A Carnival of Fun/Johnston Amusements is helmed by owner Ken Johnston, who recalls his operation’s humble start, and revels in the large-scale fun his operation offers today. Headquartered in Elk Grove, Calif., the carnival is about to celebrate its 61st offering in that town, with forty other shows presented at other locations throughout the year.
“It all began in 5th grade,” Johnston reminisces, “when my class needed an overhead projector. My mom suggested that the PTA moms run a school carnival to raise the money for it. We had snow cones and pony rides, some games, it was just a small school carnival then. And now here we are, gearing up for our 61stannual Elk Grove Festival, and the carnival has grown and grown along with the festival.” The festival takes place the first weekend in May, every year.
Over the years, Johnston and his brother started building up the carnival and traveling with it. “We had our portable rides, and we just started adding to it,” he attests.
Asked what attractions are the most popular, Johnston is hard pressed to pick just a few. “We have two great BBQs that people really love, Kansas City sanctioned,” he notes. “At the festival we also have a big parade, we have lots of different food vendors, and a big classy art show with classical piano and wine tasting. We also offer a poster contest that all the high schools participate in, which is a very fun and educational thing to do. The winner gets to have their poster reproduced and displayed all over,” he relates.
Looking back, Johnston says it’s hard to believe that all of this started with an overhead projector purchase. Today, his theme is “How the West was One.” The reason for the name? “We want to bring people together here in Elk Grove and at all our events around California.” He adds that “Since we have such a divided state at times, our theme is to bring everyone all together as one.”
According to Johnston, Elk Grove is the 7th most diversified city in America. “We are working hard to bring all people together here, as well as doing our shows in other places, and operating an amusement park here.”
When it comes to rides, Johnston says A Carnival of Fun has a great lineup. “Right now we have a lot of different rides, including a beautiful wheel with LED Lighting. We also have a classic merry go round, Magic Carpet rides, Tilt-a-Whirls, and we just got a new Mardi Gras ride. It’s a fun house with lots of obstacle courses, slides, and tunnels,” he explains. The Tornado, the YoYo swing ride, and a bumper car attraction are also popular.
The Spin Out is a recent acquisition. The Tivoli ride spins riders while rotating them upside down.
Live entertainment is another strong part of what Johnston provides. “We have a show called Western Idol that is in its 9th year. It’s basically our version of American Idol, and it’s very popular. We’re working on a Teen Idol,” he adds. These events are presented on a large stage. “We have three stages of entertainment in Elk Grove, but that aspect doesn’t travel with us to other locations.”
Johnston’s company also offers a wide range of midway games, and plenty of fun food choices. He partners with both G & T Concessions and T & K Concessions for food items.
He’s considering a new ride for next year. “It will be a swing ride on a tower way up in the air,” he says. “Should be a lot of fun. This year, we are pretty much set and scheduled.”
When it comes to marketing, Johnston uses a lot of social media. “We had thousands of kids attend over the last year, and we could watch them on their phones posting about being at our event. You can see their followings growing, which affects us, of course. At one of our events, we had to close the gates because of that popularity that grew from social media, that many people showed up.” And of course, Johnston employs social media himself. “We do Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I have grandkids in the business who are very talented in that area. We have thousands of followers,” he relates. “They all want to know what’s new.”
But Johnston also does conventional ads. “I have someone who does a social calendar with all the events in the area. She’s our publicist and she gets the word out in that way, too.”
Ticket sales policies vary. “We do event ticket sales in advance, we also do online sales, every week is something different, honestly. We customize every sales event for the area we are appearing in, to fit that community, and what they are able to do. We do offer very inexpensive entertainment, certainly compared to something like Disney and what they charge now,” he attests.
As with ticket pricing, average attendance at the variety of carnivals Johnston sets up varies. “Here in Elk Grove, we have an open gate, so I don’t get an exact count, but in general our range is from 30 to 40,000 up to 100,000. Our home town is always fun and we get a great crowd here. After all,” he laughs, “I grew up here, my children grew up here, and my grandkids. My great grandkids are now in Elk Grove High.”
With rides for all ages, food and games, and at his home base, live entertainment as well, Johnston is well positioned to continue offering a real carnival of fun for many years to come.