A of A heads to Ohio State Fair Despite good start, gas price poses a challenge
By Don Muret
Five days before opening day, Domnic Vivona Sr. settles in at the Ohio State Fair after Amusements of America completed a 550-mile jump from their previous spot in New Jersey.
It's one of the biggest leaps between dates for the Big A, a carnival celebrating its 71st season of operation. For one of the largest outdoor amusement outfits in the world, the high cost of gas also makes it a painful trip in some respects after playing the State Fair Meadowlands.
"If I said it wasn't hurting us, I'd be lying," the elder Vivona said. "Five hundred and 50 miles, at $4 per gallon, plus the cost of drivers. Nobody has 60 to 70 drivers to spare these days. There is no doubt it's costing us money."
Nobody knows the ups and downs of the carnival industry more than Vivona, 79, and his two brothers, Morris, 90, and Phil, who turns 76 in August. All three are still active and travel with the two units. John Vivona and Sebastian "Babe" Vivona, the two other Vivona brothers and show co-founders are both deceased.
Halfway through the 2011 season, there is an upside, Vivona said. Midway spending is up this season, an encouraging sign for a year-round operation that is always on the road. "All our good spots have done better than last year and the weather has been nice; that's been a big help," he said.
"Overall, it's been a decent year. It appears people are not going away on vacation but staying closer to home. And for those people who aren't working, it looks like they are spending their unemployment money."
Five sons of the Vivona brothers are in primarily in charge of running the operation now. Dominic's two sons, Dominic Jr. and Marco, plus Phil's sons, Robbie and John, and Morris Jr., ensure the show continues running smoothly in its eighth decade. Marco and Robbie run the first unit set up in Columbus. Dominic Jr. is the carnival's controller.
They have plenty of help from some long-time employees. Mike Inman is one of the show managers. Billy Costagliola is in charge of safety regulations. Tony McMorrow and Richard Donais are chief electricians. Shirley Hodge is the carnival's secretary. John Thomas Vivona supervises winter quarters.
Independent ride owner Bob McKnight books several kiddie rides with Amusements of America, continuing a relationship with Vivonas that has lasted about 25 years.
Jane Baxter-Vivona, matriarch of the old Cumberland Valley Shows, married Phil Vivona several years ago after her husband Billy Baxter died. She owns a monkey ride, Space Roller and a kiddy drop tower. She has booked those attractions with Amusements of America as well as the Minnesota State Fair and State Fair of Oklahoma, Vivona said.
Overall, labor is holding its own. The show does not employ as many international workers as it used to, Vivona said. At the same time, there are not as many experienced "died-in-the-wool" employees that could be counted on to educate the younger, inexperienced workers.
"Like everybody esle, some are decent, some are just learning. We do our best to train them," he said.
The fall route has the carnival playing major fairs in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia, wrapping up in November at the Okefenokee Fair in Waycross, Ga. Then the show loads equipoment on a boat and plays Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic until the end of January.
The Big A has booked spots in Puerto Rico since 1994 and this will be the fifth year the carnival has played Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Business continues to grow on that island after a slow start, Vivona said.
This year, Amusmements of America's biggest new attraction is a Vertigo swing ride purchased from ARM. In addition, show officials completely renovated the Musik Express and it looks brand new, Vivona said. Installing energy-efficient LED lights on the Big Wheels has provided a big savings.
Back in Columbus, Vivona had high hopes for the Ohio State Fair, an event that in recent years has been cut from 17 days to 12 days and moved back a week earlier to late July. Amusements of America has held that spot since 1993 and Vivona likes the changes the state fair has made. Both the fair and the carnival can generate as much revenue in 12 days as they used to under the old schedule, Vivona said.
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