Ask fairgoers why they comeback every year to ride the rides? Often the answer is nostalgia, they want indulge in tradition that invokes memories of childhood and bygone eras.
But a few carnival companies take nostalgia one step further by featuring authentic vintage rides – actual equipment a half-a-century old or older – as a noticeable part of their midway presentation. The reasons range from the personal – rides were part of their family's midways back-in-the-day for example – to pride in recognizing the unique value of classic pieces of engineering. But the bottom-line is these rides enhance a midway, create a distinctive image for the carnival company, and similar to other vintage trends, such as the return of dandy suits in , to the comeback of vinyl records in the music industry, attract both a small, but loyal fair board and fairgoer following.
The retro movement may not dominate the mainstream, but it's a noticeably steady presence in popular culture. With this in mind, it's not surprising that vintage rides have become a small but noteworthy niche on many 2019 midways.
The carnival company probably with the most significant reputation for vintage rides is James H. Drew Expositions. Like other carnival companies, Drew's handful of equipment considered vintage – loosely defined as carnival pieces manufactured before 1970 – is far out-numbered by the rest of its ride inventory. The difference is that one of their signature pieces happens to be one of the most famous Ferris Wheels traveling the U.S. – the Seattle Wheel, built in 1965, the only reproduction made of the Seattle Wheel, a 90-foot-tall epitome of American ride craftsmanship, featuring wishbone shaped spokes and 16 buckets originally designed for the 1962 Seattle World Fair.
Other vintage pieces owned by Drew Expositions are the Space Wheels, the Huss Pirate Ship and the Pipe Organ and according to Jimmy Drew, all these pieces fill an important niche among the company's followers. They have “a huge fan base,” said Drew. From time to time these fans will drive to where we are. We have had Seattle Wheel Fans drive 500 miles or more to see this magnificent machine.”
Drew points out that in March of this year, “we had a Space Wheel fan drive from Tampa, FL to Macon, GA to see and ride the Space Wheel.”
Retro ride followers are not only limited to the hardcore fairgoer or ride enthusiast, but many fair and event organizers. “We do put these rides up as a special request for some events,” said Drew. “What we mean by special request is that usually the fair management and staff have requested a particular ride. I generally do not know the reason, just that they requested a certain machine.”
The value of both maintaining this equipment and retaining its prominent position in the Drew Expositions midway has become integral to this carnival company's mission. “All of this unique equipment was purchased by other owners and may not have been restored had we not rescued them,” said Drew. “We do have vintage rides and equipment. We do this when the machine is very classy and no more were ever built. So in order to have this level of class, we have to take the machine down to the inside workings and restore it. You do not see this happening very often because restoration is two or three times more expensive and many times more work.”
But once the restoration is completed, other aspects such as maintenance and setup are generally similar to more contemporary rides. “These machines are generally better and more solidly built than some of the production line equipment,” said Drew. “The design is more simple and maintenance is easier.”
Big Rock Amusements may have a more limited selection of vintage rides, but that ride too is a large signature Ferris Wheel built in 1965 and known as the Sky Wheel. “It's the king of the midway,” said Matt McDonagh of Big Rock Amusements. “It has uniqueness and is spectacular. It has a following, people email us that it's their favorite ride and they ask us where it's going to be next. It's a special attraction. A lot of fairs appreciate it and we get requests, especially when the fair season kicks in, and they request it because of its uniqueness. It's very popular for July 4th and some fairs do promote its uniqueness.”
Besides the attraction of the Skywheel, McDonagh had an additional sentimental reason for keeping the piece as part of the Big Rock midway. The Sky Wheel was formerly owned by his parents' show, McDonagh Amusements, and was purchased by Big Rock in 2012. “My dad always loved The Sky Wheel. It's a tall, towering piece for the midway.”
Powers Great American Midways has one ride that pays homage to the vintage category, the Zierer Wave Swinger. The potential old fashioned appeal is far from lost on Powers Great American Midway. The rides are decked out with retro scenery and decked out with a LED lighting system that accentuates the old is new again feel, complete with 50s music accompaniment for the ultimate vintage experience. “It's still nostalgic, it has a nostalgic look,” said Powers. “That's one of my things, keeping that era alive with this ride. It's a beautiful ride.”
Belle City Amusements showcases a Tilt-a-Whirl, 1952, a Sky Wheel that recently underwent an extensive refurbishment, as well as two children rides—a merry go round circa 1967 and a Hampton Umbrella Ride from 1965. “We get feedback from older customers all the time about these rides, they appreciate the older rides,” said Charles Panacek of Belle City Amusements, who added that while the rides may take some extra care in terms of maintenance and refurbishing, but like many of the ride companies with vintage equipment, the rides have been part of his family for more than a generation. “We're celebrating our 71st year in business and these are rides my father operated. They may require a little bit more labor, but they are part of the operation.”
In fact, it's the LED lights that tend to be the only new addition to vintage equipment. For the most part, ride operators are not computerizing the machinery and tend to keep the retro look when replacing seating and other exterior components. The LED lights have quickly become industry standard and for the vintage segment, the LED designs deliberately mimic retro luminescence. “ Most of the new LED lighting can be brought to very closely resemble the original lighting,” said Drew. “It uses, in most cases, half of the electricity. We are outfitting our entire show with LED lighting. While we keep it old school, we can do that and still use LED lights.”
Dreamland Amusements embraces vintage rides, but as a niche within a niche, specializing in children's rides manufactured by William F. Mangels, the famed Coney Island manufacturer and inventor of amusement rides who died in 1958. Bob DeStefano, owner of Dreamland, claims to own every Mangel kiddie ride ever manufactured – including the Fire Engine, Whip, Dry Boat, and Merry Go Round. A Coney Island Connection is a natural for the company – Dreamland being a famous amusement park there – but also his Wife, Kathy was an influence in this specific vintage ride niche. She grew up on the midway and her father, Charles Wagner, had the Mangel rides as part of Wagner Carnival Amusements.
Part of the reason for this collection of very specific vintage rides may be personal, but the other motivation is similar to other midway providers with vintage rides – their uniqueness distinguishes the company and appeals to the fairgoer niche.
“They look good on the midway,” said DeStefano. In addition, they attract an often overlooked fairgoer – the height limit is 30-inches, not the more common 36-inches. “Those little guys can't participate on the midway with the other rides. They are profitable. We have a little Toddler-land.”
The one concession to the modern era is LED lighting, “but you can make those lights soft, gives it that retro glow. We try to make the lighting as close to the original as we can.”
But not all carnival companies go the full vintage with vintage rides. Last year, Wade Shows refurbished a 1956 Tilt-A-Whirl, which was “worth the time and effort,” said Frank Zaitshik, owner of Wade Shows. “We wouldn't have done if people weren't interested and if it wasn't worth the time and money.”
For Zaitshik, vintage appeal was not as crucial as the singularity of this piece of equipment. He went the opposite direction from marketing the old-is-new-again look. “At one time, pound-for-pound, the Tilt-A-Whirl was the best ride on any midway. But we didn't refurbish it to look retro, instead we used the LED lights to make the ride relevant to today.”