Richard Tinsley can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it points to a small amusement park in Missouri.
Tinsley, 76, owner of Tinsley's Amusements, says he is close to retiring from the carnival business so he can focus on opening a kiddie park near the show's headquarters in High Hill, Mo. The site is on 130 acres of land Tinsley owns off I-70, 60 miles west of St. Louis.
Those who know Tinsley best might tell you he has been saying the same thing for 20 years.
All joking aside, Tinsley sees all the problems the industry faces with labor issues, higher fuel prices and trucking regulations, all factors putting the squeeze on profit margins, and hints that 2012 could be the final season for his operation.
Last year did not do much to convince Tinsley to continue running a show. It rained on 17 of 26 weekends on Tinsley's route in Missouri and Illinois, killing business during key points of the season.
"I'm getting too old to fight it," Tinsley said. "Between the DOT and the Department of Labor, I don't think this industry has too much longer to survive."
He is not too old to start a new venture. Tinsley's recent trip to Disney World, his 16th visit to the Orlando destination, renewed his enthusiasm for opening a "simple, old-fashioned" park for families with children 12 and under, similar to Knoebel's Grove in Pennsylvania.
Most of the park's infrastructure is already in place and the track is laid for a C.P. Huntington train. A small roller coaster and a flume ride, two "icons of the industry," are also planned, Tinsley said.
Tinsley's younger brother, Rene, a hotel and restaurant designer in Scottsdale, Ariz., is helping with the project and together they are looking for more private investors.
"It's been a gradual process but it will definitely be open within a year," Tinsley said.
Tinsley has not completely given up on the carnival business. "It's still good but we have become our own worst enemy," he said. "The [unlimited ride] wristbands are killing the industry. We have given our product away."
The same thing goes for concessions. Tinsley believes carnivals should charge higher prices for food and drink as long as the operators continue to provide value for those items. With more fairs charging carnivals higher rent, it's one way to cover costs, Tinsley said.
Tinsley Amusements carries 32 rides and sets up a total of 25 pieces at most of its locations. Recent additions include a Zamperla Speedway in 2011 and a Ross Owens glass house, "fantastic piece," Tinsley said. This year, he's committed to buy a used piece.
This season, Tinsley plans to send one major attraction and four kiddie rides at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis. The 2012 event marks the first year for an independent midway at the fair after Murphy Bros. Attractions held the exclusive contract for about 20 years.
From there, Tinsley will move to another independent midway at the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, where he has booked equipment for the past 15 years.
Minnesota, considered the gold standard for carnival midways, sets up no more than 70 attractions every year and everybody makes money, Tinsley said.
It is something to consider for other state fairs that set up too many rides, which Tinsley believes ruins the experience for fairgoers, and in the end, puts less money in the operators' pockets.
The Illinois State Fair, running between Wisconsin and Minnesota, is another prime spot for Tinsley Amusements. The show brings 14 rides to Springfield, supplementing North American Midway Entertainment's operation.
As the carnival business goes through hard times, so do the indoor malls that used to book carousels next to food courts, according to Tinsley.
Over the past 20 years, Tinsley Amusements had up to nine merry-go-rounds operating in shopping centers around the Midwest. The last one was recently removed from Southridge Mall in Des Moines, Iowa.
As old guard retailers such as JC Penney and Sears close stores and malls lose their anchor tenants, those complexes no longer have the need to provide children's attractions.
The malls "have gouged the tenants to death and things are falling apart," Tinsley said. "We sold two of them and some are still used in children's museums." He was close to signing a deal to put a carousel in another children's museum in Richmond, Va.
The recession and the slow economic recovery has affected Tinsley's route. The carnival no longer plays corporate parties at automobile manufacturing plants in Tennessee after Nissan and Hyundai cut their budgets, Tinsley said.
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