Next year, potentially hundreds of thousands of North American fairgoers will reach heights heretofore unheard of in the U.S. outdoor amusement industry.
Who are these lucky customers? Only those who attend fairs and other events with a ride provided by Wade Shows and Wood Entertainment; the tallest Giant Wheel at North American fairs.
In a deal nearly as innovative as the technology of the wheel itself, Wade Shows and Wood Entertainment have partnered in a co-investment - believed to be in the low multi-millions - to purchase the first Lamberink RL45 Wheel, manufactured by Lamberink BV, a Netherlands ride manufacturer, well known by European carnival companies but whose reputation for size, sleek design and fuel-efficient technology is rapidly gaining popularity among U.S. carn
The RL45 stands 45 meters tall and features 36 gondolas and five loading positions. Considering that the Chance Wheel, the largest Wheel in the Wade Show inventory, is 90 feet tall, with 20 gondolas and four loading positions, the new wheel is sure to enhance the fairgoer experience, fair marketing and promotions as well as boost the midway revenue.
"Nothing in North America comes close to the capacity of this Giant Wheel," said Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows president.
"We are counting on the fact the new wheel will drive attendance, ridership and revenue," said Michael Wood, founder and president of Wood Entertainment.
It was only a year ago that Lamberink wheels - an updated version of the Kroon Wheel, a Giant Wheel mainstay in Europe and other foreign markets - were made available to U.S. midway companies, with the RL33. Peter Theunisz, president of Used Rides Europe BV, who represents Lamberink equipment to non-European markets, hinted last year the company was developing a super-sized version of this renowned European wheel. The ride is due to be delivered state-side by December of 2016 and will be probably debut in one of the 2017 Florida events that traditionally kick off the fair season.
Not only will it be the tallest traveling Giant Wheel in North America, but in the world. The RL45 purchased by Wade Shows & Wood Entertainment is the first of its kind in the world, said Theunisz.
"This is the first Lamberink RL45 Wheel built ever," said Theunisz. "This wheel moves on only 6 semi-trailers and holds 36 gondolas. It is unique for the U.S. because this will be the tallest transportable 45-meter wheel. This 45 meter wheel will break into a market where events, carnivals, fairs and shows require a large wheel which is profitable and can be moved quickly."
"To our knowledge, this is the largest portable wheel in North America," said Zaitshik. "Both Wade Shows and Wood Entertainment strive for excellence and strive to be the best. This wheel is a step in that direction."
Long Time Partners
Wade Shows and Wood Entertainment have long been business associates and often partners - for many fairs, especially the larger events, for whom Wade Shows provides the midway, Zaitshik subcontracts with Wood for rides. In addition, Wood Entertainment, as an independent ride operator, will provides rides to other fairs, particularly those where he already has an independent midway presence, such as the Minnesota State Fair. While the details of the route are still being worked out, the basic idea is that the wheel will be a featured attraction on the midways booked by the two carnival companies, while also utilized by either company for solo gigs.
"We are going to take a double bite of the apple," says Zaitshik. "This is the single largest purchase of an amusement ride we've ever done. I feel Wade has operated the best midways and on the other side of it, knowing that Michael plays a very strong independent route. We have enough flexibility in both routes, and we can fit the ride into the fairs where it makes the most economic sense."
Zaitshik pointed out that while business arrangements between the two companies "have been cultivated for at least 14 years," the relationship actually spans back to the 70s when Zaitshik worked with "Red" Wood, Michael's father. "I've known Michael since I was a young guy, he's the best independent ride operator in the country."
The new wheel opens new marketing opportunities for fairs and midway providers alike, turning the fairgoing and Giant Wheel riding experience up a notch. "The fairs rely heavily on repeat business," said Wood. "With fairgoers, you generate an expectation of the fairgoer, you want to meet and exceed that expectation. This is a ride the whole family can ride together, and it creates repeat business for the fair that year and years come."
The deal began, as Wood describes, with in-depth talks about new collaborations between the two frequent business partners. "There was a lot of discussion and we brought different perspectives to the table," he said.
But the differences were more unifying that dividing. "We complemented each other," said Wood. "We decided to start with a blank canvas and a get new ride, instead of a used ride and make a different type of investment."
Wood's expertise being more on the operational sides of rides, he handled initial research, which meant a couple of trips to Europe to visit major ride manufacturers and distributors, a process that took about two and a half months. "It was just to see what people were doing," said Wood. "We wanted a new wheel, and we wanted it to be spectacular, but as the saying goes, we didn't want to reinvent the wheel."
When the duo decided bigger was better and agreed on the RL45, they also understood that the American fairgoer has different tastes and expectations than their continental counterparts. Wood handled the extensive customization, perhaps the most significant was making rectangular instead of round-shaped gondolas. "It is more comfortable for the rider to sit in a rectangular gondola," said Wood. "It is also easier access for the rider. We will not have a center pole, riders can get in and out very easily and quickly. We expect to do a volume business, and seconds matter when it comes to getting riders on and off."
