Belle City Amusements has signed a seven-year extension with the Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Fla. The carnival has played the event the past seven years after taking over the contract from Jim Murphy's old Mighty Blue Grass Shows.
This year's Strawberry Festival is March 3-13. The event, about 25 miles northeast of Tampa, historically draws more than 500,000 attendees. To meetthe demand, Belle City will field a strong lineup of 90 rides and attractions, including its Giant Wheel, which is typically the event's No. 1 attraction, said Charles Panacek, the show's owner/operator. Belle City's Moonraker, Rock and Roll Himalaya, Sky Wheel and two coasters, the Crazy Mouse and Zyklon, will help anchor the midway, Panacek said.
In addition, independent ride owner Michael Wood wil
l return to Plant City this year with his Magnum and Tecmo Power. Arnold's Amusements will book several pieces and Rio Cristiani will feature a pair of bumper boat attractions for kids and adults.
"It's a real good date for us," Panacek said. "They are good people to work with and they do a great job with the entertainment and promotions for getting people on the midway."
This year's midway promotions at the Strawberry Festival include $20 wristbands and a "Twosday," promotion on March 8, a day when single ride tickets are $2. The fair books several national acts and this year's roster features Charley Pride, Big & Rick, Josh Turner, Lonestar, Martina McBride, the Oak Ridge Boys, Tanya Tucker, Frankie Avalon and The Band Perry. For classic rock fans, Cheap Trick, fresh off being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, is booked for March at the festival.
Belle City carries about 50 rides. It kicked off the 2016 season at the Manatee County Fair (Jan. 14-24) in Palmetto, Fla., among the first fairs of the new year. "We had some some rain and now the weather's turned cold, and folks in Florida don't appreciate that, so it's been a little slow," Panacek said.
The good news is Belle City teamed with the Manatee fair to boost business on the only Tuesday of the event. It falls on the day after Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday when schools aren't in session and the midway is busy. Naturally, business tends to fall off the next day on a school night. To reverse the trend, the fair runs free gate admission on Tuesday and Belle City runs a $15 ride wristband. The fair specials were first implemented in 2015 and midway revenue increased by 35 percent to 40 percent, Panacek said.
Belle City's route covers Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, Georgia and Kentucky, plus Ohio and Iowa where it plays state fairs in those two states. The carnival holds the contract in Des Moines and supplements Amusements of America in Columbus. This year marks the ninth season Belle City has helped the Vivona family flesh out the midway in the Buckeye State with up to 25 pieces.
The Iowa State Fair is another former date held by Mighty Blue Grass Shows. The same holds true for the Greater Jacksonville Fair, a top 50 fair in North America, the Ark-La-Miss Fair and the Sarasota County Fair. Those three fairs are also part of Belle City's route, Panacek said.
The show has kept busy in winter quarters, refurbishing several kiddie rides, support trailers and the Zero Gravity, before taking the equipment back on the road again. Belle City is the market to buy some new rides and has is sights set on potentially acquiring two kiddies, a major and a spectacular piece. Panancek declined to mention any specific attractions until he's completed those purchases.
New tops for the Himalaya, merry-go-round and a remodeled front exterior to the show office are part of the show's refresh for 2016.
This year marks the third consecutive season Belle City is using the H2B visa program for international workers after dropping the service for several years. Carnival officials await the arrival of about 30 Mexican nationals. "Ours are late but we're still hoping we get them," he said.
Otherwise, the carnival has had good luck with with its domestic work force. "We keep a real good group of key people and treat them right by paying them bonuses at the end of the year," he said. "We use mainly Americans and don't have many problems on that end."
Panacek's two children play key roles in the operation. Zachary is the show's general manager and Charlotte runs the food concessions.
Oil prices continue to plunge downward, which is good news for the carnival industry that eats up a lot of miles on the road. As of late January, diesel gas in Florida ran slightly above $1.70 a gallon. "We hope it stays that way," Panacek said.