Unseasonable Florida weather marred the 112th Florida State Fair, a 12-day event that is often seen as a harbinger of the year's fair season. The opening days of the fair had inclement weather - rainy, windy and chilly - and while there was a rebound in terms of attendance, spending never recovered.
According to Cheryl Flood, Acting Director of the Florida State Fair, attendance at the 2016 Florida State Fair was approximately 395,435, compared with 388,830 for 2015, a resurgence that fair organizers feel is a silver lining in this dark cloud.
"This is impressive due to the inclement weather that persisted for the first six days of the Fair," she said. "Several attendance records were set in spite of the unseasonably wet and chilly weather that beleaguered the Fair early on." For example, 71,255 attended the second Saturday of the fair, "the sixth highest attendance recorded over the past 21 years," added Flood.
Nonetheless, the weather negatively impacted fair revenue. Per-capita spending plummeted 4.8 percent, and midway revenue was down 3.4 percent, said Flood. "Paid gate attendance was basically flat," she explained. " The increase was due to free entrance tickets for student days, children under five, which will account for 18 cents of the drop in per caps. Most of the per cap drop relates to the decrease in adult entrance tickets but an increase in senior tickets and special price tickets such as the 5-after-5 and the family pack. "
Fairgoers using discounted promotions combined with the lower attendance directly took a bite out of the midway revenue. "We continue to see a big decrease in Funcards as patrons switch to the armbands which are a better deal," said Flood. "We have encouraged more patrons to buy armbands on weekdays, and we saw a large increase in weekday armbands which caused the per cap drop."
Midway revenue reached a lower but still respectable $4,251,000. "We had very poor weather the first weekend, but set Midway records on the last three days of our Fair," said Flood. "This enabled us to get close to our prior year's numbers."
The Florida State Fair could have been worse, but the comeback post-storm proved better than expected. "There were some weather challenges," admitted Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows President. "We were close to being down seven figures compared to last year, but the last four or five days were very strong."
He estimated that last year, the midway revenue was about $4.4 million, so hovering around "$4.2 million is still significant. Given a better year weather-wise, we have done really well, but what we were able to generate is still significant," he said
Wade Shows at the Florida State Fair is a new midway paradigm industry watchers are closely monitoring. The Fair has a massive midway - 115 rides - and for years was an independent midway until Wade won one of the most competitive fair industry bidding contests of recent years; 2016 was the sophomore effort for the company at this major event, the first state fair of the year.
"The new midway has a more consistent color theme, more seating areas and looks more welcoming," said John Prestianni, Director of Finance. "While we do lose some control over what rides are on the midway, the time and cost savings to the Authority more than offsets any negative."
The second year of the Wade Shows midway has only convinced fair organizers they made the right decision with what was called a hybrid midway, essentially meaning one operator to both manage operations and subcontract with several other ride operators and concessionaires. Profitability has met our expectations," said Flood. " Wade Shows pays a flat rate for food and sales vendors that exceeded the income we received before the new contract was initiated. Our expense savings are estimated to be about $150,000 per year."
"The Midway enhancement and branding that began in 2015 continued this year," said Flood. "Wade Shows Inc. once again placed emphasis on a convenient and attractive layout that included added greenery, seating areas and wider aisles."
Zaitshik added that midway walkways were widened and a joint-operations center, which featured the midway office and the fair's guest relations, first aid and other offices. "The move improved their access," he said. "The operations center was closer to the heart of the fair."
In addition, the Florida State Fair midway not only the largest midway of the year for Wade Shows, but the one with the most subcontracting involved, including Powers Great American Midways, Wood Entertainment, Lauther Amusements, Dreamland Amusement, Myers International Midways, Jeremy Floyd, Nick Pelino, and Big Rock Amusements.
By design, many of the companies and their signature rides were part of the Florida State Fair midway experience during the independent years. "We wanted that continuity for the fairgoers," said Zaitshik.
New rides at the fair included the Super Cyclone Roller Coaster, Balloon Wheel, Jungle Twist, which is a new family roller coaster ride, the 4-story New York New York fun house, and the Hurricane, a refurbished KMG ride that Laurie Hayes, Marketing and Communications Manager described as "a Tilt-A-Whirl on steroids, the cars on the Hurricane not only spin around but swing, generating great G-forces."
Zaitshik added that the Hurricane is "an outstanding ride, I had several people compliment me about. We took an average ride and made it super spectacular"
Wade Shows also introduced a first for the Florida State Fair, its Gold Access Program, one of the carnival company's signature programs, which included discounts on qfood, and two-for-one game deals as well as "gold access" to ride lines. It was one of the largest fairs for Wade to offer the program, "which you cannot do unless you have really strong fair partners," said Zaitshik. "It was a very positive experience at the Florida State Fair, and we had a lot of online purchases pre-fair."
