If it wasn't for the weather, the fairs would've been even better. This lament seems to best sum up 2023 for the top midway companies in North America. Attendance was high, spending robust, and many records were set. Weather determines the fates of all outdoor events, and with unemployment at near-record lows and the decelerating rate of inflation fueling the enthusiasm of happy fairgoers, rain and heat could be costly.
“Overall the season was very, very good,” said Rick Reithoffer of Reithoffer Shows, secure in its #6 slot for providing the midways of the Wilson County Fair / Tennessee State Fair, Georgia National Fair, and New Mexico State Fair, attracting more than 1,692,189 fairgoers in 2023. “Even though we had some weather in New Mexico, we had a tremendous year there. Tennessee we had some heavy heat, but the first weekend was fabulous. Overall, we didn't have the bad weather on weekends, our fairs were well attended and people were spending.”
Reithoffer Shows at the Geprgoa National Fair
Carnival Warehouse annually compiles the leading carnival companies playing the biggest fairs. The 2023 ranking of Carnival Companies Playing The Top 50 Fairs closely resembles last year's pecking order, nearly identical to the pre-pandemic ranking of the top midway providers.
Big Three The top three carnival companies in North America remained: #1 North American Midway Entertainment (NAME); #2 Ray Cammack Shows (RCS); and #3 Wade Shows. Combined, these juggernauts provide a key revenue generating element to 20 fairs, all of which are among the highest attended outdoor events globally. The Carnival Warehouse midway provider ranking documents the fact that these three companies provided the midway experience to 19,396,458 fairgoers – which was 402,739 more people than in 2022, but 1,943,980 fewer than 2019.
NAME, as usual, secured the #1 spot with its fairs: Canadian National Exhibition, The Big E, Calgary Stampede, Tulsa State Fair, Indiana State Fair, Illinois State Fair, Arkansas State Fair, K Days, Mississippi State Fair, Miami-Dade County Fair, South Carolina State Fair, with an attendance total of 9,198,586 – The CNE & Arkansas had record years. “NAME takes great pride in our work and in our partnerships of fairs and events big and small,” said Lynda Franc, Corporate Marketing Director, NAME. “ It's a great honor to secure the #1 spot again for the midway provider list through Carnival Warehouse. The great turnouts that we saw were a result of great weather, great programs, and great rides all combining together to make a series of standout events!”
Even with the record breakers and generally sustained turnout – for the NAME fairs who saw attendance dips, the rate was generally less than 5 percent – the aggregate of the top fairs for the largest carnival company in the world — 456,581 fewer folks turned out this year. Franc noted that while highs may have been slightly higher last year, families made up larger contingents of their audience-base.
“While 2023 didn't break all the records in the way that we saw happen in 2022, we still saw excellent turnout in general and a bigger return of the family units - especially in Canada,” said Franc. “I'd say that's one of the biggest things that we're hoping to see continue into 2024, the return of the family. Fairs make for a classic good time with your loved ones and we aren't going anywhere so we hope that our guests are here to stay too.”
North American Midway Entertainment - photo by Scooter Korek
The New Longer RCS again secured the #2 spot with its fairs: Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Arizona State Fair, Orange County Fair, Los Angeles County Fair, entertaining 5,690,194 fairgoers – and these fairs together attracted 198,183 more folks than the same cluster last year. Ben Pickett. Vice President, RCS, said that while these fair juggernauts may dominate the top 50 list, other RCS events ranging from Pima County Fair to Coachella, attracted tens of millions. “Although it was a great year there are metrics more than just revenue. The ultimate success is that we provide a fun, safe, fair experience and life-long memories. Because our company is geared and focused on the larger events, we continue to build the infrastructure to enable that experience.”
One trend gaining momentum in 2023 is adding a weekend by subtracting slow days, typically Mondays and Tuesdays. While making this decision is dependent on the culture of each individual event and the community it serves, one factor used in determining whether to expand the fair by going dark on select weekdays has been the expansion of cashless systems. For RCS its Fun Pass, for others its Magic Money, FunTagg, Tap N Go, or a comparable system– these systems were not only used at more fairs than ever before, carnival companies have expanded their on-site capacities with more kiosks.
“Each fair has its own personality, but from our experience more fairs are now willing to trade out a Monday and/or Tuesday to put out the fair to four, five and even six weekends. When operators use our ticketless systems, the analytics and data allows us and the fair to hone in on what makes the most sense. For the fair and the carnival company, we can look at what makes the most sense. With the labor issues today, if the crowds can't support the workers, it's better to go four more weekends, but for those slow days, like Mondays, Tuesdays even Wednesdays, we heavily promote the slower days. The system tells us more clearly what is the most relevant option for each fair.”
The robust spending emblematic of the season Picket noted varied from the previous year. “The attitude in spending as the season wore on was more reserved. Last year, the people were so elated to be outdoors, but  they were seeking more value. They were looking for deals and we made a conscious effort to be very mindful of that. An onsite difference was that last year and the year before, spending was 50/50 between credit cards and debit cards. In 2023, it was 75 percent credit cards.”
Wade Shows Records Record Year “I'm proud to have been consistently ranked as one of the top three Carnivals playing the top 50 Fairs in North America as ranked by reported attendance,” said Frank Zaitshik, Wade Shows owner and the #3 ranked carnival once again.
