The biggest news surrounding Strates Shows this season is a carnival veteran infusing new life into the 89-year-old company.
Pal Fontana, formerly with Reithoffer Shows and the old Royal American Shows, joined Strates about a year ago after parting ways with Reithoffer.
Fontana, whose family owns Fontana Foods, an offshoot of an Italian restaurant founded by his father Bill, has been instrumental in pumping new blood into the last remaining show riding the rails to transport equipment from Florida to New York.
Jim Strates, son of E. James Strates, could not stop raving about Fontana's work ethic during a recent interview.
"He's put a ton of energy into our organization," said Strates, the carnival's president. "We have had lot of people changes and he's been a breath of fresh air. This week, he's painting rides and four new trucks. We have crazy colors now, including a pink truck."
Fontana, a jack-of-all-trades, has done everything humanly possible to keep Strates among the elite carnivals in North America. His expertise on the German-made spectacular rides has been invaluable, and he pushed the show to get a new LED light package on the Giant Wheel, Strates said.
Fontana has also shown his creative streak by doing things as simple as revamping an old Coke truck with an abundant supply of spare parts that can be moved around the midway as needed. It cuts down on time lost trying to locate pins and keys for rides and the occasional stray worker who "takes three hours to find a light bulb," Strates said.
Fontana, through his family's business, is also a chef. Whether he is is cooking a meal for his fellow employees or tearing down the Giant Wheel, his ability to handle multiple tasks on the midway has made the carnival a better place to work and live, Strates said.
"Pal is of the same group as Wayne Kunz, who was recently inducted into the OABA Hall of Fame," he said. "He can do anything."
About three months into the season, Strates Shows officials have no complaints over business at its Florida fairs. The Osceola County Fair in Kissimmee and the St. Lucie County Fair in Fort Pierce both had their second-best years under Strates' stewardship. The Seminole County Fair in Sanford was down a bit due in part to the event moving to a new location, Strates said.
Similar to other shows, Strates is going through the process of installing LEDs on some of its biggest attractions for a cleaner, brighter presentation. The Giant Wheel conversion alone was about $200,000, Strates said.
There is a savings in energy but not to the point that the show can turn the generators off, he said.
The carnival is in its fourth season of operating the Fun Card system, a cashless program where fairgoers can buy unlimited ride vouchers in advance on the Strates Shows website. Originally developed by Funtastic Shows, the system is similar to printing a bar-coded ticket at home for a concert. The system tracks every transaction and prevents fraud by preventing customers from attempting to get refunds on a pay-one-price promotion several hours after they arrived at the event, Strates said.
The system also records the peaks and valleys of midway business on a daily basis, which in turn has enabled Strates Shows and its fair partners to adjust hours of operation with minimal loss of revenue, he said.
Carnival officials have discussed using fast passes, an upcharge that allows ride enthusiasts to skip lines but have decided against it, he said. As a whole, they see the promotion splitting their customers into the haves and have-nots.
"It leads to those 1 percenters on the midway," Strates said. "Do we want to introduce that? I don't know that we do. We have enough nonsense with people getting into fights and I think those fast passes would further agitate the situation."
Monica Walsh, Jim Strates' fiancee, is traveling with the show in charge of the company's social media campaigns. Walsh, with a background in advertising and marketing, is coordinating the effort to communicate electronically through Facebook and Twitter.
Walsh is also starting to experiment with Pinterest, the third-most popular social networking site, and get a feel for how the show can use the organizational tool to promote its business. Currently, Walsh is using Pinterest to plan her wedding and bridal shower.