COLUMBIA, SC - The South Carolina State Fair became a test site for North American Midway Entertainment's latest amenity for avid carnival fans.
The company's international unit introduced the Fast Pass, an upgrade for customers willing to pay an extra fee to bypass long ride lines. For $15, they get a special wristband and a lanyard with a hard plastic pass designating them as a Fast Pass user.
Riders must present both forms of identification before they are allowed through the gate to climb on a ride. The Fast Pass is good for the entire day, said Tony Diaz, general manager of North American Midway's international unit.
North American Midway installed exclusive gates for Fast Pass users marked with branded signs and red and black floor mats. The concept is based on the theme park model tied to paying a premium for convenience.
On the state fair's first Saturday, Oct. 15, the carnival sold a "bunch" of Fast Passes, according to Jeff Blomsness, the show's co-owner. Blomsness did not have an exact number to share, but he said the promotion was a big hit considering it was a soft rollout with no advertising specific to the Fast Pass.
For ride operators, the Fast Pass will take some getting used to, Blomsness said. Their focus is accommodating the primary line of customers and sometimes they tend to forget those standing in the Fast Pass line. That was the case on a few occasions on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, when the number of Fast Pass users was minimal at several stops along the midway.
The number of Fast Pass users allowed per ride is basically about 20 to 25 percent of overall ride capacity, Diaz said. North American Midway pays for the signs, fencing and banners.
Officials like the look of the midway with the added touch of convenience. Next season, the carnival's plan is to roll out the Fast Pass to other big fairs, including the Canadian route once held by the old Conklin Shows.
"It is the future," Diaz said. All amusement companies are looking for revenue without sacrificing customer service and this a perfect way to do that."
For the international unit, the season is almost over. Following the state fair, there were two dates remaining, the Coastal Empire Fair in Savannah, Ga., and a fall fair at a mall in Atlanta.
In early November, the show will start moving equipment to winter quarters in Tampa and Brooksville, Fla., Farmland, Ind. and McAllen, Texas, where Diaz lives.
All told, this year was the best in the seven years since four major carnivals consolidated to form North American Midway Entertainment in 2005, Blomsness said.
The 2011 season was the first under private ownership between Blomsness and Danny Huston, his business partner.
A strong economy in Canada was key to setting the benchmark. The oil industry continues to thrive in western Canada, including Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Diaz said.
The international unit carries 55 rides, 50 games and 15 food stands. At the South Carolina State Fair, Blomsness' All-Star Amusements added some attractions to increase the ride total to 72 for the marquee event.
A colorful new Curly Fries trailer, which the show purchased from Hitchhiker Manufacturing, stood out on the midway.
Independent concessionaires Tom and Linda Kelly, mainstays with All-Star in Chicago, were among the game operators in South Carolina.
For 2012, the international unit plans to add another spectacular ride, most likely another big coaster, Diaz said. It will join two other spectaculars, a flume ride and the Crazy Mouse.
In Columbia, North American Midway personnel worked with fair officials to improve the midway by creating another entrance and widening the pathways.
"We shook it up to make it more customer friendly," Diaz said. "The entry to kiddieland is more accessible to the main midway. These were things proposed by the state fair to improve traffic flow."
The show continues to use international workers from South Africa under the H2B Visa program. For most of those young adults, it will be their only opportunity to see North America before returning home in the offseason, Diaz said.
Those employed by the international unit get to see some of the most beautiful country in the world during the Calgary Stampede in Alberta. Every year, North American Midway takes a group to Banff, a rustic mountain town outside Calgary.
"The kids tell us they want to work for our unit because they heard about the trip to the mountains," Diaz said.