Tinsley Amusements and Fountain City Amusements: Midwest Carnival Companies with Plenty of Heart
At Fountain City Amusements in St. Louis, Missouri, owner Joe Sutton has an optimistic outlook for 2019. While Fountain City has not purchased new rides for the season, he’s been busy in the off-season refurbishing existing rides. “We’ve put a new LED light package on our Skymaster, and thoroughly refurbished my Ferris Wheel. 96 lights on each spoke. We took everything down and repainted from bare metal,” he relates.
Sutton says that while his season hasn’t started yet for this year, he’s fully booked, with his own shows booked for six months in Missouri and Illinois, “All within a 200-mile radius of St. Louis,” he notes. Prior to that he books rides with others in the Texas and Arkansas area, including Laredo, Brownsville, and Beaumont. In the fall season he goes to Louisiana and back to Laredo, Texas for two weeks. “Then I am home by Thanksgiving, and that’s the way I like it,” he asserts.
His is truly a family business, and he often works in conjunction with his children; “My youngest daughter, who owns American Banner Amusements in Illinois, has 19 rides in all; I have 24, and if we work on a show together we often have 30 rides. My youngest son does most of our games, although I will send out my own gold fish game. My oldest daughter and her husband do the food concessions.”
Sutton himself grew up in the business. “My dad was a ride jock. At the end of the Depression era, whenever circuses and carnival came to our town, my dad would take off with the show. He grew up on the road. Those were different times though,” he reminisces. “When my dad passed away in 2000, he had a beautiful little show with a custom office trailer and he worked hard for it. When I was a little kid, he had kiddie rides, and later he had a show called Ride A Rama, and ran shows for Domos Rides out of St. Louis. For a while he was out of the carnival business,” Sutton laughs, remembering the story, “but one day, we went for a swim at Indian Foot Lake near St. Charles, Missouri, and while we were swimming he bought the train that ran around the lake. Then we were back in the carnival business.”
While Sutton had been buying his own equipment for years, after his father’s passing, and to avoid any family hassles with others who had their own ideas about booking, he went out on his own. “At Christmas time I said I loved them all, but I went out on my own so that we wouldn’t have any future disagreements,” he explains. That was in 2001.
“My most popular ride right now would be the Scrambler, it’s so beatuiful and most of the time it is the top dog, with Aladdin and Paratrooper coming in second. But if I hit a really good spot, my Skymaster loads 32 riders at a time, and that means great volume, it’s a terrific ride for a strong booking. If things are slow, you can always count on the old Ferris Wheel. People will get on that even if nothing else is moving.” He also says that his Kiddie Land, replete with bumper boats, and fun houses are strong sellers.
As to his best bookings, he says it varies. “This year, honestly, I would just as soon play a church picnic as a big fair. Often you get the same kind of money with less time and aggregation,” he chuckles. “I like my big fairs of course, but it takes more days to set them up. I do state fairs, and I do church picnics, I run the gambit, plain and simple. Some of my spots of all sizes we have been with for years. For 45 years, my dad and mom before me, we have booked the Jackson Homecoming in Jackson, Missouri.”
Located in High Hill, Missouri, Tinsley’s Amusements is a family-owned carnival company offering rides, games, and food concessions throughout Missouri and Illinois since 1964.
The company operates over twenty amusement rides and attractions aimed across the board from kiddie rides to thrill rides, with family-friendly rides a strong focus. Tinsley presents their amusements at regional fairs and festivals as well as smaller events such as fundraisers and church fairs in this Midwest region. The company also leases rides such as carousels to permanent locations in the area, including a variety of museums and tourist-focused attractions, through their sister company, Family Entertainment.
According to owner Richard Tinsley, “The last new ride we purchased was Downdraft and it has done very well for us. We didn’t buy new rides last year, and there are none yet planned for 2019,” he says. In addition to the shows route, Tinsley booked the Downdraft on the independent midway at the Minnesota State Fair in 2018 where it performed well.
The company is known for its strong devotion to ride safety, with venues such as the Champaign, Ill. County Fair praising Tinsley as being a long-term purveyor of popular rides such as the Cliffhanger and Predator, and the rides offered always being trouble-free and safety-conscious. The stress on safety is hardly a surprise, as Illinois describes the state’s safety procedures as among the most thorough in the U.S.
Although Tinsley is proud of the strong reputation his carnival has for great maintenance and solid attractions, Tinsley says this year so far, his “hands are tied on moving forward.” Last year, the company experienced a variety of weather issues throughout the circuit, he says, and this year labor needs are in flux. He cites the difficulty in receiving H-2B visas for foreign guest workers. While he’s looking ahead and hopeful, at this point, Tinsley is in a holding pattern for 2019.