Three days into the Minnesota State Fair, a heat wave gripped the Twin Cities, bringing unusually warm weather to the Mighty Midway in St. Paul. The heat index surpassed 100 degrees on Monday, Aug. 26 and temperatures were expected to hover around 90 degrees for the remaining seven days of the event. The fair closes on Labor Day, Sept. 2.
The forecast was bad news for fair vendors, including Michael Wood, one of several carnival ride owners providing equipment for one of the top five-attended fairs in North America. On the food side, some observers speculated the stifling weather could result in a 15 percent to 20 percent loss of business for those selling chocolate chip cookies, cheese curds and sausage sandwiches, among other popular fare.
Steamy was not quite the word to describe the blanket of hot air that settled over the Upper Midwest in a region that typically begins to see temperatures start to drop around the first of September.
"An understatement, my friend," Wood said via email. "It's hot as hell!"
The Wood family, dating to the late Red Wood, Michael's father, has played the Minnesota State Fair since 1995, the first year it went independent after the old Royal American Shows held the contract for many years. Michael Wood was hard-pressed to recall a previous year when 90 degrees was the norm during the state fair. The weather is killing business for everybody with a big drop in daytime crowds, Wood said.
Wood Entertainment Co., booked seven rides in St. Paul: the Magnum, Techno Power, Area 51, Magic Maze, KiddinE Swing, Safari Train and Daytona. Wood's operation alone was 19 percent up in sales over last year through the first three days of the event until Sunday, Aug. 25, when the bottom fell out.
"We were running considerably ahead revenue-wise until [Sunday] when we gave back all we had and some on top of that," Wood said during a subsequent telephone call this week. "Even on Saturday, it was warm and in the 90s but people came out in force and the fair was up 22,000 in attendance."
That all changed Sunday when people stayed away from the fairgrounds to get some relief. "The fair was down 40,000 [Sunday] in attendance alone," he said. "All we can do is grin and bear it. We're here, we're set up and we have to make the best of it."
To survive the drastic change in temperatures, Wood Entertainment adjusted its ride crews' work schedule. They are all working 30-minute shifts followed by 30 minutes rest in air-conditioned trailers, Wood said. Wood employees normally work 90-minute shifts with a 30-minute break. They're all staying hydrated with plenty of water throughout the day, Wood said.
Outside of the weather, the fair has made its own adjustments over the years to provide for a better experience for fairgoers. Nineteen years ago, when the fair switched to an independent midway format, Red Wood, one of the carnival industry's most respected showmen, brought as many as a dozen attractions to the event.
A few years later, after Red Wood died in 1998, his sons Michael and Glenn, started reducing that number to what it is today, in part due to fair and carnival officials recognizing that setting up more rides does not always translate to greater revenue. Cluttering the midway with too many rides often results in empty seats, which does nothing but burn expenses tied to labor and ride operations, Michael Wood said.
Minnesota still showcases the best equipment in the industry but the reduction in the total number of attractions from 75 to about 60 has given those fortunate enough to book equipment at the fair more opportunities to make money, Wood said. New to this year's fair were Play World's Zamperla Air Raid, Reithoffer's Sky Flyer, Sky Attraction's Big Bamboo and Pacific Entertainment's Puppy Express (Wacky Worm).
The fair has also cut its operating hours a bit. The Mighty Midway now runs from 10 a.m. to midnight compared with 9 a.m. a few years ago. This year, due to the extreme heat, eliminating one hour of operations could make a big difference for those working the midway during the 12-day event.
Ironically, the Mighty Midway did not have a water flume ride this year, which would have come in handy with the heat. That's been the case the past four to five seasons, according to Wood. Those attractions are mostly owned by individual carnivals such as North American Midway Entertainment and Wade Shows which need them for the state fairs where they hold the contracts, he said.
Overall, the season has been mostly on par or slightly above last year for Wood Entertainment. Its Florida and California dates were up a bit and Texas held steady. The operation enjoyed an excellent run playing the 50th State Fair in Hawaii booking with E.K. Fernandez Shows. The carnival produces the fair and wood feels its owner Scott Fernandez is one of the smartest operators in the business.
"Even with no competition over there Scott does what he needs to do," Wood said. "He could take short cuts but he changes things up with promotions and the layout to keep it fresh. We were open at the Hawaii State Fair for six weekends, a total of 22 days, but the hours were short, 6 p.m. or 8 p.m. until midnight. For the most part, it's only open when the people want to come. It's an efficient business model."
Too many of the larger fairs in the country have rides operating at 50 percent to 60 percent capacity, and in the end, the efficiency issue will have to be dealt with one or another, he said.
"We risk our futures for little or no return and there is not a long list of young people stepping up to the plate to take over these shows," Wood said.
Wood Entertainment made money in Hawaii despite having to spend $80,000 round trip to ship four rides to Hawaii. Coming back to the Port of San Diego, Wood hired a trucking firm to bring the Area 51 to the Wisconsin State Fair in West Alis. All told, the excursion covered 2,500 miles of ocean and 2,200 highway miles in one has to be one of the longest jumps in North America.
The Wisconsin fair completed its second year as an independent midway, joining its sister state Minnesota in moving to that format. From Wood's perspective, West Allis is experiencing the same growing pains as St. Paul went through in making the adjustment from a single operator to several shows providing equipment on site.
After getting up and running last year, fair officials made tweaks to the ticket pricing structure to find out what the market would bear, Wood said. He did very well with the Area 51, a themed Starship that took four tickets to ride compared with five tickets for major attractions.
Wood Entertainment has held the line on ride purchases the past two years but did invest $350,000 in modern bunkhouses for its crews.
"Those people are our greatest asset and we've got to give something back," Wood said. Otherwise, "the business is stagnant, the only thing new is the LED lights," he said. "Fuel costs goes up and down and is tough to budget for. You figure it's going to cost about $2.50 a mile to move a semi-tractor trailer. If you move it yourself, you're just deferring costs. I hire a lot of contract trucks."
Click here to view photos from the 2013 Minnesota State Fair.