For the past 29 years, Amusements of America has brought part of its traveling amusement park to Statesboro for the Kiwanis Ogeechee Fair. One of a handful of very large mobile carnival companies in America, Amusements of America is one of the oldest of its kind in operation.
Founded 68 years ago by Antonio Vivona, and operated by his five sons for the last several decades, Amusements of America began with the purchase of the Ferris wheel from the 1939 World's Fair being held in New York.
"My father had an ice cream parlor in Newark, New Jersey in the 1920's and 1930's," said Dominic Vivona, co-owner of Amusements of America and the managing "brother" with the company unit in Statesboro. "To make extra money, he would peddle ice cream in the streets. He became very interested in carnivals because he saw it was much easier to sell ice cream when masses of people came to you. So he began to sell ice cream at them."
"As my brothers grew up, they each bought ice cream trucks to work carnivals," he said. "Once my father bought the Ferris wheel, we were in the carnival business. I was about eight years old when that happened. I remember getting out of school on Friday and heading to wherever we were set up. It was great."
Vivona said carnivals have changed over the years from a "show" dominated midway to a "ride" dominated midway. "People don't want to see the same old shows with illusions or people that were born with some type of defect. They want the thrilling rides, and that is what you have to bring to the table, and frankly that is becoming almost prohibitively expensive."
Operational costs are one of two major challenges facing the mobile amusement industry today. The other is an adequate labor supply.
"A critical issue for my membership is the ability to obtain a competent workforce," said Bob Johnson, president of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association (OABA). Located in Winter Park, Florida, the OABA is the largest trade association for the outdoor amusement industry.
"On October 1, the returning worker provision of the H-2B Temporary, Guest Worker Program expired, thereby eliminating a major supply of seasonal workers, primarily from South Africa and Mexico, who supplemented our American workforce," Johnson said. "The returning worker program was critical to family and corporate seasonal businesses, as they were not included as new, foreign workers subject to the government's 66,000 cap for these visas."
Johnson said if returning workers are not allowed back into the United States as temporary guest workers, the carnival industry could be crippled by a labor shortage.
"This program does not replace Americans in jobs with carnivals as we have had a severe shortage of workers, primarily due to the travel, work schedules and mobile lifestyle in the carnival industry," said OABA Chairman John Hanschen. "We would be glad to hire American workers, but with virtually no unemployment, and other service industries hiring more unskilled workers, it's a challenge to find people that want to be on the road."
Vivona said in addition to finding qualified personnel, the cost of labor once secured is very high.
"You have to remember that we house the people that work for us," he said. "Ninety percent of our workforce travels with us and we have around 200 employees. We have bunk houses that have to have generators for power in some instances in addition to other expenses. From fuel costs, to insurance and labor costs, and equipment costs, there is no relief in sight."
Mike Inman said one of the biggest changes in the business he has seen is the difficulty in moving the carnival from one location to the next. Inman has been a general manager with Amusements of America for over 25 years.
"We really are a mid-sized trucking company with over 100 trucks and 125 trailers," Inman said. "We used to be able to hire drivers that would move the equipment, and then set it up once they got there. No more. We have to contract with trucking companies to provide drivers for our rigs. Like everything else, that has become very expensive and a logistical headache."
Vivona said about 60 percent of the company's "inventory" of rides and support equipment is brought to the Ogeechee Fair.
"The rest of the carnival is in Union, South Carolina this week," he said. "From there, we will do two more weeks of fairs in South Carolina which will conclude our American season for 2007. We break in November before heading to Puerto Rico and then the Dominican Republic."
Vivona said the Ogeechee Fair would be considered a larger fair. "This fair has 30 to 35 rides, 25 game booths, and 15 food booths," he said. "We don't own the game booths. We own a few of the food booths, but not many. For the most part, they are independent contractors that travel with us. If you add their equipment to the amount that we transport, overall, it is tremendous."
Johnson said there aren't many new entrants into the amusement business.
"A lot of amusement operators have been in business for generations," Johnson said. "You just don't see anybody getting into this business in a big way with several rides and such."
"It is a very tough life with long hours and a lot of hard work, but it is rewarding for those that are in it. From helping civic organizations to watching people have fun, carnival operators love what they do."To learn more about Amusements of America, visit their website at www.amusementsofamerica.com. To learn more about the mobile amusement industry, visit the OABA website at www.oaba.org