Penn Valley Shows, a mid-size carnival owned by the Benner family, kicks off the 2015 season this weekend (April 25-26) at the Endless Mountains Maple Festival in Troy, Pa. Kerry Benner and his wife Christina own the Middleburg, Pa. company. They play about 25 events, all in Pennsylvania, covering a 40-mile radius between Harrisburg and Lancaster in the state's southeast corridor.
Kerry's father, Elwood Benner, now 81 years old, ran Benner Amusements, which eventually morphed into Penn Valley Shows. Kerry worked for his father before starting his own carnival in the early 2000s known as Mid Valley Amusements. in 2010, he reached an agreement with his father to incorporate the Penn Valley name for his operation.
Over the past five years, Kerry and Christina have grown their
operation from seven rides to 15 attractions they take over the road.
For this year, they bought two new Hitchhiker food trailers that will feature cotton candy, caramel corn, funnel cakes and pizza. After the maple festival, Penn Valley heads to Williamsport to play a fund-raiser for the local high school at Susquehanna Bank Park at Historic Bowman Field. The 89-year-old ballpark is the home of the Williamsport Crosscutters, a minor league baseball team that plays in the short-season New York-Penn League. The carnival will set up in the stadium's parking lot. The spot has been in the Benner family since the 1980s, Christina Benner said.
The show sets up in Harrisburg, the state capital, for both Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. For the Labor Day weekend, Penn Valley is booked at the Juniata County Fair in Port Royal. The carnival closes the season in early October at a fall festival in Canton.
All told, Penn Valley plays seven county fairs, a manageable number for the Benners. "It works for us and we've kept that niche," said Christina Benner, who's been working for her in-laws since she was 13 years old. She grew up in Middleburg and attended the same schools as her husband.
The carnival's centerpiece is a vintage Garbrick Wheel, produced by Garbrick Amusements & Manufacturing of Centre Hall, near State College, home of Penn State University. It's the first 16-seater Garbrick made in the late 1950s, according to Benner. Kenny Benner bought the piece in the 1980s and the family recently installed a new LED light package supplied by Denny's Electronics.
"We had it all redone," Christina said. "We really like it since it was made by a Pennsylvania based company."
In addition, the show's Gravitron has been re-themed as an Alien Encounter complete with LED lights. Its Paratrooper, purchased through used ride dealer Tommy Coffing, has been in the shop undergoing refurbishment.
Help is "horrible as usual," she said. "The typical carnival might have enough workers but we seem to always pull through. We have 10 to 15 workers we come back to between rides and games."
Key employees are Brett Klee and Scott Hassinger. Together, the two manage rides, food and games for Penn Valley. Both have worked for the carnival for the past six years.
Otherwise, the Benners' three children all work on the show and help out in most departments. Chase, 23, operates rides. Alyica, 22, manages the cotton candy trailer. The youngest, Chance, 16, runs the ticket box.
Chase and Alycia Benner own games. The family books a few independent food operators during the busy fair season, including Royer's Concessions.
The economy in Pennsylvania has been OK but the Benners say some locations are not as strong as others. The decrease in fuel prices across the country has helped offset the costs of doing business in general. Unfortunately, state legislators want to increase gas taxes again to help pay for road improvements, Christina said.
"We just had a 20 cent hike in January," she said. And, to this point, she said the carnival is not seeing the roads being repaired as a result of the initial tax increase.
Penn Valley keeps it simple with ticket prices, charging $1 a ticket. Wristbands typically cost $15 to $20, sometimes $10 depending on the date.
"Every fair is different," Christina said. "Some fairs are pay-one-price [including gate admission and rides]. Sometimes, we do specials with wristbands that come with $1 off for cotton candy."
This year, Penn Valley patrons craving the sweet will see the shiny new trailer. "We're pretty proud of it," she said.