Big Rock Amusements has expanded its presence in North Carolina by picking up two more events, the Vance County Regional Fair in Henderson, and the Cumberland County Fair in Fayetteville, a spot formerly held by Michael's Amusements.
Those two fairs add to a Tar Heel State itinerary that already covers the Wilson County Fair in Wilson and the Robeson County Fair in Lumberton, a spot Big Rock plays where Wade Shows holds the midway contract, said Matt McDonagh, Big Rock's owner/operator. All four fairs are take place in September running into October. Between Big Rock sets up as many as 40 rides and attractions at those fairs.
"We're putting together a strong route for the fall with those new events," McDonagh said. "We've been playing North Carolina for a few years. In Lumberton, we work with Wade. We've had a good relationship with them for several years. Between the fair board, myself and Frank [Zaitshik], we've been very successful. It was a good fair to begin with and we went in there and gave it a boost."
It's been seven years now since McDonagh struck out on his own and formed a carnival apart from McDonagh Amusments, his parents' Michigan-based show. In 2010, McDonagh purchased 10 rides from former show owner Pat Guthrie. Since that time, Big Rock Amusements has grown to include 30 rides, which McDonagh described as an "explosion" of growth in addition to a "lot of hard work."
In late April, Big Rock was set up at Hillbilly Days (April 20-23) in Pikeville, Ky., in the middle of coal country. The festival has been part of Big Rock's route since the carnival's inception. Unfortunately, it's one area of the country suffering from the economy and government legislation affecting its chief industry, according to McDonagh.
"I talked to the Caterpillar dealer in Pikeville and he says coal is a cleaner burning fuel than natural gas but with restrictions on emissions it's been tough for the local community," he said. "But there's nothing they can do about it."
All told, the show plays Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida and Michigan, where it spends most of the summer in McDonagh's home state. Big Rock's season started at the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach, where its Sky Wheel and Ring of Fire were set up on Wade's lot.
Elsewhere in the Sunshine State, Big Rock sent the Sky Wheel, Swing Tower, Sea Ray and a Hampton quad to the Florida State Fair, another Wade spot. This was Big Rock's second year supplying equipment in Tampa, McDonagh said.
From there, the carnival moved north to Georgia where rain hurt its business in Valdosta, he said. The next several weeks will be spent skipping through Tennessee and Kentucky before the jump to Michigan through Labor Day. Then it's back south again for the North Carolina run.
For Big Rock, new equipment includes a Zipper that has been completely rebuilt after McDonagh acquired the piece at the end of the 2015 season. A Wacky Worm kiddie coaster and a Frog Hopper purchased from Ronnie Turner and a brand new Mulligan wheel are also new to the show this year. Big Rock got a good deal on the wheel this winter after Mulligan started building rides again after taking a hiatus, McDonagh said.
On the concessions front, Big Rock made a change in game operators. Independents Tony and Barb Bryant are now in charge of the operation and run their goldfish, bottle-up and rock wall on the show. Tony Bryant also serves as show electrician.
McDonagh makes point of surrounding himself with a strong supporting cast. His wife Kelly manages the office, among other things. Mike McCormick moves the Sky Wheel and takes are care of maintaining all equipment. His wife Jill manages the show's food operation. Their two daughters, Hayley and Jill, help with office work and food service. Haley is a University of Tennessee graduate in hospitality management. Jill McCormick's grandparents, Hill and Janie Snyder, from the old Snyder and Metts Shows, joined Big Rock in Pikeville to run their mini-donut stand.
The Sky Wheel, a double Ferris wheel, is Big Rock's centerpiece. It's an original Allen Herschell piece made in 1965 that's been rebuilt over the years and now includes an all-LED light package. There aren't many left that are still operating on the road and McDonagh feels it's the nicest one in the country. McCormick sets it up in six to eight hours and teardown cuts that time in half.
"We're very proud of it and how it looks and its presentation," McDonagh said. "For our show, it's the 'king of the midway.'"
Adam and Bonnie Seiden bring new blood to Big Rock this season. Adam, is the head of kiddieland and Bonnie helps run the office. Adam Seiden previously worked as an elephant trainer for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and prior to that, he was employed by Belle City Amusements. With Ringling Bros. phasing out its elephant attractions, Seiden decided to get back in the carnival business with Big Rock, and the couple is doing a good job, McDonagh said.
Dave Dwyer and Willie Burch are CDL drivers and help take care of moving the show and completing the extensive paperwork tied to DOT regulations.
Big Rock uses H2B workers and has employed about 35 Hispanics since the beginning of the season. Last year, the carnival didn't get its international allotment until July 4, which led to a struggle with a shortage of workers.
"It's a shame the government makes it so difficult," McDonagh said. "We sent out advertisements for help wanted across the country for Americans and had zero response. Nobody wants to work."
Lower fuel costs have been a blessing for Big Rock. The show has saved a tremendous amount of money, but at the same time, other expenses have gone up for ride parts, trucking, maintenance and payroll.
"Everything else has gone up dramatically with the Department of Labor getting on us for the H2B employees," he sad. "They're making it extremely hard to do business."