The Central Florida Fair gave Wade Shows an opportunity to work out the kinks of its new cashless midway.
The Michigan-based carnival first tested the system last fall at the South Mississippi Fair in Laurel, Miss., the last spot of the season for the 100-ride operation. The goal is to have all three units going cashless within the next three to five years, according to owner/operator Frank Zaitshik.
Until then, show officials are satisfied with using the technology on one unit headed by Jimmy Danton and office managers Sharon and George Parks. The carnival hired David Erickson, former manager of the Broward County (Fla.) Fair to help set up the wireless system with assistance from consultants Terry and B.J. Grace. Together, they will help educate and train Wade employees on the cashless program until show management is comfortable with running the system on its own, Zaitshik said.
Customer convenience is driving the show's decision to go cashless, he said. The technology also helps eliminate employee theft by reducing the amount of cash used to pay for games and food.
"We don't own our games but there is 10 percent to 25 percent leakage every year and if we can help our concessionaires eliminate those problems, they can gross more money, and in turn, pay more rent."
Wade Shows purchased the software and hardware from fellow carnival owner Ron Burback, whose Funtastic Shows has developed its own cashless midway over the past 12 years. In Orlando, fairgoers, using cash or credit cards, were able to purchase smart cards loaded with credit at ticket boxes on the midway. Every smart card has a bar code that is scanned by a portable device at each ride location, at which point the value of that ride is deducted from the card.
Halfway through the Central Florida Fair, an event that ran Feb. 28 through March 10, there were no glitches with the system, Zaitshik said. Any issues revolved around the inexperience of staff and the ride operators. Every day it gets better as employees become more familiar with the program, he said.
The biggest challenge is hard-wiring the system from the server trailer to the antennas that serve as wireless access points for the ticket boxes and rides, Zaitshik said. But the technology has greatly improved since the early days when carnivals first started going cashless. The old systems used to crash with regularity, he said.
Early in the season, consumer spending was holding its own in Florida. Wade kicked off the season at the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach, followed by the Florida State Fair and the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo. The carnival's Crazy Plane, a 27-year-old reconditioned piece, was selected as the best kiddie ride at the independent midway in Tampa. Wade Shows had 28 rides set up and was the No. 1 revenue producer among all carnival providers, Zaitshik said.
In Texas, the rodeo set an attendance record with 1.67 million attendance, primarily due to three weekends of decent weather. All told, the mood has been good with the public supporting traditional family fairs, he said.
The 2013 season will provide some watershed moments for Wade Shows. For the first time, the carnival will play the Nebraska State Fair and the Tulsa State Fair, a date subcontracted through Murphy Bros. Exposition. In Oklahoma, Wade will make the move 80 miles up the road to Tulsa after completing its run at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City, a longtime date. If that's not enough, Wade is also booked for three to four more fairs during that period in early October.
"We've got a plan," Zaitshik said. "At one point in our history, we did the New Mexico State Fair, Oklahoma State Fair and North Alabama State Fair, all at the same time from 1999-2001. We can accomplish something on that scale again. We'll bring in other companies. In Lumberton [North Carolina] we're partnering with Big Rock Rock Amusements, In Montgomery [Alabama] we use Tony Lowery and a few other operators.
"It's all under our control," he said. "We lay out the lots, provide the generators, ticket boxes and managers."
Most of Wade Shows' rides now feature LED light packages after the Giant Wheel and the Fireball were outfitted with LEDs. Combined, the investment to upgrade those two rides was $210,000, Zaitshik said.
The exception is the carnival's Mack Himalaya equipped with neon and traditional LS-14 bulbs. Officials prefer the softer look on that ride, he said.
Outside of improving existing rides, the show is looking for a third spectacular roller coaster to provide more wow factor, he said.
"We like to buy used rides when the deal is right because we have not found the right new spectacular yet," Zaitshik said. "We have a such a great maintenance facility, run by Gene Chaffee. We have repair and refurbishment capabilities for used equipment other companies just don't have. They come out on the road looking better than new. Our eyes are always open, looking for rides, new or used, to round out our inventory."
As for seasonal labor, the carnival's biggest challenge is fighting off the rules and regulations set by the U.S. Department of Labor regarding the H2B Visa program and wage scales, Zaitshik said. It's an issue facing all shows using international help.
"In our case, we are confident we can defend allegations a lot of those organizations tied to unions and labor activists throw our way," he said. "We have a 95 percent return rate for our H2B worker program, but with immigration reform and lawsuits, there is always the challenge of the unknown in the future."
CLICK HERE to view photos of Wade Shows at the 2013 South Florida Fair