|Exclusive News and Interviews
Houghton holds the line on ticket prices for 2013
Show to upgrade Gravitron to Alien Abduction
By Don Muret
Jim Houghton had a tough decision to make for the 2013 carnival season.
The owner/operator of Houghton Enterprises, a mid-size show based in Chester County, Pa., decided to hold the line on ticket prices again this year. Midway patrons will pay $20 for wristbands, the same price it has been for the past four years.
Houghton discussed the issue with his family and they were in favor of raising the cost to $25. The pay-one-price promotion represents 60 percent of the carnival's ticket sales.
"I shot it down," Houghton said. "I'm just a little leery of what's going on with the federal government. I don't know what the hell is going on with [sequestration]. And fuel prices are getting crazy again."
Houghton Enterprises opens the season March 13 at a firemen's festival in Norwood, Pa., a community a few miles south of the Philadelphia airport. Two weeks later, the carnival moves to south Philadelphia to play an event supporting the Boys & Girls Club, not far from the sports complex where the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and Sixers play. It will be the 37th consecutive year the Houghton family has played that spot, which is also a two-week event.
By the time those two dates are completed, Houghton will get a better sense of how his labor situation will shake out for the rest of the season. There has been no shortage of interest in jobs, he said. The show had 50 applications filed online after placing an ad in the local newspaper. Houghton has heard from former carnival workers without jobs who told them they are losing their homes and cars.
"It ain't pretty out there," he said.
In the rough-and-tumble world of the traveling amusement business, though, Houghton Enterprises is doing fine. The show was incorporated in 1980 and Jim Houghton has owned equipment since the early 1970s. Houghton and his wife, Gladys, started with 10 rides, a few games and funnel cake and cotton candy concessions. Over the past 30 years, the show has expanded to 26 rides, 15 to 20 games and 10 food stands.
Their two sons, Jimmy Jr., 36, and Jason, 35, own all the games and food. Their father started in the business when he was 11, helping to move a pair of Eli Bridge wheels on weekends in the Philadelphia area. Jim Houghton then started selling tickets before "graduating" to to selling cotton candy and operating kiddie rides.
This season, the family purchased two new Moonwalk bounces and a used Gravitron from Wisdom for the second unit. The show also improved its electrical system with the purchase of some new Gull Wing generators and boxes. In addition, Houghton overhauled the show's Zipper from top to bottom at winter quarters in the family's backyard.
Wisdom took back the show's old Gravitron and is reconditioning and retheming it as an Alien Abduction. Houghton hopes to get the piece back by the end of the 2014 season.
Houghton Enterprises has enough rides for the show to split into two units about 15 times a year. Most of its dates are tied to long-time relationships dating back 20 to 30 years. The carnival plays the Devon Horse Show and County Fair over Memorial Day weekend, an event that draws 115,000 attendees over five days. At the same time, Houghton's second unit plays a still date in Clifton Heights, Pa.
The show plays the Fourth of July at a fireman's fair in Parkesburg, Pa. Its Labor Day spot is the Kiwanis Wyoming County Fair near the Pocono mountains. For the month of October, the carnival plays a haunted mansion in Middletown, Del.
The show experienced a good start and good finish in 2012 but the middle portion of the schedule was below par, Houghton said. The dates that were down were city spots in Philly that draw a lot of blue-collar families who weren't spending their money. The situation improved after the show started playing events in Pennsylvania farm country, he said.
This offseason, Houghton has seen more new cars on the road, an encouraging sign that the economy is improving, he said. Also, Walmart is opening four new superstores within 20 miles of his home, halfway between Philadelphia and Lancaster, Pa.
"That's our customer," he said. "I just hope they save some money for us."