The giant Ferris wheel co-owned by Frank Zaitshik and Michael Wood makes its debut at the Wisconsin State Fair this week. It's the first of three consecutive appearances at state fairs for the new attraction over the next 30 days, and comes six months after the wheel was first showcased at the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
The immense attraction has been off the road since Tampa, giving the partnership time to install lights on the 36 gondolas and rack the 11 transport trailers, Wood said. After playing West Allis, the wheel heads to the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul and the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City. All three fairs are 10-day spots and two feature independent midways.
The 15-person crew can now set up and tear down the 155-foot-tall behemoth in four days and Wood ex
pects to reduce that time frame in the future. Initially, it took about five days to set up in Tampa, he said.
In West Allis, the wheel is themed as the "WonderWheel" and supermarket chain Meijer is sponsoring the ride. The grocery's brand is flashed on the 200-square-foot LED display fronting the ride. It's set up on the west side of State Fair Park, where the old marketplace once stood, near the Giant Slide and about three blocks from the grandstand, Wood said.
The fair's website says riders will have visibility of more than 10 miles from the top of the wheel. The fair starts Thursday and runs through Aug. 13.
In St. Paul, it will be called the "Great Big Wheel," sponsored by Cricket Wireless. In Oklahoma City, it's the "Sky Eye," and as of late July, the fair had yet to sign a sponsor, Wood said. The Minnesota State Fair dates are Aug. 24-Sept. 4. The Oklahoma State Fair runs Sept 14-24.
At all three fairs, the cost to ride the wheel is $5. The fee is relatively inexpensive considering it's one of just two portable wheels of its size playing fairs and festivals. Wood and Zaitshik kept the ticket price low after signing revenue split deals that pay the fairs less than 10 percent of gross sales. In turn, the fairs generate revenue through the sponsorships they sell for the wheel, Wood said.
"The fair gets the majority of sponsorship dollars and we get most of the ride ticket revenue," he said. "It's a flexible rent structure that escalates over time. The way we look at it [long term], this is a distance race, not a sprint. We can offer value at an exceptional rate for the first two to three years and build a following to the point that riding the wheel becomes a 'must-do' event. Then we'll think about raising the price."
Wood weighed in on the tragic ride accident on July 26 that killed one person and injured multiple others at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. It occurred on the KMG-manufactured Fire Ball owned by Amusements of America, which is known in the industry as one of the most respected carnivals in North America.
"I talked to Dominic [Vivona] Jr. and told him to keep his chin up, there's nothing you can do," Wood said. "That ride was inspected by the state and a private firm. The fatality is not good for anybody in the business ...and it raises doubt in the mind of the average everyday fairgoer about something they rarely think about, because our safety record is so good. As an industry, we handle hundreds of millions of people annually with a low rate of incidents. Our incidents are high profile because they're so infrequent."
In the aftermath of the accident, ride inspectors in Wisconsin went through all rides with a "fine tooth comb," which is fine with Wood and something he encourages as carnivals across the country come to grips with what happened in Ohio.
"They're being very thorough on inspections and trying very hard not to miss anything, regardless of the equipment, and that's exactly what they should be doing," he said. "We look at our equipment every single day and it's human nature to take things for granted. We have hundreds of thousands of lives in our hands every three to five minutes and that's a big responsibility."
In other states such as Illinois, state inspectors suspended the operation of multiple Fire Balls until further notice, as well as the Freak Out, a similar ride produced by KMG. On Tuesday, Illinois announced it would allow Freak Outs and similar rides to operate pending NDT testing and re-inspection by state inspectors. This will allow operators to begin using their Freak Out rides at events within the week, as well as the State Fair next week in Springfield.
Big picture, Wood said it's difficult to gauge the economic downfall fairs and carnivals may experience as a result of the accident. Some people may take a pass on attending their local fair over the next year. In Columbus, unfortunately, it didn't help that the accident occurred on opening day, he said.
About a week after the accident, most rides had re-opened at the Ohio State Fair. On July 30, Amusements of America issued a statement that said the issue was tied to the ride itself with no operator error involved.
The family of Tyler Jarrell, meanwhile, the 18-year-old killed in the accident, has retained an attorney to file a wrongful death suit, according to multiple reports.
"The activists will 'double down' because they never let a good crisis go to waste and say we need more regulation," Wood said. "It's something that could happen at fairs serviced by Amusements of America or any of the rest of us for that matter. Nobody's judgement is infallible."