When Charles Panacek was still in college, his family got some devastating news. His father, who was also named Charles, had cancer. It was necessary for the elder Panacek to slow down, and his son had to quit school and take over the family business, Belle City Amusements.
It was a business started in 1948, not much more than a decade after the end of the Great Depression. The senior Panacek was only 17 when a friend of his was working for the county fair, his son said. His father would go out to the fair and hang out with his friend. It didn't take him long to realize that the people working in the traveling amusements business were making money, and he wanted to be a part of that. So the senior Panacek hitched up the ponies from the family farm near Racine, Wisconsin, loaded them on a trailer and started his own traveling amusement business. That was in 1941.
As time went by, he added elements to the traveling show, which he christened Belle City Amusements, naming the company for his native city. He joined the U.S. Navy near the end of World War II and spent almost four years in the service, his son said. In 1948, after buying more equipment, he incorporated Belle City Amusements. The late Charles Panacek Sr. has since passed away, but his son goes on with the business. It's one of the oldest single unit amusement businesses in the south east.
Belle City Amusements starts each year in January in Palmetto, Florida, to kick off the carnival season. The Manatee County Fair in Palmetto runs from January 17 to January 27. The company travels with "90 loads," said Panacek, including pickup trucks, box trucks, whatever they need to move.
"This is what I decided to do for a living," he said. "I enjoy it. Traveling around is always enjoyable. I like meeting new people and having new experiences."
Panacek travels today with his 88-year-old mother, Mary.
"She loves it," he said. She has friends all over the country. She's really enjoyed all of this traveling."
Panacek's son, Zachary, is the general manager of the show. And his daughter, Charlotte, graduated from college this past December with a degree in administrative nursing, and she plans to also enter the family business and become one of the traveling Panaceks. Belle City Amusements will now have its own medical expert on staff.
Belle City has "an array of spectacular rides," said Panacek. Each and every one of them is inspected every time the show sets up and again "every single day," he said.
One of the most spectacular rides on the midway is the Moonraker, and Belle City currently has the only one in operation in the entire country, said Panacek. It's a large spinning dish that raises the riders 60 feet into the air. The piece was built by SDC and originally owned by Jim Murphy's Mighty Bluegrass Shows. After spending nearly a decade off the road, the Panacek family purchased the ride two years ago and got it running again and it returned to the road last season.
The last show of the year that Belle City Amusements plays is in Jacksonville, Florida, and the company just got a 12-year extension on that event. Right now, Jacksonville is one of his favorite destinations because of the lucrative extension.
He said he also enjoys the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City. Panacek has many favorite destinations to choose from. The show moves from Palmetto, Florida to Port Charlotte, Florida in February and from there to Clewiston, Florida. The company is in Plant City at the Strawberry Festival in March. Also in March, Belle City Amusements visits the Sarasota County Fair in Sarasota, Florida. In April, it's on to the Flager County Fair in Bunnell, Florida. From April 23 through April 28, it's the World's BiggestFish Fry in Paris, Tenn.
The show plays Kentucky in June and July and by August, the company is in Iowa. Then it's back to Tennessee in September. By October, they are back in Florida and finally, to the Greater Jacksonville Fair in mid-November.
In early April each year, from January to April 1, the company takes a break and returns to its winter headquarters north of Orlando, Florida, a place Panacek calls home.
After the Jacksonville Fair, Panacek typically plans his annual vacation. He usually likes to leave the country for the holidays, he said, to go to a warmer climate. But the business won't be left far behind, at least, in his mind.
"We are always looking for new opportunities," he said. "We've added a lot of new equipment in the last five or six years."
About five years ago, Panacek purchased the Blue Grass Shows, adding many new fairs and events including the Iowa State Fair, Florida Strawberry Festival and the Jacksonville Fair. So fair, the purchase has been very successful.
"We have a great relationship with all of our fair partners," he said. "It just makes it enjoyable to be in the industry." The Panacek ponies from so long ago have been put back in the pasture, but the show must go on.