Ron Thomas embarks on his second season as a carnival owner after spending 34 years with Powers Great American Midways.
Powers & Thomas Midway Entertainment, co-owned by Thomas and Ed Powers, his brother-in-law, kicked off its 2016 season Friday, March 18 in Wilmington, N.C. with the first of a string of five mall dates extending to Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Ed Powers is the son of Les "Corky" Powers, owner of Powers Great American Midways. Some strong ties remain between the two businesses. Both carnivals call Wilmington home and operate their respective winter quarters in the coastal community.
For Thomas & Powers, the offseason has been spent in their new winter quart
ers facility in Holly Ridge, N.C., about 30 miles northeast of Wilmington. Workers have kept busy spent refurbishing a 1974 Sky Diver purchased from Butler Amusements, rebuilding the entire ride. The Sky Diver had been showing its age with lots of wear and tear at the time they acquired the piece, Thomas said.
Separately, crews have outfitted the show's Expo Wheel and Sky Diver with LED light packages, a significant upgrade over the old lighting on those two major attractions.
"We moved into an empty shop that had no air compressor," Thomas said. "We found the building last year but it took until the fall before we could move in. We had a lot of big projects over the winter."
Outside of renovating rides, the show switched Ross Owens glass houses, trading its Monkey Maze to the ride manufacturer for a brand new Magic Maze, according to Thomas.
The carnival purchased a new office trailer for the coming season. It was originally custom built by a Canadian fabricator for the late Irvin "Bingo" Hauser, owner of West Coast Amusements in Vancouver, B.C. After Hauser died last October, his son Robbie Hauser sold the trailer to Thomas & Powers.
"I feel there was a lot emotion behind it," Thomas said. "We assured [Robbie] we would take care of it."
The same could be said for the 15 rides Thomas & Powers acquired from Swank's Steel City Shows in December 2014. Carnival owners Bill and Patty Swank retired from the industry after spending 39 years on the road. The purchase helped boost Thomas & Powers' lineup to 25 attractions including the show's 10 existing pieces.
Thomas & Powers already had a Bertazzon Swing Buggy, a Himalaya-style piece and which Thomas said is the only single trailer-mounted ride of its kind in the U.S. In addition, the carnival featured a Pharoah's Fury, the Quadzilla, a jungle-themed kiddie ride, a Sizzler, Dizzy Dragon and a High Flyer before the Steel City deal was completed.
Ron's parents, Ron Sr. and Marie Thomas, travel with the show after following their son from Great American Midways. (The younger Ron Thomas is married to Corky Powers' daughter, Tracy). They own the buggy piece and the Tilt-a-Whirl. On the concessions side, Ron Thomas Sr. has been operating the same mouse game for more than 40 years, his son said.
Tracy Thomas & Amy Powers (Eddie's wife) manage the food concession department as well as run the office. Tracy's sister, Tamara Thomas, and husband, Jeremy own about a dozen games. For midway food, the show owns a pizza trailer, popcorn wagon and a fried dough concession.
Apart from rides, Thomas & Powers took over several Steel City dates as well, covering a mix of events in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, stretching from church and firemen's festivals to five county fairs running from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The fairs: Bedford County, Bedford,Pa.; Tyler County, Middlebourne, W. Va.; Washington County, Washington, Pa.; Somerset County, Meyersdale, Pa,; and the Great Stoneboro (Pa.) Fair.
Washington County, set for Aug. 13-20, is an especially strong fair, situated about 30 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, Thomas said. All told, about two-thirds of Thomas & Powers dates are old Steel City events, according to the route issued by Thomas.
"The first year we did well and felt all the committees were happy with us," he said. "Everywhere we played was like a whole new adventure."
After Labor Day, the show heads back to its home state of North Carolina for three county fairs including Surry County in Mt. Airy. The late actor Andy Griffith grew up in Mt. Airy, situated at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and modeled television's fictional community of Mayberry after his hometown.
The two other North Carolina fairs Thomas & Powers picked up are Rowan County in Salisbury and Stanly County in Albemarle. Over the past few years, Powers Great American Midways or Dreamland Amusements played those fairs. The season concludes in mid to late October at an event to be determined, Thomas said.
Outside of the Powers and Thomas families, ride superintendent Kevin Coles plays a key role in the operation. Coles worked for Powers Great American Midways for 20 years.
"My dad plays an important part, along with Eddie and I and Jeremy," Thomas said. "Other than that, we use Hispanic workers through the H2B program."