Gold Star Amusements has greatly expanded its operation over the past two years and plans to split into two units for several dates this season, according to Richard Hanson, a spokesman for the show.
Mike and Connie Featherston own the carnival. The show calls Coon Rapids, Minn. home but it also has a major presence in Greater New Orleans, where the carnival has its winter quarters. Gold Star opens and closes the season in Louisiana before coming north to play county and state fairs in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa.
Separately, the Featherston family runs Gold Star Manufacturing out of the old Sellner plant in Fairibaut, Minn. Gold Star Manufacturing produces replacement parts for the Tilt-a-Whirl and other spin rides Sellner made for decades before the company filed for bankruptcy. Larson International purchased Sellner's assets in 2011.
This year marks Gold Star's 23rd season of operation. Connie Featherston's late father, Jack Thompson, ran Jack Thompson Shows for several years and he also owned an amusement park in Chicago. Mike originally met Connie when he was selling lemonade shakeups as a summer job and traveled to Texarkana as part of her father's show.
All told, Gold Star now boasts 35 rides and attractions after purchasing a new carousel, slide, second office trailer, popper and funnel cake wagon. Those pieces of equipment help anchor the second unit.
Among the new dates to support the second units are two county fairs in Austin and Albert Lea, Minn., and Winona (Minn.) Steamboat Days. Gold Star also picked up the International Rice Festival in Crowley, La., one the largest agricultural events in the south, Hanson said. The Louisiana route includes the Beauregard Parish Fair and the Cotton Festival, two dates Jack Thompson Shows played years ago.
Gold Star is about six weeks into its season and recently finished a strong run at the Walker County Fair in Huntsville, Texas. A second unit was still playing dates in New Orleans until moving north in mid-May. Two units will operate in the upper Midwest through the end of July before they merge at the Olmstead County Fair in Rochester, Minn., home of the world famous Mayo Clinic.
From there, the carnival moves west to South Dakota to play the state fair in Huron and a festival at the Corn Palace in Mitchell. The show dips into Iowa for the Clay County Fair in early September, one of the state's strongest agricultural events. This is the fourth year Gold Star has provided the midway in Spencer, Iowa, Hanson said.
Clay County draws 300,000 attendees annually. The same is true for the Steele County Free Fair in Owatonna, Minn., Hanson said. It's hard to believe a town of 15,000 draws that many visitors, he said. "They have a huge committee with a lot of volunteers serving on the board. You don't find many fairs like it. It's one of the few left with free admission."
Last season, after a very wet spring, the weather turned around and Gold Star set ride gross records at Steele County, Clay County and the South Dakota State Fair, Hanson said. In Owatonna alone, the show sold more than 5,000 Megapasses.
The Featherstons' three grown children, Melissa, Jessica and Mike Jr. are all involved in the family businesses. Melissa has a college degree in music education. She married Adriaan Erasmus, a South African who originally came from overseas and was working for another carnival before he met his future wife.
Jessica studied sports medicine at South Dakota State University. She and her husband, Kenny Bessette, travel with the carnival.
Mike Jr. works at the manufacturing facility in Minnesota, where he's keeping busy refurbishing rides such as E.K Fernandez Show's Pharaoh's Fury, Hanson said.
Gold Star employs about 40 South Africans through the H2B Visa initiative and it works out well, Hanson said. The show uses temporary labor agency New Horizon to hire those international workers. The carnival also uses that many Americans every season, he said.
Key personnel include Ryan Bessette, Leo Kerwan, John Kennedy, Billy Bell and Wanda Folks. Bessette moves the YoYo. Kennedy does the same thing for the Century Wheel and serves as show mechanic. Bell maintains multiple rides. Folks operates food concessions and handles DOT paperwork. Kerwan fills the role as show supervisor, Hanson said.
Angelo Rosati Sr. and his son, Anthony, book games with Gold Star. The Featherstons own the food operation doing business as Lee's Concessions. The title reflects both Mike and Connie's middle names, Hanson said.
Hanson, a former carnival concessionaire books dates and handles Gold Star's marketing and public relations, a job he has done for the past 12 years. Single ride tickets still cost $1 on Gold Star's show. Family packs of 50 coupons cost $45. This summer, the carnival will increase its armband special from $20 to $22 and $25 depending on the spot, Hanson said.
In Huntsville, for example, armbands went up from $20 to $25 on the weekend and Gold Star kept the price at $20 for the week, which drove business for weekday sales, he said.
"To compensate for the increase, we will go from four-hour to five-hour sessions," Hanson said. "We do very few all-day passes." The exceptions are Clay County and South Dakota, where an all-day pass costs $25. Several fairs use the Megapass model good for the entire event, he said.
The Featherstons continue to count their blessings two years after Connie suffered multiple injuries in a bad car wreck in March 2010, driving from Minnesota to Texas to meet up with the show. She fell asleep at the wheel while going through Missouri and her vehicle flipped multiple times, Hanson said. She spent many months in rehabilitation and still has some soreness from the accident. Otherwise, she's fine, he said.