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Some rides come and go, but others become fair staples. For example, the Crazy Mouse coaster will still appear at the State Fair of Texas, Minnesota State Fair, Santa's Enchanted Forest and other major midways across the U.S. as it has for decades.  The coaster already appeared at the San Diego County Fair and Ventura County Fair in California.

Fairgoers will likely notice little to no difference, but behind the scenes carnival companies noted one of the leading independent contractors and carnival company subcontractors will not be returning to the road.

Steve Vandervorste, founder of SJ Entertainment, has announced his retirement and sold off his famed retinue of rides, including the aforementioned Crazy Mouse, which was purchased by Michael Wood of Wood Entertainment, an SDC Windstorm Coaster, acquired by Ray Cammack Shows and a Huss Flipper, acquired by Helm & Sons Amusements.


Right Timing

“I am retired at this point, said Vandervoste. “It will be my first summer at home, except for the COVID lockdown. I'll miss the camaraderie and friendship of the people in the fair business, the managers and carnival people and the food concessionaires, so many wonderful people are in this business, and it's them that I will certainly miss the most.”

A flurry of carnival companies and related businesses closed shop during and/or due to COVID, while the lockdown and revenue loss was the most obvious direct cause, the crisis seemed to act more as a catalyst speeding up an inevitable closure. COVID as a factor is undeniable, but Vandervorste pointed out a sequence of other factors, as well as personal health issues, that contributed to his decision to gracefully bid adieu.

“I'm 67 years old and I figured I wasn't getting any younger and I have seven grandchildren I would like to spend time with,” said Vandervoste. “I think with the coronavirus, in 2020, we got used to being at home and 2021 was a very hard year with getting workers and that problem is only getting worse. With the Russia invasion of Ukraine and the price of fuel and everything else going up, I think that I made the right decision, it's going to be a lot of work this year for lower returns than last year.”

Michael Wood of Wood Entertainment, a colleague of Vandervoste for more than 20 years and now current custodian of the Crazy Mouse, is also a leading independent contractor and subcontractor, who has him playing many dates alongside SJ Entertainment. “We've been competitors and very good friends and if anyone deserves some R&R it's Steve. I sincerely wish him well. He was an innovator and a lover of roller coasters. A fair manager just texted me the other day thanking me for bringing the Crazy Mouse back, it had a picture with the grandkids.”


COVID Challenges

Navigating through the turbulence of the pandemic era has been a challenge for all segments of the outdoor event industry, but the impact on independent contractors has been uniquely acute. “Independent contractors on one level, had the same struggles as has every business,” said Wood. “In 2019, we made some money but we struggled with the H2B situation and at the end of the day, COVID multiplied those problems. A lot of us came out in 2021 and made a lot of money, had the best years, but they struggled and worked very hard for it.”

By his own admittance, Steve grew up on the midway. His father, Dick Vandervorste owned Van Equipment Company, an independent contractor who for a time specialized in kiddie rides. Among Steve's earliest memories is his ather having dinner with Ray Cammack, Guy Leavitt, Al Brown and John Hanschen, “I remember them being together. It was in South Dakota, I was born in Sioux Falls and my parents had them over for dinner.”

The father and son team worked together until the former's retirement and the formation of SJ Entertainment in the early 2000s. “In the 80s, we had portable Log Flume ride that did very well. We also had Zyklon Roller Coasters. The Crazy Mouse, which I've had for about 20 years, is also a unique design that has done very well.  It's a spinning coaster, a great family ride for young and old. It's always been popular. I'm glad that it will still be part of the fairs.”

According to Wood, the lasting impact this father and son independent carnival company team has had on the midways will live on. “You never saw those types of spinning coasters before at the fairs in the U.S. The majority of American carnival companies were naysayers, they though that they would never work here. He was the first one to bring a portable Crazy Mouse coaster.”


Educated Guesses

While coaster diversity may now be the rule, not the exception at most of the large fairs, back in the day, few had the Vandervoste foresight. “Not all rides that are popular in Europe can be popular in the states. Steve and his father were gamblers in the sense they were willing to bet on new rides and they often bet right. They made some of the best educated guesses in the business. ”

According to Wood, the gauge of a ride's success comes in year three, when the newness has worn off.   Will fairgoers ride a third year? “He had the guts to find a ride that would attract  repeat riders. They were good year three, four, five and beyond. His rides are always in the money, and that gives them longevity.”

He added. “Steve's rides have been a reliable and dependable part of the top fairs in the country.  He's gotten a proven track record. He saw rides for the biggest segment of the fairgoers. He provides a full time focus on the equipment he provides, with rides that are unique, popular, have special needs and can be labor intensive, but they're rides that people don't want to leave the fair until they've ridden them.”

With larger carnival companies separating into units, and SJ Entertainment's key pieces being acquired by existing companies who already play the same route, it appears that the days of the independent contractor with a selection of unique pieces to fill in midway gaps may be numbered. “It's a different business model than you have today,” said Wood. “In today's labor, it's harder to find the workers and the rides are labor intensive. The smaller companies were the ones haven't made it through COVID.”

What the future will hold for independent contractors may be uncertain, but in the past a keen eye for equipment and an understanding of what fairgoers wanted helped make Vandervorste critical part of the midways of some of the nation's biggest fairs. “Even back with my father, we never held the contract,” said Vandervorste. “We always were independent. We did what we knew best. We've been with some fairs a long time, 35 years at San Diego, 25 at the Minnesota State Fair. A lot of good memories, and we're a big part of the summer for a lot of people.”
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