Funtastic Shows: Ron Burback Presides Over Carnival History

Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Located in Portland, Ore., Funtastic Carnival offers a wide range of rides, games, food, and fun for kids and families. From the Washington State Apple Blossom Festival to smaller shows at shopping malls like Clackamas Center, Funtastic is well-known as a top purveyor of carnival attractions.

“Funtastic has been around since the 70s,” CEO Ron Burback says. “And we’ve been growing and changing every year. With our rides, we’re constantly buying and selling them, we’re constantly changing out our games, creating new games.”

Funtastic was created by Burback and Robert Bollinger, and began in 1971 with the securing of contracts to provide fair rides in Multnomah County, Oregon and the Southwest Washington Chehalis Fair in that year. Having demonstrated successful carnival operation at those venues, the Funtastic corporation was founded in 1973. Bollinger retired in 1985, but Burback, 85, continues to run a tight, successful carnival operation. Funtastic operates an average of 2 to 3 complete carnivals weekly during its season throughout Oregon and Washington. And Funtastic Shows, Inc. owns and operates a 15-acre, permanent winter site located in Southeast Portland, Ore.

That site contains a large repair and maintenance complex that includes a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, state-of-the-art paint shop, and a 5,000-square-foot corporate office with 35 full-time employees. Maintenance and innovation go hand in hand for Funtastic, which today provides carnival services for venues such as the Oregon State Fair and the Washington State Fair as well as many others in the region.

Burback says the key to his company’s success and longevity in the carnival business is keeping things fresh and staying adaptable – as well as providing quality entertainment. In recent years, rather than bringing on lots of new rides, he says the company has been focusing on improvements to existing permanent rides.

“The last couple of years we’ve been redoing rides like our wood roller coasters and space shots. We’ve been featuring them and re-doing them. Recently, we completely re-did a wood coaster that was originally built in 1935. It doesn’t have a stick in it now that isn’t brand new lumber,” he laughs. “That is a super popular ride. I would say it is our most popular ride that we have right now.” Another popular attraction is Funtastic’s Ghost Pirates, a delightfully shivery haunted house featuring, naturally, a pirate theme. Other top attractions include the fast spinning Enterprise, which when running full-tilt thrills riders with its rapid motion and smooth, high flying ride. The Sea Dragon rocks, and the Wave Spinner sends riders sailing in a swing ride that soars into the sky. The carnival’s newest ride is the Circus Jumbo. The ride was imported from Europe as a family ride for parents and kids to ride together. The gentle spinning ride features a variety of attractive, multi-colored elephants.

And when it comes to the carnival midway, Funtastic is no slouch there, either. “With games, we are constantly setting up new ones and making up new ones. We put them out there and we see if they work or not; there’s no way to tell until you see if people like them. If they don’t, we get rid of them. We always have a couple of standout new games in every season.” Burback says 2018 is just getting started, so he can’t name current game successes. “We have two or three new games that are just going out this week for the first time, so I can’t say if they’re good or not yet.” One game he feels confident in succeeding with is a short-range punk rack. “We’re having the short, small range constructed by Steve Turner,” Burback explains. The veteran gamer has created a punk rack that “can go into a fifteen-foot trailer. That makes it much more portable,” Burback attests. “We have traditional punk racks already of course, but constructing a mini-one in a trailer is an entirely new concept.” The compact size should prove a big hit for carnival set up, Burback believes. Funtastic also strives to keep its game prizes fresh and appealing, drawing customers who want to win an item because of its attractiveness. Toys from Ideal Toys Direct and Fiesta Toys are among those the carnival chooses to stock its games.

When it comes to food items, Burback finds innovation is less focused on new treats this year than it is on complying with new regulations in the state of Washington. “Honestly, with food, most of the time we are trying to comply with new regulations in the state of Washington. They’re come up with a whole new set which must be complied with in order to get a state medallion to put on your food stand. This is the last grace year. They won’t allow you to work selling food in the state without the medallions, so we are spending all of our time doing things to convert our food stands’ piping and glass in order to comply with the requirements,” Burback says. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of money,” he adds. “We’ve spent $32,000 just trying to convert one food joint.”

Today, Funtastic operates solely in Oregon and Washington, but Burback says in the past, the carnival operation extended as far east as Memphis, Tennessee. For now, his busy Pacific northwest operating region is enough.

The carnival bills itself as “Just possibly… the world’s best carnival,” and certainly Burback works hard to live up to his own motto. The carnival company puts a great deal of effort into providing the best rides – and entire, staged entertainment shows – whether it’s for a single day, a week, or a month.

“We operate until October, when we close and do our winter-quarter work. As soon as we come off the road, we start refurbishing our rides and our food stands. Our season is April to October,” Burback explains. “The maintenance is very important to our success.”

Individual ride pricing depends on the event and location Funtastic is serving, Burback notes. “Next week we will have three rides at a music festival; we play county fairs, we play the biggest fair in the Washington area which is the State Fair. We play them all sizes, we will do whatever you want if the money is there.”

Funtastic Shows operates a special events division called Amusement Production Services, which is able to produce outdoor and indoor events of any size required.

Burback says that his wristband sales price can be the “highest in the nation.” But according to the carnival owner, “For $50 you get three games and a food item such as a corn dog as well as unlimited rides. It’s been a tremendous success for us.”

Also a success: Funtastic’s cashless midway. “It’s been one of the premier areas of our carnival for 20 years,” he explains. “Cashless is big for us.”

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