(Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals)
When Mike Bray says he fell in love with the fair industry, he doesn't just mean the midway. He means his wife.
Unlike many - and probably the vast majority - of young fair professionals, Bray, 29 years old and Technical Supervisor for James E. Strates Shows, is not the latest generation of a long lineage of carnival worker. No one in his family worked for a carnival company, and while his parents did bring him to local fairs growing up, they really didn't make a lasting impression. "I thought the fairgrounds owned all the rides," he said. I didn't really know anything about fairs until I started working at fairs."
Married Into Industry
Instead, Bray met Olivia Weaver - now wife and mother of his three children - when both were students at Smyrna Beach High School. He fell in love with a third generation carny, on both her mother and father's side too. Olivia's family worked with Interstate Amusements and later Myers International Midways. Bray eventually married his high school sweetheart. He quite literally married into the fair industry.
Upon graduation, Bray worked for Myers, his first job being hand stamper and selling arm bands. "We traveled in Kentucky and Tennessee and it was very exciting," he said. "The fair business is really a show business, you are entertaining people, making them happy and I like that. But it is also a tight-knit family."
Bray has always been mechanically inclined, and once he answered the call of the midway, he soon gravitated to the machinery side of the business - set up, tear down, maintenance and repair. In the winter months, began working in the mechanic shop at Myers headquarters, learning welding and ride reconditioning.
"About my third fair season, I decided I wanted to work hands on with the equipment," he said. "I earned my CDL and started really learning the business and really getting the grasp of setting up and tearing down the equipment, working with the different committees of the fair, going through inspections."
About two years ago, the Strates family offered him the current position, where he oversees a crew of about 15. "I do everything there has to do with rides, except customer service," he said.
As Technical Supervisor, it's his responsibly to make sure the rides will pass inspections. "We have safety people on our staff who do our inspections, and I work with them before the state inspectors come. When the staff finds something wrong, I am the one who makes sure it works right again"
"You are always dealing with something new every day," he said. "I deal with every ride. It's my job to know every ride."
While others mainly the midway, and assemble or dissemble rides, Bray is the final check. "We have a real good lot man, and a real good spot man and our crew is great," he said. "When everything is set up, I make sure it is working. A lot of times you can tell something is in need of a repair, just by the sound a ride is making. Most of the time, it's either in tear down or in transport that a piece of equipment gets damaged. You notice things when they we are setting up the midway, but the damage happened before it got there."
What is key is leading by example - Bray has worked on nearly every ride - but he has full confidence in his crew. "They trust my opinion, they know I have experience. And I trust them to fix something. The guys are very dependable. You do not want to keep repeating your self, we don't have the time for that."
He added, "most of the guys I work I respect and they respect me. You need that on the midway."
While it was not usual for him to interact directly with safety inspectors, "I know most of them, and when they want something done they come to me," he said. "Sometimes it's just adding a rivet or tubing, but I also want to make sure it looks right too."
Function, Safety, Aesthetics
While not coming from a carnival family meant he had to learn many areas of the business, it also may have bestowed an unbiased attitude towards ride mechanics. Bray credits his parents, Tom and Jean, as the two main influences on his work ethic.
His father was a design engineer, instilling in him a knowledge and appreciation of machinery, ranging from the conception on a spec sheet to the reality of working with the gears and wiring. His mother was artist, giving him a respect for the aesthetics. "From her I got my artistic side," he admitted.
So whenever something has to be repaired on a ride, these dual concerns always come into play. Things have to be fixed, "you have to make an educated guess, but you have to make sure it works," he said. "But you have to also make it look professional."
In other words, the presentation of the ride is always a priority. It not has to be safe, but it has to look safe as well fun. "When you do a repair, you have to be aware of how it looks," he said. "It can't look stupid. People are naturally drawn to rides, their fun, it has to catch the eye. So even when you do a repair, you have make sure the ride still looks awesome."
One of his main 2016 projects was making sure the new Dream Wheel, was ready for operation. He re-racked this new signature midway Dream Wheel, streamlining the assembly process from 14 hours to eight hours. "I worked very closely with the design engineers in Italy, we sent pictures back and forth by email. With a wheel this size, you have to make sure everything is working, and you can't skimp on what it costs. The Strates family wants their rides to be the best."
What he likes most about working for Strates Shows is that they share his priorities - making sure a ride is safe, operates as designed and has a quality presentation. "The Strates family don't want machinery that is scabbed together," he said. "They are willing to spend the money to make sure that it is completely fixed and looks nice. It's the big time."
A professionalism that is also personal Bray feels is a generational attitude shared by the midway millennials now making their presence felt industry-wide. The new attitude is a devotion to both career and craft. Yes, working a midway is a job and compensation is a motivating factor. But his generation also needs a sense of devotion to the goal.
"In a nutshell, if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life," he said. "I love building and repairing rides, and I love the fair business and the people I work for. I think that is what a lot of people in my generation look for. We want something to dedicated ourselves to."