While midway revenue may have taken a hit, profitability was improved. Even though the midway has an extraordinary amount of rides, Zaitshik said he reduced the number of midway food vendors by 50 percent, and the number of games by 15-20 percent. The less-is-more strategy resulted in higher profitability by a smaller, more committed group of vendors.
"This was key component of our midway," he said. "There was excessive duplication in the food and games at the independent midway."
Whether they are food vendors, game operators, or smaller carnival companies, the subcontracts all have history with Wade Shows, which is key to the successful transitioning from an independent midway. "We play multiple events, they understand the Wade Show business plan," he explained. "We don't have to spent time waiting for them understand our grooming standards and codes of conduct."
While Flood declined to comment on the state of the Florida economy, she said that the fair supports more than 1,000 jobs every year and contributes $171 million to the local economy annually, adding "local tax revenue attributable to the Florida State Fair is nearly $1.9 million per year."
The fair had a marketing budget of $400,000, but the main marketing vehicle this year was social medial. The fair launched an extensive social media campaign,, beginning with a pre-show build up - "People were very responsive to photos posted by the Fair to our Facebook site - especially the behind-the-scenes prep of setting up the Midway," said Laurie Hayes, Marketing and Communications Manager . "Total "likes" increased nearly 2500, to just shy of 16,000. This engagement was enhanced by a robust schedule of paid Facebook advertising. Twitter and Instagram also were part of the Fair's social media efforts.'
Hayes said the fair's marketing team "conceived the idea of a photo contest to recognize the best of the best," she explained. "After calling for entries via our socials media outlets and our website, we chose our 10 favorites then posted those to our website and Facebook page for people to like and determine the top three, were featured on the Fair's website and our electronic LED sign. The three photographers also will be awarded Family Four-Packs of tickets and ride armbands to the 2017 Florida State Fair."
Two new exhibits at the fair were the White House Experience, which showcased authentic presidential memorabilia from the FDR era through today, as well as replicas of the Oval Office and White House Briefing Room, and the Butterfly Encounter which invited visitors to walk among hundreds of butterflies. "We are pride ourselves a variety of entertainment options for all ages," said Flood, adding that the White House Experience was "intentionally planned to coincide with an election year, the exhibit attracted a constant crowd."
Entertainment included mainly mid-list headliners and tribute acts - all free with gate admission - and held at the fair's Coca-Cola Headline Music Stage, which included Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; Robert Cray, the modern day blues master, Colt Ford - the country rapper, Christian artists Tenth Avenue North, Lazy Bonez - a "living jukebox" of 80's Rock, Country Gold Tour and Beatlemania Live, In addition, another entertainment highlight was the Elvis Extravaganza National Championships, a three-day Elvis impersonators contest.
For the categories of entertainment that works for the Florida State Fair, Flood had a positive outlook, contrary to many other fair managers. "We feel it was a buyer's market, the market showed flexibility," she said.
The fair had 114 food vendors operating 193 food stands outside of the midway, with new items including: the Bacon Bomb, Red Neck Burger and French Toast Burger as well as a funnel cake pizza, PB&J and bacon quesadilla - with chocolate or caramel dipping sauce - and Amish Doughnuts made by the Amish Baking Company, featuring glazed doughnuts topped with strawberries and whipped cream. "The Amish doughnuts, made by the Amish Baking Company, were a huge draw," said Flood.
In previous years, the fair has suffered through computer glitches that impeded the launch of a their digital ticketing program as well as security issues regarding fights - mainly somewhat violent scuffles by teenagers that broke out. Both problems were addressed by fair organizers in 2016. "Our digital ticket program for the midway continues to improve each year as we invest in improved infrastructure and technology," said Flood. "We constructed larger ticket booths for our busier intersections in order to better accommodate our customers. The new and larger ticket selling stations improved our setup and delivery in 2016, but we have already identified additional improvements for next year's fair."
This year, there were no outbreaks of violence among rowdy fairgoers. "Safety is our number one priority," said Flood. "We continue to enhance our policies and procedures for a safe and family-friendly experience. The most notable safety additions this year were magnetometers at every gate and more security cameras."
With such a massive midway and being one of the first large fairs of the season, the Florida State Fair has a bellwether status within the fair industry. The event not only showcases rides, foods and other trends that many feel with be evident for other fairs, but the stormy weather indicate that the negative climate conditions that negatively impacted the late-season 2015 fairs might continue to plague the Southeast this year.
However, the 2016 Florida State Fair indicates that with a strong presentation, pent-up demand can salvage weather wrought damage. Fairs are an integral part of American popular culture and when the sun comes out and the rain stops, the outpouring of community support justifies an optimistic outlook. "Mother Nature threw us a curve ball in the first days of the Fair, but it was obvious by our surge in attendance and in spending when the weather cleared that people were enthusiastic about partaking in the rides, food, exhibits and other attractions that encompass the Florida State Fair," said Hayes. "As the first state fair in the country we hope our counterparts experience the same excitement and loyalty that we enjoy from our patrons."