Hook them in when they're young and you'll have them for the rest of their lives.
The majority of fairgoers who make their state fair an annual event are often motivated to revive happy childhood memories of being on the midway with their parents. What's old is new again, because many fairs and carnival companies have refocused their attention on the young family market.
Many in the fair industry, recognizing a demographic trend that indicates an uptick in younger fairgoers, have been cultivating how they appeal to younger families in the post-recession (although still shaky economy), 21st century.
Growing Kids Market
To make their fairs more young family appealing, fairs are both expanding midway Kiddielands and finding new ways to appeal to younger families, i.e., parents with toddlers, tweens (and pre-tweens). In addition, when carnival companies augment their ride inventories, it's through an influx of rides for the non-thrill set.
Catering to families is far from a new phenomenon for fairs, but the fresh buzz and renewed energy about young families is undeniable. "What we are seeing are that the new rides manufacturers are bringing into the country are family rides," said Robert W. Johnson, President Outdoor Amusement Business Association, Inc.. "There are more children coming to fairs. The trend is that that parents want to experience the rides with their children. Fairs are creating new Kiddielands and making their fairs more family friendly, because that's the growing consumer market now."
Growing is the key word. According to U.S. Census Data, in 2013 19.8 percent of the population are under the age of 14. Other demographic shifts show that this age-group will grow as a segment of the population. Millennials (defined as between ages 18 to 34 in 2015) are projected to number 75.3 million, surpassing the projected 74.9 million Boomers (ages 51 to 69). And, this new group of parents appears ready to be even more fertile than their predecessors. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2014, there were 62.9 births, up from 62.5 births in 2013, and the first increase since 2007.
What this is leading to is a boom in family rides. Len Soled, President, Rides 4U, Inc., a U.S. distributor of used, refurbished and new amusement rides, says his sales show a "market shifting towards more family rides because there are a more young families. It's is a bigger market right now. If you as a carnival company are able to show that you have more family rides, then you are able to catch more of this growing market. Fairs are looking for that. "
Family rides are those suitable for all family members, obviously distinct from thrill and spectacular rides, which usually have a 42-inch height requirement. According to Soled, there is a parallel trend, showing an upswing - albeit not as a big an increase towards "kiddie rides," (rides with a 36-inch or lower height requirement.) "You are seeing more of these rides just for kids, something that fills in the category for the youngest segment of the market. It is growing but not growing nearly as fast as family rides."
A demographic shift may be an over-riding factor, but Soled emphasize that cost-savings by both manufactures and carnival companies have also influenced how carnival companies spend on new rides. Family rides and Children rides can be as low as "one fifth the cost as the spectacular rides, and they require less labor to set up and to operate," he said. "They are more cost effective, especially with the family rides, because they are popular, you get a wider range of ages riding them. They're a better return on investment."
But midway providers do not operate in a vacuum, and the increase in both younger families and midways that meet their needs is fundamentality changing midways. "Fairs realize you just can't plop rides for kids in the midway," said Soled. "There's a rising demand for these rides, but the environment has to be safe and family friendly, which often means away from teenagers, who can get rowdy. The fairs and outdoor parks have recognized it's a nice market, they are seeing more of a demand and more money generated by catering more to the parents with younger children."
For midway providers, responding to demographic trends has meant a re-imagining of their midways. "The birth rate had been diminishing in the early 90s, so we saw more spectacular rides, for teenagers and adults," said E.J. Dean, President, Fiesta Shows. "Now, we are seeing more interest in the family rides, that's the fastest growing market in terms of ridership. We've always had those rides, but now the families want to experience the rides together and designers are making rides for that family experience."
Dean said that in the middle of last summer, his carnival company brought in a family style spinning coaster, "and it became one of the most popular rides. A ride like that places you right in the middle of that demographic that's growing at fairs, parents with young kids and pre-teens."
He estimated that of the 20 new rides in the past two decades or so he's added, "18 have been either family or kiddie rides. It used to be two or three in the family or kiddie segment, and now we have eight to ten."
Apparently, today's parents and children actually enjoy each other's company. Togetherness seems another trend changing the landscape of the 21st century midway. "You are seeing more younger families on the midway, and they are playing games together, the midways are a little relaxed, because the ridership has been broadened to include the whole family," said Dean.
