Located in Youngstown, Ohio, Tim Bortner's Bortner Shows Midway is celebrating five years in business after withstanding the pandemic, and moving successfully through 2021.
The carnival company owns three mechanical rides, four inflatable rides, 14 games and six food concessions. According to Bortner, “Our Hampton dinosaur ride is the most popular for us at the moment, although in the past, our King Kiddie Ferris Wheel, which rises about fifteen feet tall, has been our most important.” Bortner also owns the Adventure Racer Rabbit, and among the inflatable rides, he has a race slide with giant bounce pad, a 30-foot-long obstacle course, a 14-foot wave slide with the appearance of a giant wave, and a kiddie bounce attraction.
He began with the Kiddie Ferris Wheel, which he is currently revamping and refurbishing. “We are replacing the motor from gas to electric, and we are repainting it,” he says.
Following his initial acquisition of the Ferris Wheel, Bortner purchased four inflatables, food, games, and more inflatables, two of which he sold this year. This year he also added three mechanical rides, after selling two to buy another one. “We keep growing, but slowly. Honestly, my goal is to remain small as long as we can. I don't want to get too big too fast and burn ourselves out.”
And burn out can indeed be an issue – especially this year when it was difficult to hire help post-pandemic. “We usually have 15 to 20 people working for us, but this year, we were only able to bring in 8 to 10. We had family and friends coming in to help us.” Bortner only hires U.S.-based crews. He explains “It was really hard there for a couple of events. We couldn't get the support we needed on crews. A few times we had equipment set up from the week prior at one location, and we couldn't get it all to the next location because of lack of crew.” He's hoping there will be more interest in the lively and friendly seasonal employment he offers next year.
Bortner worked in food concessions before establishing the carnival itself and today offers a wide variety of food in his own concession operations. “We offer funnel cakes, elephant ears, deep fried cookies and all that fun stuff. We also have the Midway Grill which provides burgers, fries, and Wacky Tacos. And of course, we have a popper for caramel corn.”
But the most unique food venue he has is geared to vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free dining customers. “It is a more health-conscious venue. We started in 2019 and have had great success for it.” The booth is currently only set up in five locations for the entire carnival season, but it is very popular where it is scheduled, he notes. “We have veggie burgers and veggie dogs, salads, we do offer a steak and chicken salad and a vegan salad, and grilled corn, things like that. I have only ever seen one like ours in this area. We had that at venues such as Pride festivals, art, and culture festivals. It doesn't go to our fair customers as much.”
Turning to games, Bortner says “We created a lot of our games ourselves. Our goal is to eventually move them into trailers, but currently our games are housed in 10 x 10 tents with attractive graphics on them. Our most popular is a new Kiddie Hi Striker with a clown; we also have a ring a bottle, a balloon pop, and three duck ponds that we can separate into two units to serve two events at once. I think having a duck pond is fun and important at any fair.”
The carnival's route includes Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, with Ohio events taking up approximately 90% of Bortner's season. “We hold a contract for about 36 fairs, festivals, and private events and rentals,” Bortner explains. “Our venues include the North Canton, Ohio Italian Festival, and the Homewood Harvest Festival in Pennsylvania. All of our fairs are good for us.”
He is grateful to put the pandemic experience behind him. “In June and July this year there was great attendance. People were ready to get out of their houses and quarantine with everything canceled last year. But the new variant slowed things later in the season. I am just happy there was a season – if there wasn't, like so many operators, I don't know where we would've been.”
The carnival stresses safety, and professionalism in all its operations, according to Bortner. “We try to form a relationship with every festival and fair that we do. We attend meetings with fair boards during our winter months, so they know who we are, and that they can trust and work with us. Forming that relationship is very important to me, so that when we come to their town, they know who we are.”
Additionally, Bortner provides extensive training for every employee, not only on technical operation, but about “how to speak with the public and work with the public, including different diversities and abilities. We want every child and every family to feel safe and comfortable on our midway. Those are our priorities.”
He also wants families to have a good time. “At every game, every child walks away with a prize. It doesn't cost that much money, it's really just a matter of cents, and I want everyone to walk away happy.” He points out that he is in “this business of entertainment. Of course, we make money, but the main concern to me and my family is to provide an entrainment for families to be safe and have an amazing time. Like I always say to my employees, at some smaller towns, we may be the only thing that comes there once a year. So, we want everyone to feel as happy and excited as possible in that one day or one week we are in that town. I think we have done that. I think that sets us apart from other shows doing these kinds of events.”
Prices vary by venue, but games are $3 to $5; ride wristbands between $15 and $18, with some dollar days at larger events.
Bortner is looking at adding new games in 2022 and plans to have the Ferris Wheel back on the circuit. He's always open to new rides, he relates. “I like something new on the midway. I think it's important to have something new and different for the communities we serve. I want to share that we can be creative and keep going strong with five years behind us, as opposed to a bigger company that has been in the business for 50 years. I want people to know that you don't have to grow up in the carnival business, you can start one on your own. I started this business because I had a passion for it. I've loved it all my life.”
And he still does.