Carnival owners are faced with a number of concerning issues in 2018 says Frank Zaitshik. He runs Michigan-based Wade Shows, which ranks among North America's biggest outdoor amusement companies.
Like many carnivals, Wade Shows owns a KMG Fireball, the same type of ride involved in a tragic accident in Columbus last summer. Under a directive issued by the European manufacturer, a kit was engineered by KMG to replace components on the Fire Ball that had a tendency to form corrosion. As a result, Wade Shows purchased an updated kit consisting of new gondolas for their Fire Ball in order to operate the ride.
The gondolas were changed by KMG on newer models.
At the same time, there's been some confusion over how to address the issue of corrosion and be compliant with the fixes required, according to Zaitshik.
Several ride manufacturers have issued bulletins stating that in addition to mandatory NDT requirements, ride manufacturers should be aware of any other areas where moisture could build up.
"The Ohio State Fair accident has opened a Pandora's box of both irrational and rational decisions for the industry in general on where to look for corrosion," he said.
"The [consensus] is to be aware and on the lookout for where moisture is [on the ride]. That's a big window to look through and climb through. We may need some more direction on that issue, but we have an outstanding group of people to take care of it."
"The Fire Ball kit replaces all those areas where corrosion could build up," Zaitshik said. "As long as the engineering is done correctly and reviewed accurately, it will be accepted back into operation."
The potential for rising costs such as insurance and labor will determine whether Wade Shows will be in the market for new equipment. The carnival has been aggressive over the past few years for buying new rides, and now is the time to make sure they're up-to-date and operable, Zaitshik said.
The Fireball kit alone is expensive, he said. The cost to upgrade runs from about $123,000 to $185,000 (U.S. figures) depending on the extent of the replacement package and other bells and whistles such as a new paint job, he said.
The other big issue is labor, which continues to be a headache for the carnival industry. For 2018, the "cap" for international workers tied to the H2B program remains at 66,000 laborers, the same as last year and a big reduction from 2016.
As a result, several shows may go through the same struggle again this year finding help after not getting the workers from Mexico and South Africa that they applied for under the federal program, Zaitshik said.
"The carnival industry is still looking for relief from Congress," he said. "Of those 66,000 workers, the number is divided into two segments [of distribution]. The first one was reached December 16. We were under the cap and did get 100 guys on January 8 and we expect another 100 in April. I don't know though ... what we have found is sometimes the Department of Labor doesn't always follow protocol. It's more along the lines of 'first come, first served.'"
Wade Shows is one of the first of the bigger carnivals to start the season, playing two of Florida's major fairs in West Palm Beach and Tampa.
The South Florida Fair had some cold weather and a bit of rain, but the weather held up on the final Sunday and the the carnival finished the run with a ride gross close to last year's record, Zaitshik said.
In Tampa, the Florida State Fair made some adjustments, taking over part of the midway for its own use. As a result, Wade set up 110 rides compared with 124 at last year's event. It was a good move for everybody, allowing the carnival to consolidate its operation and relieve some crowd congestion, he said.
The Sky Eye, the 155-foot-tall Ferris wheel co-owned by Wade Shows and independent ride owner Michael Wood, had a solid run, as well as the Giant Slide that the carnival manages for the fair.
Last year, the wheel made its North American debut in Tampa, but the ride was shut down for two days due to high winds. This year, the weather was "picture perfect," Zaitshik said.
The only downfall was President's Day, he said. Tampa-area schools are typically closed for the holiday, but this year was a makeup day after Hurricane Irma, which affected midway revenue, he said.
The San Antonio Livestock Show & Rodeo was a different story. Wade Shows experienced its worst weather in many years, which greatly affected business, Zaitshik said.
On its own, the Sky Eye could potentially add more dates this year after playing a half-dozen fairs in 2017, including independent midways in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Georgia.
Jerry Hammer, manager of the Minnesota State Fair, was among those who saw the wheel drive increases in food and drink sales from vendors set up near the attraction as patrons grabbed a bite to eat, hung out and watched the ride in motion.
"It was a fantastic hit every place it went," Zaitshik said. "We signed long-term deals every place we went. The smartest thing I did was take on Michael Wood as a partner. It's a good piece with a lot of capacity and repeat ridership. Over time, it should become one of those iconic pieces, where people say, 'I've got to to go to the fair and ride the Sky Eye.'"
View the complete 2018 Florida State Fair photo gallery
New Wade Shows Front Gate at the Florida State Fair
Lil Pardner Land front gate at the Florida State Fair
Rest areas at the Florida State Fair
Newly refurbished Pirates Paradise (Raiders)
Florida State Fair Midway
Newly refurbished Tilt-A-Whirl at the FSF
Florida State Fair midway
Newly refurbished Wipe Out at the Florida State Fair
Midway Sky Eye
Wade Shows office compound at the Florida State Fair