Zaitshik said that the 2023 season was similar or up a little from 2022, adding “but we had to be, considering how expenses are spiraling.”
Zaitshik took a slightly different view than RCS on pricing, noting that guests are seeing costs rise across the board and while they are willing and used to paying more, you have to give the customer an outstanding experience in order to earn their hard earned dollar. “Fairgoers are adjusting to price increases due to inflation. The difference is in '23 fairgoers demanded a great experience with quality rides and enhanced customer experience. More and more customers are utilizing online opitions.”, said Zaitshik, who also noted that credit card usage is at all time highs.
“I'm humbled by the number of wonderful fairs we have contracted with and I'm honored to be their carnival provider. Its important to say we all play some great fairs that are not on the top 50 by announced attendance, but they should not be left out when thinking of the best fairs in North America”, said Zaitshik.
Looking ahead to 2024, he is hoping revenue continues to grow while expenses normalize.
High but Dipping Butler Amusements secured the #5 spot with its fairs: California State Fair, Big Fresno Fair, Alameda County Fair, Kern County Fair, entertaining 1,931,758 fairgoers – a drop of more 39,000 from 2022, According to Andrea Stillwell, Director, Butler Amusements, Inc. what seemed most apparent were the frayed edges of the robust spending narrative. “First and foremost, the communities we serve are really feeling the squeeze of the recession and we believe we will continue to see the effects of our customers scrutinizing entertainment spending even more in 2024,” she said. “With fair attendance back to normal since the pandemic, customers are now even more interested in VIP/Fast Pass experiences. We have expanded our Fast Pass program to many of our larger fairs and our customers are responding with enthusiasm.”
Cashless midway systems may be the rule especially among the behemoth fairs and their partner carnival companies, but Butler Amusement may be the first large-scale midway provider to digitize transaction the entire route. “In 2023, Butler Amusements expanded its electronic ticketing system with Magic Money to 100 percent of fairs, events, and still dates. The electronic ticketing system has made it easier for customers to enjoy rides without waiting in long ticketing lines and the additional data from the system has been immensely useful in streamlining our services.”
Like other large carnival companies, Butler Amusements expanded its social media presence, supplementing their fair partner marketing efforts while cultivating its own following. “Customers are seeking online confirmation regarding events,” she explained. “A social media ad is good but a link to additional information regarding the event on our site is better. For the customer it legitimizes the event. It has truly benefited us to post our entire carnival route schedule on our newly redesigned website. Customer feedback has been very positive regarding the layout, ease of information and the addition of ride lists and height requirement availability on our site for each event.”
Butler Amusements - photo by Steve Hinz
Connecting with fairgoers through personalized social media communications seems inherent in the company's philosophy in general that resulted in a successful 2023. “Our fair partner's excellent branding, marketing and entertainment combined with our modern midway and newer high capacity rides have created a family friendly environment that continues to cater to our local communities.”
Weather Weather Weather However, Mother Nature can be moody. “We also are seeing more weather related issues than in year's past,” she said. “Giant windstorms, hurricane remnants as far east as Idaho and scorching California summers are really causing fairs and events on the west coast to take an attendance hit.”
A severe summer heat wave hit much of the country in 2023, which held back the Erie County Fair and York County Fair from reaching their full potential, according to Marty Biniasz, Director of Marketing & Community Relations, Strates Shows. The century-old mobile amusement park has two of the fastest growing fairs in top 50 list, attracting 1,525,310 attendees, 25,154 more than 2022. “You couldn't have asked for a better season for the 100th anniversary of Strates Shows, he said. “The York County & Erie County fairs really kicked off their summers this year, their numbers continue to grow. We had our best year at Erie County, a record –breaking year and the record we broke was from last year.”
Extreme weather events were not limited to region or season. Snow, sleet and freezing rain closed down The Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo for four days, yet the event had a record year, as did the Ohio State Fair, the two fairs that secure Talley Amusements #4 ranking. These two fairs combined attracted 2,276,228 -- 187,555 more than last year. “We were closed four days, it's unbelievable,” said Mary Talley. “I think our business model for Talley Amusements, and that we strive for high attendance and revenue, makes the difference.”
The path to these two distinct record-breaking events – in two separate regions of the U.S. and times of the year – show how adaptable the model is. Based in Fort Worth, Talley Amusements has provided its home town midway for 20 years – exactly, 2003 was the first time according to Mary Talley – “In two decades we've built relationships and a trust, and they allow you do your thing, which is that we always strive to do better. It's a 20 year alliance.”
Ohio has been a completely different scenario. Talley took over in 2019, the first new midway provider for the annual celebration of everything Buckeye State in more than a quarter century.
Then came COVID, which closed down the event for two years. Last year, “We were regaining the trust with the patron, who were coming back after a devastating event,” she said.
The trust was with the fairgoer as well as the fair. This year's record-breaker – aided by a stretch of ideal weather – indicates that fair management and its midway provider have found their synergy. “We are building a relationship with the fair, which never had our rides or the Magic Money system. This year we added more points of sale, it was smooth as silk. It was well received, because now everyone's familiar with it. I'm very excited about their decision to put fiber [optic cable] on the grounds for next year.”
View Top Carnivals Playing the 2023 Top 50 Fairs List