Charles Panacek sees the steady drop in fuel prices across the country, which in some states have now fallen below $2 a gallon for regular gas heading into the new year. The owner/operator of Belle City Amusements hopes it's a good omen for the upcoming carnival season.
Florida-based Belle City, embarking on its 67th season of operation, is among the early birds hitting the road in 2015. After enjoying a two-month break dating to mid-November, the show kicks off the season at the Manatee County Fair (Jan. 15-25) in Palmetto, Fla. Arnold Amusements will bring some rides as well to the Manatee County Fair, Panacek said.
"We just fueled up all the trucks and diesels running $2.74 a gallon," he said. "It hasn't been that low in five to six years. Of course, the day I bought Blue Grass Shows [in 2008], it seemed that prices shot up by $2 a gallon."
All kidding aside, Belle City officials and the carnival industry in general should be happy to see fuel prices drop to below even pre-recession levels, anything to motivate families to jump in their vehicles and head for the local fairgrounds.
"We did fairly well last year and had a decent season," Panacek said. "But the cost of doing business is still very high, especially anything related to transportation, maintenance and trucking. There was a slight increase in [consumer] spending last year and we're just hoping it continues to get better, especially if fuel stays low."
The carnival stays entrenched in Florida until early April, playing five additional fairs as well as the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City (Feb. 26-March 8), one of its biggest dates of the season and an old Blue Grass standby.
Belle City then goes back to winter quarters in Longwood, Fla. for the better part of April and May for ride maintenance and plays a few spots closer to home before heading out again in June for dates in Kentucky and Tennessee. Its schedule is similar to what Mighty Blue Grass Shows did during its heyday, essentially splitting the season into two halves, according to Panacek.
For Belle City, the route stays pretty much the same this year with the exception of one new date, the Cumberland County Fair (Aug. 24-29) in Crossville, Tenn. It's an event Belle City used to play several years ago but gave up after purchasing Blue Grass. After an absence of five to six years, Belle City was able to re-arrange its route and dropped a smaller date to pick up Cumberland County, Panacek said.
The Panacek family now carries 50 rides and attractions and stays intact as one unit for most of the season. Show officials are talking to some European ride manufacturers about potential ride purchases but at this point no decisions have been made for acquiring new equipment.
"The cost for new rides is extremely expensive and a lot of them these days come from Europe," Panacek said. "As weak as our dollar is overseas, that doesn't help."
One recent noteworthy addition to Belle City's lineup is its refurbished Moonraker, a piece it bought from Blue Grass apart from the route and other assets purchased seven years ago. It's one of only two such rides in the world, Panacek said.
The three-trailer ride takes up a large footprint, holds 40 people at a time and takes five tickets per rider. Separately, Belle City is updating its Zamperla Crazy Plane, Typhoon and Scooter, he said.
The second half of the season includes state fairs in Ohio and Iowa, plus the ArkLaMiss Fair in September and the Greater Jacksonville Fair in November.
Belle City has been booking rides at the Ohio State Fair for about eight years after combining efforts with Amusements of America, the holder of the midway contract in Columbus. This year, Belle City will bring about 25 pieces to Ohio before bringing its full contingent to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, another old Blue Grass account.
Ticket prices will stay the same in 2015. The show will charge $1 for single tickets with rides taking three to five tickets. Belle City's armbands range in cost from $15 to $40 depending on the spot and day of the week.
The high-end price is an upgrade for patrons who prefer to keep riding past the hours of promotion. Belle City officials have seen an uptick in revenue for those willing to pay more money for the additional hours, Panacek said.
"My philosophy is I would much rather have the volume instead of raising ticket prices," he said. "We keep prices reasonable and in turn keep the revenue where it needs to be."
Panacek's two children play key roles in carnival operations. Zachary, 29, is the show's general manager. Charlotte, 24, is the food manager and oversees all the trailers tied to that piece of the concession business.
Jerry Sears is Belle City's long-time electrician. His wife Tabitha serves as office manager. Former Blue Grass employee Nick Viscomi is Concession Manager.
Belle City returned to using international workers this past season after dropping the program for several years. It worked out well in 2014 and the Outdoor Amusement Business Association continues to work with shows to make it worth their investment, Panacek said.
"Immigration is at the top of every politician's list and we'll see what happens down the road," he said. "We have to pay prevailing wages in the communities we play and most of our full-time employees are making more than that anyway."