CHARLOTTE --- Amusements of America finally caught a break with some nice weather as the carnival makes it way through the Southeast region of the U.S.
The show's first unit set up 33 rides at an event called the Charlotte Fair, held May 2-12 at the Metrolina Trade Show Expo. After opening with chilly temperatures and rain the first weekend, the sun and warmth returned during the week with the carnival closing on a beautiful Mother's Day in the Queen City.
This was the second year Amusements of America has played the Charlotte Fair, promoted by Larry Linton, who runs a fair in Huntsville, Ala. Linton is a friend of Mark Lovell whose company, Universal Fairs, owns the Delta Fair & Music Festival in Memphis, a date the A of A plays in late July. It was Lovell who introduced Linton to the Vivona family, the carnival's owners, as he was looking for a show to book the spot, said Marco Vivona, co-head of the first unit.
Coincidentally, many years ago, Amusements of America played the same expo center grounds across the street, according to Phil Wilson, a veteran showman and independent ride owner booking with the carnival.
The Big A, as the show is known in the industry, has been on the road since the last week of March, where it played the Florence (S.C.) Civic Center in the city where the show spends the winter. From there, the carnival played festivals in Charleston, S.C., Boiling Springs, N.C., and the Sparkleberry Country Fair in Columbia, S.C.
The Charleston event was held at Boone Hall, a plantation and a major tourist attraction on the outskirts of the historic city that played a key role in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. In Boiling Springs, a small town in the foothills of the Ridge Mountains where Gardner-Webb University is located, concessionaire Ken Turner produces the event. Turner's hometown is Boiling Springs and he has always wanted to start a festival there, Rob Vivona said.
To date, the show has fought through some unseasonable weather, a year Wilson said has been the most unpredictable in recent memory. The good news is people show up when they know they have short window to enjoy themselves, said Rob Vivona, who runs the unit with his cousin Marco.
The carnival has several new pieces of equipment and renovated rides this year, starting with a Far West kiddie train made by Falgas, a company based in Spain. A new Wisdom Sizzler was expected to be delivered by the end of May. The Cliffhanger has new seats and the Fireball has new LED lights. The Tilt-a-Whirl and Rainbow Rock are undergoing major overhauls as well as the Ring of Fire.
In addition, Wilson introduced his new Wipeout, an attraction modeled after the popular ABC television show. It's an inflatable piece where participants stand on six pedestals as a mechanical arm moves in a circle underneath them. As the arm passes by, those six individuals must jump to avoid getting hit by the arm.
The Big A has also updated its canvas and rest areas with the show's red, white and blue color scheme.
At the Charlotte Fair, the first unit set up its Crazy Mouse, Giant Wheel, Wave Swinger, Wacky Worm and Musik Express. Weekday wristbands were $15 and weekend bands were $20.
From Charlotte, the show moved to the Chesapeake Jubilee, a four-day festival near Virginia Beach, Va. Over Memorial Day weekend, the carnival will set up in the parking lot at the Hampton Coliseum, followed by the Fairfax Fair in Fairfax, Va, near Washington D.C.
Then it's a long drive north to New Jersey for the Meadowlands Fair at MetLife Stadium in late June and over the Fourth of July. The Vivonas co-own the spot with promoter Al Dorso.
The season peaks at the Ohio State Fair, July 24-Aug. 3, a date Amusements of America has played for over 20 years. Then it's back south to play fairs in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. In Tennessee, Jeremy Floyd of the old Cumberland Valley Shows books a few rides with the Vivonas in his family's hometown of Lebanon.
The Vivona family has many employees that have been with the show for 30 years. Mike Inman is general manager of the first unit and Shirley Hodge is the office manager. Larry Hampton is concessions manager and Billy Costagliola is safety director. Tom McMorrow is chief mechanic.
Mary Guidroz also helps with the show's safety program by filing the requisite paperwork on rides and working with state inspectors. She's a certified instructor through the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials (NAARSO) and provides weekly instruction to the ride operators.
"She knows what to look for and has been a big help," Rob Vivona said. "We have four to five people with NAARSO certifications. The more eyes and ears you have walking around the better off you are."
Wilson books his kiddie bungee, water ball attraction and mechanical bull in addition to the Wipeout. Rio Cristiani, another independent, showcases a dark ride, a fun house and kiddie bumper boats.
Game concessionaires are Dale Bush, Dale Negus, Patti Thomas, Dave Delaver and Ben Ramey.
The show's biggest headache is getting enough qualified CDL drivers to move one of the biggest outdoor ride operations in North America. With 80 loads a week, the costs can range from $20,000 to $50,000 a date with fuel and wages, said Marco Vivona. Some drivers charge $3 to $4 a mile and states such as Virginia add charges on top of those expenses, he said.
"We're trying to hire more professional trucking firms," Marco said. "Rides are heavy and some drivers can't pull them. It's tough to budget."
This season is Amusements of America's 74th year of operation. Rob and Marco co-run the first unit, Morris, Jr., Morris, son runs the second unit and John Thomas, Phil's son, runs the show's winterquarters.
Over the years, the five Vivona brothers, Phil, father of Rob Vivona, Dominic, Marco's father, Sebastian "Babe", John and Morris operated the show. Now, only Morris, in his early 90s, Dominic, 81, and Phil, 77, still remain active in the business, following the deaths of John and Babe.
"They taught us a lot and help us when they can," Marco said.