To further enhance the kid-and-family friendly midway and fair environment, Dean has noticed that several fairs have separated the "kiddieland, keeping rides and activities that specific to young families and the pre-tween, to draw them in. They are booking some entertainment in the early part of the day just for this market, and they are keeping headliners at night, which can attract a different crowd."
He added, you are a "slower pace, a family atmosphere. They don't want to maximize the high-energy, but have something for the growing family market. It's a lot more Sesame Street and Barney, you are seeing this at Amusement Parks and Disney World, where we group together the attractions for the younger families and children away from what appeals to teens and younger adults."
The Coastal Carolina Fair was one of many fairs dramatically responding this increase in young family. The local economy and housing market is booming, according to Joe Bolchoz, Director of Media & Public Relation, attracting more and more new families to this market. "They're more kids in the area, and we got a lot of young families moving into the area," he said. We bill ourselves as a family fair. We are not an old fashioned sawdust fair, we are family-oriented."
One sign of this fair's 21st century family-centric image is the midway, provided by Amusements of America. In 2015, 34 of the 66 rides were family (or kids only) rides, a proportion that has steadily increased over the years. In addition to an expanded Kiddieland to accommodate the increase in this segment of rides, fair organizers separated it from the teen/adult-only rides, creating a kind of "mini-me" for the young families. "Having different midway areas actually spreads the crowds out, and we are able to separate the teenager and young adult crowd from the family crowd with children," said Bolchoz. "The feedback we were getting is that the families preferred this so this year we had different midways."
The Minnesota State Fair started segregating Kiddielands by age 20 years ago, but that commitment to growing this younger family market has only gotten stronger. According to Brienna Schuette, CFE, Marketing & Communications Manager, Minnesota State Fair, the children's area is "several blocks away from our Mighty Midway. We renamed it "Kidway" to create a new atmosphere and experience for families away from the midway. We work annually to mix in new rides to keep the attraction options fresh."
In 2016, Schuttee said that funding approval is expected for a new Kidway restroom facility "with 14 family restrooms in addition to men's and women's restrooms with multiple changing tables in each--an added convenience that improves the family experience at the fair. The proposed restroom project would expand the Kidway area and likely give us an opportunity to add a couple new rides."
The fair has also ramped up its children-friendly offerings, said Schuttee, with two Kids Days when kids (5-12) save on admission, new educational exhibits "specifically designed to target children and families", including "the Alphabet Forest where kids use the fairgrounds for vocabulary-building games and meet local authors; Math On-A-Stick, which was new in 2015, as a place to play and explore math concepts at the fair; the Baa, Oink and Moo Booths and Equimania--breed-specific educational exhibits; the Thank-A-Farmer Magic show, designed to engage children while they learn the important role agriculture, farmers and ranchers play in their daily lives."
She added, "In 2015, for the first time, we offered free sunscreen at all of our information booths throughout the fairgrounds. This new program provided an outstanding guest service for all fair guests, especially children and families."
New for fairs in 2016 is an OABA-produced new Children's Ride Safety video, a very kid-friendly (and suitable for parental viewing) about safety awareness on the midway, including ride protocols, proper behavior and other aspects younger fairgoers should know. The video stars offspring of Ray Commack Shows staff, with its main sponsors being Kaliff Insurance, Farrow Finance and Allied Specialty Insurance.
According to Johnson the new video was a much needed update to a previous OABA video, "because there are more kids rides and more kids and they should be aware of midway safety," he said. "the hope is that fairs will share this video on their websites."
The video features an entirely contemporary feel, done in news station format, with anchors sitting at the desks, then cuts to correspondents who board rides, explaining height requirements, etc.. The twist is that all these CNN-like characters are portrayed by the target audience, kids. "With all the distractions kids have today, we wanted to find a way to capture the attention of this audience, teach them the importance of safety, so they can make the most of their visit and their money at the fair," said Amber Swedgan, Education Chairman, OABA, who is also a Media & Communications Consultant and wrote and directed the new video.
Swedgan said the video had premiers at the industry conventions to great acclaim. "We are promoting it as a free tool for fairs to use to encourage safety and promote the midway to children and their parents. The feedback has been great. It gives the fairs an image of safety and being a family friendly environment, and you know when you get those kids as customers, they come back to the fair every year for their life. The fairs want to promote safety to children because the customers don't separate the fair carnival from the fair."
Carnival Video FINAL-H.264 from Robert Johnson