CONCORD, N.C. --- Morris Vivona sits in his golf cart overlooking a slow Thursday night on the midway at the Queen City Fair.
At age 96, the co-owner of Amusements of America and the industry's oldest living carnival operator, looks about half his age. Vivona exudes elegance, wearing his signature straw hat. It's part of the old-school tradition of dress codes, dating when carnivals traveled with live productions such as the Coppertone Revue, a girlie show Vivona remembers well.
On this particular night in late October, though, he's not happy with the low turnout at a new spot across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Queen City Fair's old location at the Metrolina trade show complex was sold to a developer, forcing promoter Larry Linton to move both the Spring and Fall
The Fall fair was the first event to set by the racetrack. The speedway played host to a three-day car show over the event's final weekend, but it still wasn't enough to boost business across the street. For Amusements of America, the event was down this compared with 2015 despite great weather, according to Morris Vivona Jr.
His father said, "If you were traveling [as a carnival] and saw this location, you'd swear you would have to play it. We were thinking Charlotte Motor Speedway, some of the best name recognition in the world. You can see how many cars pass by. It's like 42nd and Broadway."
Often, it takes time for a new location to kick in after the move. There could have been some other factors in play as well. Here in Concord, a few miles up the road, Powers Great American Midways played the Cabarrus County Fair in early September. Concord itself is about 27 miles north of the Charlotte city limits and about half the distance from where the event was previously held at the old Metrolina Tradeshow Expo grounds.
Despite the outcome, Amusements of America is not giving up on the new spot. The international unit, headed by Morris Sr. and Jr., will be back at the same location in April. The other unit, run by Marco Vivona, son of Dominic Vivona, which played the Spring fair in Charlotte, is moving to the Park Expo & Conference near uptown Charlotte for a May event.
After playing Greater Charlotte, the Vivonas' season concluded at the Coastal Carolina Fair, Oct. 27-Nov. 6.
"We caught perfect weather," Morris Jr. said. "The fair was way up."
It was a nice way to finish up after some brutal weather tied to Hurricane Matthew, which devastated parts of North Carolina in early October. The show suffered through multiple weeks of poor weather surrounding fairs in Rocky Mount, Kinston and Jacksonville, N.C. The good news is the equipment held together. The only damage was "serious money damage," Morris Sr. said.
In Jacksonville alone, about 40 miles from the Atlantic coast, the Onslow County Fair, Oct. 3-8, turned into a washout due to the hurricane.
"We were way ahead of last year overall, about 15 percent, until the bad weather hit," Morris Jr. said. "There were torrential downpours and a blackout. It rained from the day we got there until the day we left. We had to tear the show down but couldn't get off the lot [to get to Charlotte]. We were detained. What is typically a 240 mile jump became 400 miles with all the creeks and rivers flooding."
Before Jacksonville, the show played the Lenoir County Fair in Kinston, which had 22 inches of water in one commercial building. For Amusements of America, it was the second consecutive year storms have wreaked havoc with their fall run in North Carolina.
"We were [in Kinston] two weeks before the hurricane hit and still got rained out," Morris Jr. said. "I kept thinking, 'Everything's great, we're up. There's no way we can get rained out two weeks in row, two years in a row. They were calling it the worst hurricane since 1852. No way. Funny though, every time we left Jacksonville, the sun was shining."
The unit's northern route in New York and New Jersey was much better weather-wise, he said. From mid-July to mid-September, the carnival plays five county fairs and the Niagara County (N.Y.) Peach Festival.
Overall, the international unit does not use foreign labor and the Vivonas know they're one of the few major carnivals to operate without the benefit of the H2B visa program.
"It doesn't mean we're not going to use them in the future," Morris Jr. said. "Most of our route consists of dates we've played for 20 plus years. We change maybe a half-dozen spots a year. That's it, We run a stable operation and have most of the same [American-born] workers come back every year."
"You lose some and you gain some, but it's not getting easier," he said. "I've had [other show owners] tell me they won't take a carnival out if they can't get foreign labor."
Looking ahead, Morris Sr. and Jr. have purchased two new KMG Speed rides One will be delivered in October 2017 and the other in the Spring of 2018. In addition, they bought a new Kolmax Dumbo kiddie ride that was a hot seller at the Gibtown trade show in February. The piece features a 60-foot platform with gigantic elephant cars, and accommodates both children and adults. Ride capacity is 32.
"They sold about 15 in Gibtown," Morris Sr. said. 'It's a very attractive ride."
Apart from the new rides, the Vivonas installed a new LED light package on the YoYo and bumper cars at a cost approaching $100,000. Lightning upgrades can be costly, Morris Jr. said.
The elder Vivona, meanwhile, plans to be on the road again in 2017. More than 80 years after he first started selling frozen custard as a 15-year-old concessions vendor with World of Mirth Shows, Morris Sr. is still going strong. He's proud of his family's carnival history and notes that he was part of the group that founded the Outdoor Amusement Business Association in 1964.
"We needed something to protect our interests," he said. "We had a meeting at my suite at Sherman House in Chicago during the fair convention. I'm the only one among that group that's still active."