured on the 2016 season finale of Fox's hit TV series, "Empire".
After the season, the show expects to make some new purchases after seeing what's new at the IAAPA show this fall, most likely trading in more old equipment to modernize the show, Mike Salerno said.
Help has been a grind, as it typically is for many carnivals. It helps that Windy City is one of the few shows that puts its seasonal workers in apartment buildings, a luxury compared with bunkhouses. The show has been doing it for 10 years now, due in part to the lack of space to set up living quarters at most events, he said. The apartment complex has showers and 24-hour service for washing clothes.
But even with that amenity, it's difficult to find bodies, and that's why the third unit has mostly become a thing of the past, Salerno said.
Personally, Mike Salerno recently bought a new home in Geneva closer to his parents' house. He's excited for the move and for his kids to be just a little more accessible to their grandparents.
And after 40 years, their father looks forward to one day maybe being able to take some time off in the summer and spend time with his children apart from the carnival midway.
"I've never had a summer vacation," Mike said. "I'm 53 now and I've been out here since I was 5 years old. It would be nice."