COLUMBIA, S.C. --- North American Midway Entertainment, already one of the biggest operations in the carnival industry, has purchased a Zyklon-style roller coaster for the 2017 season.
The new ride will be the company's seventh coaster attraction, which includes the multiple water flumes the show carries over the road, according to Tony Diaz, North American Midway's president.
High demand for coasters accommodating all ages drove the acquisition. Overall, the Wacky Worm, a kiddie attraction, consistently ranks as the carnival's No. 1 grossing piece, Diaz said.
Diaz, interviewed at the South Carolina State Fair in mid-October, said the show had a great run at the Tulsa (Okla.) State Fair, its first a
ppearance after taking over the contract from Murphy Brothers Expositions. The carnival set up 60 rides, 50 games and 20 food concessions in Tulsa.
Tulsa's fairgrounds went through a major facelift in the early 2000s and the property remains in pristine condition, Diaz said. The carnival opened on a Thursday and drew crowds every day, whether it was a Wednesday or a Saturday, he said.
This year's event, Sept. 29 through Oct. 9, drew about 1.2 million in attendance and midway ride sales increased by 7 percent, according to fair officials. Jeff Blomsness, chairman of North American Midway, said he received a personal email from Mark Andrus, the fair's president and CEO, complimenting the operation.
In a prepared statement, local county commissioner John Smaligo said, "The partnership with North American Midway Entertainment exceeded expectations and illustrated the importance of bringing first class entertainment to Tulsa."
In 2015, North American Midway Entertainment, now owned by Townsquare Media, signed a three-year contract in Tulsa. Under the new agreement, the fair receives 45 percent of ride ticket sales. It's a big increase over the 28 percent it received when Murphy Bros. ran the midway, a local television station reported.
For the international unit, managed by Diaz, the move from Tulsa to Columbia was a smooth transition, Blomsness said. In addition, the All-Star unit moved to Columbia after playing the Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Mass.
The show's Freak Out made its debut in South Carolina and did very well in spectacular weather conditions. But unlike the State Fair of Texas, college football games next door to the fairgrounds do not necessarily translate to a boost in business, Diaz said.
On Saturday, Oct. 22, the next-to-last day of the fair, the University of South Carolina Gamecocks played host to the UMass Minutemen before a less than capacity crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium, an 80,250-seat facility.
The football program is in the middle of a down period, but in Diaz's opinion, the size of the crowds is not a factor. Unlike the State Fair of Texas, where the Texas-Oklahoma game is an integral part of the fairgoer's experience, "these folks have something else on their minds," Diaz said.
"It's not like Dallas," he said. "It can't help you but it can hurt you when the majority of parking is taken. But a noon kickoff [like the UMass game] is the best scenario. We've been here when they were really good and play LSU at 7 pm. on a Saturday night and things are pretty tight."
In addition to setting up its own equipment,some logistical challenges resulted in Amusements of America booking its Crazy Mouse at the South Carolina State Fair. In return, North American Midway returned the favor at a few spots held by the Vivona family, Amusements of America's owner. It's the first time the two carnivals have done business together, Morris Vivona Jr. said.
Looking back on 2016 season, it was a wet summer for North American Midway Entertainment's route in Canada, especially at the Calgary Stampede and K-Days in Edmonton. Rain fell eight of 11 days in Calgary and four of the last five days in Edmonton, Diaz said.
The same held true at the London (Ont.) Fair, where it rained on both weekends. In Toronto, the Canadian National Exhibition was a different story with only one day of rain, he said.
Apart from the rides, Kristina Reiter, Blomsness' daughter, purchased the elephant ear operation formerly owned by the late Bill Lordy, who died in April. For Reiter, who grew up in the business working food concessions, the $450,000 investment covers two trailers, a bakery, a fryer and serving trailer.
The transaction extends to five events Lordy's Elephant Ear Bakery plays --- the South Carolina State Fair, Kentucky State Fair and Dade County (Fla.) Youth Fair, in addition to fairs in Charleston and Orangeburg, S.C.
On his own, Jeff Blomsness, who's been in the business since 1974, has an eye on retirement after signed a non-binding, five-year contract with Townsquare Media. To prepare for his eventual exit, Blomsness and his wife Patty are moving to Colleyville, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth.
The reason they chose Texas is because it's about a two-hour flight from DFW to both Tampa, where Kristina lives, and Coronado, Calif., where their son Robert resides.
"We've been in Chicago for 40-some years," said Blomsness, who grew up in Wisconsin. "We're selling our house in South Barrington [a Chicago suburb]. We built our house in the 1980s and had four additions. The time is right for the move."
Blomsness looks back on his years playing the Chicago market and sees an industry that once had 10 carnivals in operation now dwindling to about five shows in the metropolitan area.
The carnivals still plugging away compete with fewer events in the city. A lack of volunteers, permits tripling in cost and bad neighborhoods wracked by gang violence has resulted in many church-run festivals going out of business, Blomsness said.
"Legalized gambling is taking a lot of our customers in Illinois," he said. "Most of us travel more now. When our kids were growing up, I went back home every night. Now, you won't make money [as a 40-miler]."
Fast forward to 2016, more than 10 years after North American Midway Entertainment was formed after the consolidation four carnivals, including Blomsness' All-Star Amusements. The overall operation has grown to five units playing 24 states and five provinces in Canada.
"These things are G-rated entertainment," Blomsness said. "There's not much of that left anymore."