SHELBY, N.C. --- Reithoffer Shows bit the bullet on bad weather during its annual run at the Cleveland County Fair here. The effects of Hurricane Joaquin, coupled with a separate storm system that drenched much of North Carolina for the better part of a week, resulted in a washout over the first weekend and the fair's second Saturday.
Fair dates were Oct. 1-11. Wednesday, Sept. 30 was was the fair's sneak preview night. "We got in Wednesday and Thursday at the start of the fair, which are typically our weakest days," said Pat Reithoffer, the carnival's co-owner and head of the Orange Unit. "Friday and Saturday are traditionally our best days and and we didn't open at all. We've been getting through most of the year pretty good with weather. We got here, set up in the rain, and it started up again."
Thursday, Oct. 8 was a beautiful day, though, and gave fairgoers the opportunity to experience Reithoffer's full arsenal of attractions, including one of four portable roller coasters the show now carries over the road. The coaster here, a German piece, the Flitzer, with a racing theme, anchored the back of the midway, not far from the Dutch Wheel.
The show's newest coaster, a Zyklon, is booked with the Blue Unit run by Rick Reithoffer,Pat's brother. It was set up at the Georgia National Fair in Perry, running Oct. 8-18. The carnival got the Zyklon delivered in time for the New Mexico State Fair and is still in the process of racking it on trailers, Pat said. The show's other two coasters are a second Flitzer and the Crazy Mouse. At some point in time, the show could potentially set up all four at one time, Pat said.
New Mexico was the first time Reithoffer Shows played Albuquerque. The Blue Unit was there while the Orange Unit stayed east. "He made enough money to get out and back, and if you do that, it's successful," Pat said. "The price of fuel will eat you up with those long jumps. Rick played a music festival called Riot Fest in Denver during the trip. New Mexico is a long-term deal. We need one more spot to make things workable and come with some decent money."
The Orange Unit had its own new date this year, the Upper South Carolina State Fair in Greenville. It's a spot previously held by Jeff Brady's Playworld before Brady downsized his operation this year. For Reithoffer Shows, it filled a void in the route and has lots of potential, Reithoffer said. The carnival set up 35 rides in Greenville. The fair ran Aug. 27 through Labor Day, Sept. 7.
It marked a bit of change in routing. The Orange Unit made some adjustments, sending a few rides north to Connecticut and Maryland, and others to Lexington, N.C., where the Davidson County Agricultural Fair ran in late September ahead of Cleveland County.
Reithoffer Shows has been a fixture for more than 40 years at the Cleveland County Fair and show officials rely on a crew of young but experienced men to ensure the show sets up on time in Shelby. This year, the carnival made a 420-mile jump from Frederick, Md. to Shelby. Officials tore down at midnight on a Saturday and had 45 rides ready for operation at 4 p.m. the following Wednesday.
It's easier said than done in North Carolina, according to Reithoffer. He pointed to Jim Byrd, Tom Popovich, Travis Tubbs and Nick Alberts, plus his two sons, Ryan and Pat Reithoffer IV, as key personnel for transporting equipment. They all work together to move the Orange Unit as efficiently as possible.
"It's one thing to get set up in this state and another thing to get inspected, but all of our rides opened on time," he said. "These are mostly young guys but they're getting to know the ride inspectors. You've got to have stuff right."
This was the third year the Cleveland County fair ran under the management of Bobby Jenks, a former independent concessionaire. The fair teams with Reithoffer to run several gate and ride promotions to get people to the fairgrounds. The promos include Ten Buck Tuesday, when ride armbands cost $10, Dollar Day Monday, when all rides are discounted to $1 each and Half Price Sunday, when $9 admission is cut in half and kids 5 and under admitted free of charge.
In addition, they've experimented with Carload Days, when a car full of people is admitted for $50 to $60, covering the gate and the carnival. They're not re-inventing the wheel but doing their best to re-introduce people to the fair, Reithoffer said. "There's only one way to do that, make them a deal," he said. "There are families out there still having a rough time."
At the same time, fairs demanding a higher percentage of midway revenue remains a hot-button issue in some markets, Reithoffer said. "You can do a lot more with your stuff when you're not giving up high percentages," he said. "You can't give up more than 50 percent. Both of us need to stay in business."
Overall, lower fuel costs have provided relief for the bigger carnivals such as Reithoffer Shows. In mid-October in South Carolina, diesel prices had gone under $2 a gallon and regular gas has decreased to as low as $1.75 a gallon.
"Fuel is down, but everything else is up, especially ride parts," Reithoffer said. "You can't get them off the shelf anymore, you have to special order them and you can only carry so much stuff. You order it and hope it comes in a couple days."
In addition to the Zyklon, the Orange Unit bought a few new kiddie rides. For the Georgia National Fair, the carnival as a whole bought a sky ride system that it operates in Perry. "We just move the chairs [after the event], the towers stay there and the cables too," Reithoffer said. "It's for the older crowd. They like to see the fair from the air without having to walking it the entire time."
As the season winds down, Pat Reithoffer looks forward to going fishing in his home state of Florida. After Cleveland County, the Orange Unit had three more fairs to play before closing for the year: the Piedmont Interstate Fair in Pensacola (Oct. 12-18); Western Carolina Fair in Aiken (Oct. 22-31); and the Coastal Empire Fair in Savannah, Ga. (Nov. 5-15).
"I'll send Rick the rides he wants to use in the winter and store the rest," he said. "We'll do some rental work and start up again in March. We have equipment stored in Savannah as well as Jupiter (Fla.), and then head back north."