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Strates Shows celebrates 91st year on the road


By Don Muret

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. --- This year has proven to be a season of change for the James E. Strates Shows, the only carnival still moving equipment by railroad.

The Orlando, Fla. company, in the midst of its 91st year of operation, moves by rail less than half the time now over the course of its seven-month season. The biggest change is its employees no longer sleep in rail cars due to increased insurance costs, said Jim Strates, the carnival's president.

The increase in those rates revolved around the business classification tied to Strates' operation. CSX, one of three railroad companies the carnival uses to transport rides, considered the show to be strictly in the business of moving passengers, which it is not, according to Strates.

"We are not making money moving people," he said. "CSX asked for higher insurance limits and because we are using the railroad less overall, we decided to forgo bringing out the coach cars this year." 

As it stands now, Strates uses fewer than 45 rail cars to move equipment, down from about 60 over past years. The carnival also uses trucks to haul equipment over the road, something it has always done, he said.

This year, the show's workers sleep in traditional bunkhouses, saving the carnival $70,000 to $80,000 it would have paid the railroad in additional insurance premiums.

To this point, it is a temporary move and could change again next year depending on insurance costs, Strates said.

In addition to CSX, Strates Shows uses Norfolk Southern for some of its North Carolina and Georgia dates, including the Dixie Classic Fair here in Winston-Salem. Up north, the carnival travels with Conrail, which is jointly owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern.

The show's principals still feel traveling by rail is the most economical way to move long distances with lots of equipment. The downside are the fixed costs. Traveling shorter distances doesn't make it any less expensive for the show and it still takes time to load and unload rides, Strates said.

"If you're going long distances, you can overcome those fixed expenses pretty fast and you know where your equipment is at all times," he said. Traveling from Florida to New York state, no one can do it cheaper and more efficiently. No blown tires. Rail wheels last forever. Rail still has its niche."

By now, most in the industry are aware that Strates did not play the New York State Fair in Syracuse after an impressive run of more than 70 years playing the spot. Wade Shows took over the fair in 2014 after winning the bid through an RFP process.

To fill the void in late August through Labor Day, Strates booked some equipment with Harlan Bast in Fayetteville, N.C., in addition to playing the Lee Regional Fair in Sanford, N.C., a date it picked up last year, Strates said.

Overall, the weather's been good for most of the season with the exception of snow in April during the Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Fair, he said.

This year's Erie County (N.Y.) Fair marked Strates' 90th appearance at that event. It was also the fair's 175th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, officials decided to run free rides for the first 90 minutes of midway operations on Heritage Day, Aug. 14.

The promotion got the crowd out early on a Thursday and many families spent the entire day at the fair, resulting in the carnival setting a few records after the regular prices kicked in later on, Strates said.

"It was out-of-the-box [thinking] but every once in awhile you have to do something like that," he said. "Nothing on our end indicated it was a bad move."

Tightrope walker Nik Wallenda performed at the fair as well as part of the 175th celebration.

The State Fair Meadowlands, held in the parking lots surrounding MetLife Stadium, home of the NFL's New York Jets and Giants, proved to be a good date, Strates said. It ran for 17 days from June 20 through July 6. Amusements of America had the majority of rides there, he said.

In addition, the carnival's run at the Orange County Fair in Middletown, N.Y. was supported by a new race track as fair manager Mike Gurda uses motorsports, specifically sprint car racing, as an added attraction.

Racing is the primary attraction at Daytona International Speedway, where Strates set up about four rides in the infield during the Rolex 24, a 24-hour sports car event. It's held in late January, about a month before the Daytona 500. The show has booked it as a soft opening for about 10 yars.

The carnival provides a Ferris wheel, Sky Flyer and some kiddie rides to essentially "enhance the skyline with lots of flashing lights" to give the event a festive feel, Strates said.

At the Dixie Classic Fair, an event played by Strates since the early 1960s, the show set up 63 rides and attractions, including the Wave Swinger, a beautiful German piece. The scenery was repainted last year on a ride that dates to the early 1970s.

The piece can last for many more years "as long as you don't let corrosion ruin it," he said. "The hydraulics wear out but as long as the structure is solid you have nothing to worry about. That's a hallmark of German equipment. They're built heavier and are more durable, like the old Mack Himalaya."

In Winston-Salem, the carnival booked side show operator Jack Constantin. He rented 120 feet of midway space featuring oddities such as the World's Smallest Woman, Snake Child and Mule Face.

This was the fourth time this season Strates carried the side shows. "After they've played the same route for awhile, you have to switch up," Strates said. "Otherwise, it takes the edge off their product. It's a throwback to yesteryear."

The final dates of the season include the Georgia-Carolina State Fair in Augusta, Ga., the Southwest Georgia Regional Fair and the North Florida Fair in Tallahassee. Then it's on to Orlando for a Christmas event before getting off the road until Daytona in January, he said.

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