Shaw & Sons: A Family Carnival Business Continues to Grow
Shaw & Sons carnival was started by co-owner Roy Shaw’s grandfather Leroy Shaw in 1945, and a lot has changed since then. “He built a train ride, and he started with that,” Shaw says. “Now we have 27 rides, and we also have 4 food wagons and 20 games.”
The original train ride was built in Leroy Shaw’s yard when he was a sheet metal worker in Baltimore. It ran on a circle in the backyard until word of mouth about the ride resulted in requests to use it at fundraisers. A kiddie airplane ride that he built after the train is still making children smile at today’s carnivals.
Shaw notes that today, his third-generation carnival midways can be tailored to any event’s needs, both large and small.
When it comes to rides, the carnival has “all the normal rides people enjoy. Nothing that’s super spectacular. I don’t want to work that hard,” Shaw jokes. The carnival has Ferris Wheels, a Cobra, and other popular contemporary rides. The most popular? “I would have to say our Zipper and a 3-abreast Chance Carousel.”
The Cobra and the Tempest ride are the carnival’s two newest additions, and they are both doing well.
Along with new rides, Shaw has been upgrading numerous existing rides. “We are putting in a lot of new LED lighting,” he says, adding that the new lights are making older rides look brighter and increasing guest interest. “We’ve upgraded the Tempest, Cobra, and Paratrooper in terms of the lighting. I’ve also put new LEDs on some of my joints, and on my popcorn wagon. I just had the marquee on the popcorn wagon redone with LEDs.” While the resulting excitement about the new look for attractions with these lights has been great, Shaw notes “I’m actually spending more money on LEDs right now that on rides.”
Speaking of rides, while Shaw is always on the lookout for new additions to the carnival, it isn’t a quick decision. “We have no future plans for new rides specifically, because we’re a family business, and everyone has to have a vote and decide what they want,” he explains.
With the family nature of the business in mind, Shaw keeps the carnival itself decisively family-oriented, too. “We use elementary school teachers to operate our games. We reach out to them to let them know that we have employment if they need some summertime jobs.” This unique approach worked in part because Shaw was president of his children’s school PTA for some time. “We don’t have any agents operating our games. We’re in the local community and we want our game operators to be local, too. We needed help, the teachers needed work, and the process was easy,” he attests. “We are local: we don’t have bunks or house trailers, they simply come to work when we open and go home at 11 p.m. when we close. If we have any distance to go, any travel, then we put all of our employees up in hotels.”
This approach keeps all staff members happy, Shaw relates.
“Our ride operators are also locals. I have two, 15-passenger vans that go out every day and pick up all the help, and take them back at night. No one sleeps on the lot here.” Shaw reports that is something very different from the way many carnivals operate. “We are a basic 40-miler in terms of the distances we set up, so it’s easier for us to do it this way,” he attests, adding “That results in a lot of people wanting to work for us. And we treat everyone who does like family.”
Along with the rides and locally operated games, Shaw offers a strong selection of fun food items at his carnival. “Our food wagons feature traditional treats such as cotton candy, pizza, popcorn, and funnel cakes. And there’s something new on the food side of things this year,” he notes, “Fresh squeezed lemonade. We just added a new lemonade tent and everyone loves it.”
Attendance this year appears strong, although Shaw has only been operating for 6 weeks as of this writing, so he terms it “tough to gauge entirely so far.” He explains that attendance really does depend on the weather, and he’s had a few nights of rain on weekends that results in lower attendance.
The carnival operates throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, including West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. “We do a lot of shows on the eastern shore of Maryland right now,” he says. “Some of the places we set up most often are events such as fire department and church fairs.”
Marketing of the carnival is focusing more and more on social media. “We use Facebook and Twitter quite a bit. Facebook is really the best way to promote now. You can put contests and coupons up on the site, and it’s all very flexible. You can move on and target every area you go with your carnival information, and it’s easy to do. Social media is just really the way to go today, I think.” Looking at other marketing options, Shaw says “Posters are to a large extent falling by the wayside when it comes to marketing. Sometimes we do local papers, particularly if you can get one that is also online, that makes it more likely.”
Over the years, while specific rides and attractions may change, the underlying goal of offering locally-staffed family fun has not. The biggest change for Shaw is the rising cost of doing business, he says. “The cost goes up all the time, from insurance which went up 5% to the cost of fuel. It’s a challenge, because the ride grosses do not go up at the same rate that the cost of doing business does. You have to balance out how much you spend and how much you can charge. You have to think about how much you can get for a cotton candy, for example, before someone won’t want to buy it.”
Summing up, Shaw explains that “Looking toward the future, we’re just trying to keep it simple. There have been 4 or 5 shows that have closed in recent years. We just want to stay afloat out there and continue to offer plenty of fun.”