It's throwback time for Astro Amusements. Tom Thebault, General Manager of the Astro unit, has re-themed an old Wisdom Himalaya as the Amor Express, creating a sparkling replica of a popular ride that ran for the show in the 1970s and '80s.
Astro, which is part of North American Midway Entertainment, debuted the upgraded piece over Memorial Day at a festival in Schaumburg, Ill., a northwest Chicago suburb. Officials invested about $80,000 to refurbish it over the past offseason. The original Wisdom factory scenery, rotting over the years, was eliminated. The ride was re-skinned and re-wrapped with new vinyl and graphics applied by industry professional Chuck Wheeler of Amusement Wraps.
Astro bought the Himalaya in 1997 and as show officials were planning to refurbish it the big question was whether to continue with the same theme or come up with something completely different.
"We spend a lot of money re-doing rides, our thinking was 'Why do the same thing over?,'" Thebault said.
He came up with a novel idea by re-theming it as a piece that was affectionately known as The Love Machine during a time when disco music ruled the airwaves. The phrase was spelled out in lights on the original and the new one.
Thebault's father, Steve, founded Astro Amusements in 1973 and bought the Amor Express, a Himalaya-style attraction, three years later in 1976. Tom, who grew up working on the carnival, has fond memories of the piece and thought it would be cool to develop a modern version for millennials to enjoy.
The original ride, produced by SDC of Italy, was one of just two of its kind imported to the U.S., according to the Thebaults. The Amor Express was transported on two trailers and it was labor intensive to set up. Each ride car had nine components and required an "assembly line mentality" to put it together, according to the description on the 'war box" on the new ride, which is the enclosed space where the ride operator sits.
The theming of the original Amor Express drew a lot of attention in the Chicago market. It had a three-dimensional heart as a centerpiece instead of the mirror ball common with other Himalayas. The Love Machine tied into the disco music scene in the 1970s. Love Machine was also a hit song released by The Miracles in 1975.
Back then, midway patrons formed an emotional attachment to the ride and would follow it from location to location, Thebault said. Over time, they grew to love the ride for its music and speed. At one point, it became so popular that Chicago magazine carried a story on the Amor Express in September 1985.
"People in Chicago never saw anything like it," Tom said.
But there was one part of the old Amor Express that felt out of place to the Thebaults. When the ride first arrived in Chicago about 40 years ago, there was a large image of the Taj Mahal inside the ride, which got Steve scratching his head because he felt it didn't fit with the ride's decor. They repainted that portion of the ride with rock and roll scenes and dancers, something more appropriate for the time, Tom said.
The new Amor Express has the newest LED technology and it puts on a great light show as it whisks riders around the track, he said.
Separately, Astro acquired a Persian Camel fun house and upgraded it, again, with work done by Chuck Wheeler. It's been re-themed as a 70s-era dance club called Midnight at the Oasis, the name of a hit tune by Maria Muldaur in 1973. It essentially provides the carnival with a nice book-end piece, thematically, to the Amor Express.
The Oasis playlist extends to the 1980s, Thebault said.
In addition, the show purchased Zero Gravity a few weeks ago to replace its Gravitron.
The Astro unit maintains its route in Chicago over the spring and summer months before embarking on its fall route, teaming up with other NAME units. After Labor Day, Tom Thebault helps operate midways at state fairs in Kansas and Mississippi, plus the East Texas State Fair in Tyler.
In Chicago, the economy is strong and when the weather held over the spring, people showed up , Thebault said. Over the past few weeks, fuel prices are going up after being fairly cheap for a long time. The warmer it gets, the more gas prices increase, he said. In late May, regular gas shot up 22 cents a gallon. Diesel is still not bad at about
$3.65 a gallon.
Astro's unit managers are Wes and Bridget Sparks and Pat Repp. Dennis Conkey, an Astro Amusements employee since the show began 42 years ago, runs the fair unit. Gary Coffey is the carnival's ride superintendent.