Windy City Amusements marks its 35th year of operation in 2012, but there won't be a whole lot of celebrating over the milestone.
With money tight for the carnival after a 2011 season hit hard by rain and an economy still in recovery, owner/operator Tony Salerno prefers to keep a low profile in Chicago where the competition is fierce for filling spring and summer festivals.
"Our season was a disaster," Salerno said "People still need jobs with the bad economy and the bad weather was a factor."
For Windy City, the books do not officially close on 2011 until Jan. 8, the final day of the Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago.
For the second consecutive year, Windy City booked five rides for the indoor event, a Ferris wheel, Himalaya, Tilt-a-Whirl, Cliffhanger and merry-go-round. The Tilt and merry-go-round were re-themed as the Winter Wonder Whirl and Kringle Carousel to lend a festive feel to the holiday attraction.
The wonderfest is not a huge moneymaker for Windy City considering its costs tied to the event, but the mild weather over the holidays produced big crowds for what will ultimately be a successful five-week run at Navy Pier, according to Salerno.
The 11th annual winterfest, sponsored by Bank of America, has had a few shows provide rides over the past decade, including Jeff Blomsness' All-Star Amusements and Bill Johnson's Fantasy Amusements. In some cases, the rides came from more than one show.
"It was one package deal for us; Navy Pier didn't have to go through two to three vendors," Salerno said."We sandblasted all the rides and the fair was very happy with how it turned out."
Moving ahead, Windy City plans to roll out a third unit for 2012 that could play 10 to 15. The demand is there and the carnival has the equipment to make it work, Salerno said. It's been three to four years since the show broke out a third unit, he said.
Windy City, based in St. Charles, Ill., is strictly a 40-mile show these days. It gave up the Kane County Fair a few years ago, a spot picked up by Fantasy Amusements. But in the country's third-largest market, some suburban festivals are on par with smaller county fairs. Windy City has kept in business through strong relationships over 30 years with dates in Geneva and Bolingbrook, Ill., and a Fourth of July celebration in Palatine, where the annual fireworks display draws thousands from northwest Chicagoland.
The carnival does not plan to purchase any new rides this year but could buy a used piece, whether it's a Scrambler or a Spider. With new rides priced at $400,000 to $500,000 and the cost of kiddie attractions more than $150,000, the days of buying new rides every year is out of the question, Salerno said.
"The manufacturers are outpricing themselves and shows are not buying rides like they used to," he said. "The suppliers are selling more parts."
Windy City did buy more support equipment, including six automatic ticket dispensers to replace ticket booths that used to be standard by every ride. The dispensers distribute ride tickets for cash, speeding up the process and eliminating the potential for employee theft, Salerno said.
The show's key employees are: Russell Humphrey, ride superintendent, and his wife, Heather, food manager; and Denise Weinman, office manager. Tony's two brothers, Mike and Mark Salerno, run the first and second unit, respectively.
Mark Salerno's son, Mark Jr., is the carnivals' information technology manager. Tony's wife and Mark's wife, run the main office in St. Charles.
Tony Salerno Sr., the show's patriarch, is CEO and his wife Ruth is treasurer. "He's still writing the checks," Tony Jr. said.
Jimmy Johnson is Windy city's top independent concessionaire, booking seven games with the show. Johnson runs a "great operation, clean and honest," Tony said. "If more operators were like him, it would be a better business for everybody."
Windy City controls all the food trailers.
For labor in general, Salerno prefers to hire Americans, going against the trend where many carnivals hire international workers that they feel are more dependable compared with their domestic counterparts. It hasn't been an issue for Windy City, a show that conducts weekly background checks, Salerno said.