There's an old Clint Eastwood movie called "Thunderbolt and Lightfoot" making the rounds on television. In the film, the late Vic Tayback plays the owner of a construction company. His character barks at his workers, including a young drifter played by Jeff Bridges, to "work between the rain drops" during an early-morning storm.
Billy Tucker, owner of Dixieland Attractions, must feel his carnival is going through the same routine. To date, the Phenix City, Ala. show has been working through the rain drops for much of the 2014 season.
"The weather's been treating me like a baby treats a diaper," Tucker said. "We haven't been able to put together back-to-back weeks without rain. We catch one good week, then have two weeks of bad weather."
Early in the season, torrential rains forced the carnival to move some rides to solid ground in mall parking lots while other pieces sat on trucks waiting to move to the next spot after fairgrounds facilities turned into swamp land. The last-minute adjustments enabled Dixieland to salvage something in the midst of the rain drops.
Tucker hopes the weather clears as summer officially begins and the show heads into the heart of fair and festival season. After playing events during the first half of the year, the carnival moved to Tennessee for Summer Fest in Ashland City, a 30-minute drive northwest of Nashville.
Dixieland has booked the event for 19 years. The relationship between the show and the festival is so strong "it might as well be a fair," Tucker said.
The show will spend the Fourth of July at the Americana Celebration in White House, Tenn. before kicking off a string of new fair dates stretching across Tennessee and Kentucky. Dixieland picked up nine fairs in those two states from Myers International Midways after Myers made the decision to get off the road in 2014.
For Tucker's operation, if the numbers are right, about one-third of the dates represent a major upgrade over the spots they replaced on his route.
"We held on to the good spots and got rid of the weaker ones," Tucker said. "The dates are all new for me but we've played the area for many years. We hit spots within a 20-mile radius of some of these fairs so it's not new territory for us."
In addition to the new dates, Dixieland purchased seven rides and attractions from the Myers, including a Cliffhanger, Zipper, Area 51 and some inflatables. The Myers family remains in the business playing small festivals after scaling down its operation, Tucker said.
The economy is favorable when the storm clouds aren't trailing the carnival. "So far, every day I've had sunshine, things have been up a bit over last year," he said.
His customers must recognize a bargain for family entertainment. At a time when Disney theme parks are closing in on $100 for daily gate admission and its competitors such as Carowinds have increased prices for season passes, Dixieland Attractions has not raised its ticket prices in 10 years. Single ride tickets remain $1 and $10 for 12 tickets.
The show has also kept wristband prices stable at $20 for several events. At some of the bigger spots holding 40-plus rides, the show has bumped wristbands to $25.
"Out west, they're getting $30 to $35 for wristbands and only putting up 18 to 20 rides," Tucker said. "I don't want to price myself out of the market. As bad as I need to gross more money, I can wait one more year before raising prices."
Help has not been a problem. The carnival has more than enough bodies but the issue is getting all of them to share the load equally of getting the show up and down through the season.
"We have 50 people but six are doing all the work," Tucker said.
Employing enough qualified commercial truck drivers is another story. It's a never-ending battle with constant turnover, an issue experienced by many carnivals. Some CDL drivers have been steady workers but some of the newer ones don't always last despite getting paid good wages, Tucker said.
"Moving 300 miles from point A to point B is the hard part," he said.
"We took 67 loads to Tennessee. We have got to have these drivers."
Otherwise, state DOT officials have left the show alone this season. "We drive by and they wave at me," Tucker said. "We haven't had our first truck pulled over yet."
Tucker counts himself as one of the drivers in addition to serving as the show's "maintenance guy." His wife Stacey basically runs the carnival.
Their 18-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, owns and operates food concessions. She graduated early from high school and attended one year of junior college. This fall, Stacey enters Auburn University as a sophomore and will be studying economics.
The knowledge she gains studying the basics of business should pay off for the carnival in the long run. Elizabeth Tucker remains committed to her family operation, according to her father.
"She loves it and that's all she talks about," Tucker said. "She wants to finish college and her goal is to make this show get bigger and better."
In addition to the pieces acquired from Myers, Tucker bought a new Expo Wheel last fall that was on display for the Gibtown trade show in February. As a show owner, Tucker said he is always looking at new stuff like a kid in a candy store.
"But I'll be honest, with 31 rides, I have plenty of power for the spots I'm playing," he said. "My brother [Robby Tucker] works for KMG and he wants me to buy a Speed, another $1 million ride. I like the height of it and the light package. It's an impressive piece that nobody else in my area has."
To this point, Tucker has not decided whether to buy the spectacular piece, he said.
The family recently bought some property near Gibtown and the plan is to build a small shop to repair a ride or two in the offseason. Dixieland's main winter quarters are in Phenix City but the Tuckers spend a lot of time in Florida so it made sense to purchase the one-acre plot, he said.
Overall, the carnival business remains a decent way to make a living, Tucker said. "Our route is beautiful and there is money to be made," he said.