WAUCONDA, Ill. -- A brisk Thursday night crowd was a good sign for Skinners' Amusements as it settled in to play Wauconda Fest in this far northwest Chicago suburb.
On opening night, June 26, the lines were 20 deep for Skinners' funnel cake trailer and teen-agers were testing their thrill capacity on the Zero Gravity and Cliff Hanger, two rides sparkling with new LED light packages. The carnival has played Wauconda for about 20 years. This year, the event celebrated its 35th anniversary.
The show's Ferris wheel also stood out with striking light patterns powered by LEDs. Two years ago, the Skinner family spent $80,000 to outfit the wheel with new lights. Since that time, the carnival has gradually upgraded other rides with LEDs. Its new Dartron Cliff Hanger is the first piece factory-produced with the new lighting system, according to Doug Skinner Sr., the show's co-owner.
"We're doing it for the looks but it's also supposed to save us money on energy" compared with traditional bulb systems, Skinner said.
The carnival has purchased LED packages from both Rides-4-U and Denny's Electronics.
This year, the show introduced a new automated ticket dispensing system to speed up the process for purchasing ride tickets. Carnival officials set up two machines plus an ATM because the system only accepts cash, said Pat Skinner, Doug Sr.'s wife and the show's co-owner.
"You would be surprised how many people don't bring cash to our events," she said.
It has worked well so far this season and "nobody has to go potty," Pat said, referring to people working traditional ticket boxes. The dispensers are in a separate location from the main ticket boxes and the machines do not administer wristbands. Customers must buy those at the main boxes, she said. Uni-Glide made the dispensers.
Here at Wauconda Fest, Skinners' ran two wristband specials. The show typically charges $20 for a four-hour period and sometimes reduces the price to $17, Pat Skinner said.
For 2014, the carnival increased by one the number of tickets required to ride all of its attractions. Kid rides now take three tickets. It takes four tickets for intermediate rides and five tickets for thrill rides. It's been 15 years since Skinners' Amusements raised its ride prices and there have been no complaints this season, she said.
The economy overall is fine and even during the downturns, carnivals have proven to be recession-proof as families seek a diversion from their everyday problems, Skinner said.
The show debuted four new pieces of equipment in 2013, including the Zero Gravity. The Sizzler, Frog Hopper and Lolly Swing are also new, joining a lineup of 25 rides traveling over the road in northern Illinois.
Skinners' has been going strong since the company was founded in 1910 by Doug's ancestors. Doug Skinner Jr., and his wife, Renate, are principally involved with the operation as well as their children. On opening night, Doug and Renate were cranking out the funnel cakes for a hungry crowd.
Pat Skinner's grandson, Jered While, books games with the carnival and he partnered with Bill Thornberry to buy a new Bottle Up game. Billy Wilson, another independent, has two game concessions.
They join longtime game concessionaires Paul and Peter Kasin at Skinners' spots. The Kasins have a strong relationship with the show dating about 40 years. Here in Wauconda, Peter worked the derby, his wife Margaret ran the duck pond and their daughter Jackie operated the shooting gallery. Separately, Paul Kasin ran his basketball game. Together, the brothers own about 10 games.
Together, the Kasin family pulls its weight on a close-knit show where everybody helps get it set up and torn down. "Peter and Paul help us a lot," Doug Skinner Sr. said. "If you don't work, you don't play."
After finding a large hole on its schedule in 2013 when the On the Waterfront festival in Rockford, Ill. went out of business, Skinners' Amusements partially filled it by booking a few pieces at the Rockford Speedway. This year, the show will play the racetrack again for a second year as event officials build it up with some concerts and auto racing.
The carnival sets up 12 to 15 rides in the track's parking lot. The Skinner family helped create the event last year after Pat Skinner contacted a friend who works at the speedway. Together, they developed a three-day event over Labor Day weekend.
Elsewhere, the carnival still plays three strong fairs in Lake, McHenry and Boone County. The Lake County Fair in Grayslake was a fixture for many years and moved to a different property about five years ago after a switch in leadership. The new location is closer to Mundelein and officials have brought back the rodeo, fireworks and more advance promotions to help boost attendance, Pat Skinner said.
"It was one of the best county fairs in Illinois and we're trying to build it up again at the new spot," she said. "McHenry is coming along very well and Boone is always great."
The show played the Mundelein Munch over the Fourth of July weekend, an event it has ties to dating 30 to 40 years ago. The Skinners initially booked rides with the Dispensa brothers, a name familiar to veteran Chicago showmen. The brothers originally held the Mundelein contract and Skinners' Amusements took it over when the Dispensas went out of business.
The carnival's season winds down with a few Halloween dates, including a four-week run in Rockford sponsored by the local park district.
The Skinner clan still relies on local labor to help run the show and "sometimes there is too much help and sometimes too little," Skinner said. "We have no foreign labor. We have thought about it but what we are doing right is working."
The company runs background checks and drug tests like other shows and each week it sends the local police departments a list of its employees to ensure all workers are cleared to work, she said.