Wood is supervising the new LED lighting system installation. "In Europe, the rides usually have LED lights only on one side," he said. "But we are putting LED lights on both sides."
In fact, the programmable LED system will feature 266 colors. Wood is also adding a center medallion. It consists of a message board and a 32' x 40' high-definition TV screen, expanding marketing opportunities for the fair and their sponsors.
The manufacturer welcomed the opportunity to make a reality what the new purchasers of the wheel could imagine, noting the changes were anything but typical. "This wheel will get customized gondolas specially made for Wood & Zaitshik," said Theunisz. "Lamberink BV will deliver the wheel without lighting as they prefer to get LED lights from a US supplier. In Europe it is not common to customize a wheel but Lamberink BV is flexible and willing to listen to their customers."
Theunisz added that the new wheel will be also be more fuel efficient, saving as much as 40 percent in energy costs. The wheel uses "electric propulsion instead of power-consuming hydraulic motors."
While the RL45 needed an innovative ride manufacturer to develop a bigger ride, the financing had to be just inventive. The deal was financed by Firestone Financial, LLC, and for this long-time midway provider financier, bringing in the largest traveling Giant Wheel to America was a first on many levels.
"It is clearly one of the biggest sized pieces of equipment in the fair industry, and it is one of the most significant equipment acquisitions we've been a part of," said Tony Costanza, Assistant Vice President, Carnivals and Amusement Parks, Firestone Financial LCC.
Typically, underwriting of this scope by Firestone Financial were for clusters of equipment or entire units of a carnival company. This is the largest single equipment purchased underwritten by Firestone Financial, a company that can arguably be called the largest single investment bank serving the mobile amusement industry. Costanza added, "number one and number two are not that close, it is by the far largest."
Last August, Firestone Financial was acquired the Berkshire Bank, a publicly traded bank specializing in business banking, insurance, and wealth management with assets in excess of $9 billion. Firestone Financial is now an operating subsidiary of Berkshire, and Costanza said the deeper pockets resulting from the Berkshire Bank acquisition enabled the RL45 deal.
"This is the type of deal we couldn't do before the acquisition by Berkshire Bank," said Costanza. "Firestone is committed to serving the financial needs of the mobile amusement industry on a day-to-day basis, but with the acquisition we have the financial strength to do a deal of this size."
Firestone Financial has more than 20 years experience as a leading investment insertion servicing the mobile amusement and fair industries. The financial contract with Wade and Wood eliminates what Costanza categorized as scuttlebutt - the notion that the family bank's acquisition by a larger company would mean the fair industry's go-to lending institution would not longer be as hands-on. "We continue to service the small, mid-size and large carnival companies," said Costanza. "We're dedicated to all customers in the industry, and have continued to grow that relationship for 20 years. That hasn't changed with the acquisition, we are still a family bank and we have built relationships with generations of carnival company owners."
The fair industry - bolstered by what seems to be an economic recovery - also seems a good investment for the years ahead. "The fair industry is stable and strong," said Costanza. "Discretionary income has remained steady and in some cases has increased. The market for fairs is strong, and we appreciate the acumen of people like Frank Zaitshik and Michael Wood on how they will use the new wheel."
Aside from the extraordinary size and cost of the ride, another unique aspect is the co-investment by two carnival companies. Having a subcontracting relationship for larger fairs certainly built trust between the two entities, clarifying overlapping and mutual objectives. In addition, Wade shows has rides in their inventory that are co-owned, but generally that relationship is between the company and an individual employee. Zaitshik and Wood stated this is the first time either of them shared the investment responsibility for a ride with another carnival company.
Costanza said that while not unheard of, this sort of financial arrangement between two separate carnival companies, "is very unusual, it doesn't happen very often, and never to this magnitude."
He added that he is confident of the potential strength of the return on investment. "If you know Wade Shows, you can know they can book this ride in enough places, and this gives Wade a presence at independent midways they did not have before. To make an investment of this size, it makes sense for two companies to be involved."
Now that the purchase is completed, the next step is to develop a marketing plan to the fair sector, and in turn begin helping fairs market what is certain to be a major amusement attraction in 2017.
But before this multi-leveled marketing blitz is rolled out, Zaitshik and Wood will have to give the wheel a name. RL45 may be accurate, but it hardly captures the potential fun and excitement this spectacular attraction can bring to a fair.
Zaitshik said what is in the works is a naming contest, most likely via social media, that will begin the buzz among both fairs and fairgoers about the Giant Wheel soon to roll into towns throughout year.
"Our fair partners very excited, we are getting great feedback," said Zaitshik. "We want excitement at every step and that includes deciding on a name. We're kicking a few ideas around, but we thought wouldn't it be fun to hear what our customers are thinking?"