Dave Helm is the thinking man's carnival owner. He's also not afraid to speak his mind on occasion either.
Helm, the son-in-law of the late Larry Davis of Carnival Time Shows has seen great results by developing a customized kiddieland with specially-made rides for young children under 36 inches in height. Those kids may be too short to ride most kiddie attractions and Helm sees a significant niche to fill to prevent parents from walking off the lot with their family in tow because they feel they're not getting their money's worth.
In early August, Colton, Calif.-based Helm and Sons, owned by Dave and Debbie Helm had two smaller, separate Kiddielands operating at the Sonoma County Fair and the Ventura County Fair. He brands them both as Cub Country.
For the kiddieland at Sonoma County, the larger of the two spaces, Cub Country is also the name of the glass house designed to accommodate smaller tykes.
The Ross Owens piece, the centerpiece of eight to 10 rides at Sonoma, unfolds from 28 feet to 50 feet features a lower chassis for kids to go through on their own without fear of tripping, Helm said. The space was themed with animatronic animals at an event that draws 330,000. The show had 45 total pieces set up in Sonoma.
At Ventura County, Helm set up a mini Baby Raiders as the focal point of the custom Kiddieland. It was themed with characters from the Legos movie and made its debut that week on Helm's midway. It was a smaller lineup at that fair with five pieces, Helm said.
Both custom Kiddielands take two tickets for all rides, down from the three to five tickets for the bigger attractions.
"As it stands now, the industry is not in good position to do anything to accommodate tomorrow's kids," Helm said. "We need to create an opportunity for them because there is a huge demographic that fits into that category.
"The other day I stood outside my gate and caught a few people leaving ... young parents, 22 years old, with a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old and the younger one is screaming bloody murder because he's not tall enough for the rides," he said. "It's not right."
"We need to improve that situation and recognize [those age gaps] as carnival owners because the fair rarely takes the initiative," Helm said. " Most fairs coast on a carnival's back and are only interested in the bigger rides to trump up what's new on the midway."
So far, the 2014 season has been real good for Helm and Son playing its home state of California. The carnival picked up a new date, the Town & County Fair/Napa Valley Expo in Napa, Calif. "That's been a nice blessing," Helm said.
What hasn't been so good were the three jumps of 30 hours or more from the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar to Santa Maria, he said.
The show had 19 rides set up at Del Mar. The event closed on a Sunday and the carnival had to travel 550 miles, basically a full day of driving, to get all its equipment up and running by noon on Wednesday. Which actually meant everything had to be up by Tuesday "to let people sleep," Helm said.
Helm is big on sleep and the increased productivity from his employees after they've had a good night's rest. That's why he moves the show on Mondays to allow his workers to catch their breath before moving on to the next spot. He's been doing it for three to four years and it has paid off.
"I've seen the help drop off as the industry builds more larger, complicated rides," Helm said. "Teardowns of nine-and-a-half hours are the reward for working all day Sunday ... having to work until noon the next day. And drivers are driving tired."
In Helm's opinion, there's too much at stake to potentially put his workers and his operation at risk because they're not getting the proper rest. This year, the show has brand new bunkhouses that run generators even when the there is no power at the fair or festival.
"We have to treat them well at the bare minimum," Helm said. "I provide healthcare for the upper echelon but it's not Obamacare. We close at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday nights and go to bed by midnight. I've found tremendous success doing this and there's a lot less damage to the equipment."
He's a believer in employing internationals and this season Helm and Son has 85 mostly Hispanic individuals tied to H2B Visas working his midway. Only two failed the show's mandatory drug testing. Two brothers smoked a joint out back and somebody saw them and reported the incident.
They ended up being deported to Mexico. "I lost the best Zipper guy I ever had but it sent a message," Helm said. "I've had guys walk off in the middle of the night. But my turnover rate is not even a full 1 percent. On other shows, it's 7 to 8 percent."
At its peak, the carnival has 100 workers on site, and to provide further support and promote loyalty, show officials built a 53-foot-long commissary manned by three full-time cooks. Ten tables hold 80 diners at a time and the way it's set up, the commissary can serve two people at a time, Helm said.
It has two 47-inch televisions to satisfy the interests of the show's large Hispanic population that prefers watching soccer, while others can watch sports and other programming on the second screen.
A portion of the trailer has a three-stage washing tank and another section is reserved for safety meetings, Helm said.
The show hired a new safety consultant, Sergio Masdeu. Helm found Masdeu online and hired him after interviewing 19 people. Masdeu has a masters degree in industrial engineering and he performs a risk analysis of every ride.
He's helped the carnival tremendously by dealing with the dozen state departments it must comply with in the state of California, Helm said.
Masdeu has his own office in the show's winter quarters and travels to some of the bigger spots, including Del Mar.
"This guy took the bull by horns," Helm said. "He's one of the best hires I ever made. Amazingly, he worked at a salvage yard and dealt with metals and paint and everything else we use in our business. He has all the background to put me in a better light. He's now helping me with the DOT."
This year's new purchases include a Kite Flyer and seven new trucks equipped to meet the stringent air quality controls in California. The average price for the trucks was $55,000 and they should be compliant through 2021, Helm said.
It's a sore spot with Helm because some of the trucks he replaced were only 9 years old and had been well maintained over the past several years.
"To be told I can't use them because of their emissions was hard to swallow," he said. "I didn't want to make that investment."
In addition, the carnival is in the market to buy a Reverchon log flume ride. The show doesn't have one and Helm feels he needs to purchase one to compete with Ray Cammack Shows and Butler Amusements on the West Coast. Both have flumes, a $500,000-plus investment, Helm said.
"RCS took a date from me once and I told myself I would never be in that position to lose an event again," he said. "We move 58 rides not counting [a potential] flume. I already own a $400,000 crane for my four-trailer coaster."
Helm gives props to his son David Helm Jr. for running a tight ship. David Jr. and his wife Colleen are expecting a baby girl in January.
"From December until now, he's laid out the lot with absolute precision and met every challenge head-on," his father said. "He's 35 and in the prime of his life. He's been a miracle worker."