Midway Millennials is an ongoing series profiling the new generation of fair professionals
James Dillman III is the 35 year old owner and operator of an independent dark ride called the Haunted House. Like all independent ride owners, Dillman is responsible for every aspect of his ride: maintenance, travel, set-up, tear-down, etc. As a millennial in the carnival industry, Dillman has seen considerable change in the business and works to add a modern twist to the long history of back end pieces and dark rides on the midway.
Historically, dark rides are considered back-end pieces just like fun houses and glass houses. Back-end pieces are labor intensive and require more maintenance and attention to detail than most other carnival rides require. Dillman cites the Zacc
hini family as the pioneers of the back-end piece industry; they built their own equipment and traveled around the country. Dillman states that owning and operating a back-end piece such as a dark ride, requires a particular expertise. Dillman' ride was manufactured by Hollingsworth in Sarasota, FL; he owns the 2nd to last one built by the company.The ride was bought from Bill Black in Washington state. Black customized his ride to increase capacity and loaded it with tricks. The cars seat 4 people rather than the typical 2 and the ride consists of 11 tricks over 60 seconds. Dillman designs his ride to give customers a thrilling, fun experience; "I aim for a Disney's Haunted Mansion experience. I want riders to say 'That was pretty cool; I was entertained.' I don't want to terrify them."
3rd GENERATION IN THE BUSINESS
Dillman is no stranger to the carnival business; a third-generation carnival worker, he learned everything he knows from his concessionaire grandfather, Robert Patton, and his electrician father, James Dillman II. Both worked for Cumberland Valley Shows and his father worked for Strates Shows most of his career. Dillman recalls traveling with his family and working on the rides at a young age; "I remember being 7 years old and giving relief to the operator. People would say 'you're a little young to be running a ride!'" At the time, the Dillman family had a permanent home and the children would only travel with his father in the summer to enjoy family time and visit the different locales. Dillman and his sister began traveling full time after his graduation in 1999. In 1972, James' father left Strates Shows and began to buy his own rides and equipment in the 80s. In 2007, Dillman completely took over from his father.
Dillman has noticed considerable changes in the industry during his time working on midways. One of the most interesting developments has been the change from paper tickets and wristbands to electronic, barcode-bearing wristbands and tickets. Rides use a "gun" to scan the tickets and wristbands, providing a very accurate rider count.
Strates Shows utilizes one these new systems, the FunCard, and Dillman feels this is a positive change on midways, especially for independent ride owners. "With the barcode and electronic systems, emphasis is placed on the amount of people going through your ride and compensation is often based on the popularity of the ride. I can't imagine a fairer way of doing things," says Dillman.
In order to integrate technology into his own small business, Dillman has changed all of his safety and employee paperwork from hard copy to digital through google drive. He says it is a lot easier to keep track of everything and has worked well for him.
Additionally, Dillman is in the process of changing the lighting on his ride to LED and is modernizing the tricks inside the ride to have them operate electronically instead of mechanically.
When asked about his favorite part of the independent ride business, Dillman says he loves the travel and sightseeing and appreciates the history of the back-end piece and dark ride niche on the midway. Just like with any other small business, owning and operating an independent ride comes with its challenges. Dillman says it is crucial to manage money properly and only cautiously spend. Even if the ride could use something new and there's money to spend, Dillman thinks about bunkhouse and traveling expenses as well as the balance of good and bad weeks on the road. Dillman mentions weather as a crucial factor to his ride's success; "It was a rough Spring, weather-wise, and you can't control the weather so I'm always thinking about what I'm taking in and what I'm spending."
Dillman's season started in Florida with Strates Shows, moving north to a new event in Myrtle Beach, before moving to NY to play three events with Fair Productions, operators of the Hudson valley Fair, the Brookhaven Fair over Memorial Day and the just-concluded Palisades Fair which took him through July 4th.
Dillman and his Haunted House dark ride will be playing the rest of their route with Strates Shows. He likes staying with Strates as he feels they are fair with their compensation for independents and work with him on placement of the ride; "Strates is a very good show to be around. You stick with one show when they're this great to work with." Dillman and his Haunted House are headed next to the Orange County Fair , the Erie County Fair and the Champlain Valley Fair before heading south for Strates' southern route.