No Slump for Carnivals

At their annual trade show in Florida, traveling entertainers predict that the carnival industry will again prove resilient against political or economic turmoil

NEITHER war nor recession could dampen the enthusiasm of participants in the carnival industry's trade show last week in this tiny town in west-central Florida. No wonder, since theirs is an industry that has proven durable, even profitable, regardless of the political or economic tenor of the times.

For most, the carnival or fair is something that comes to town, provides hours of fun, then disappears. Their first appearances are a spring phenomenon as regular as the coming of the first robin. Although the public is familiar with the the sometimes tawdry glitter and flash of the carnival, few are well-acquainted with the large, nomadic industry.

The purveyors of merriment gather once a year in a field in Gibsonton. The locale is appropriate since the town is the unofficial capital and retirement town of carnival folk.

The field belongs to the International Independent Showmen's Association, and it is here that show people come to view, and purchase, the latest in amusement rides and paraphernalia.

Among the new rides at the 23rd Annual Trade Show and Extravaganza are a 60-foot-diameter Big Eli-16 ferris wheel and something called Space Probe II, where a passenger, strapped into an oversized Ping-Pong ball, rides up and down on a 100-mile-an-hour blast of air within a clear plastic cylinder 26 feet high. The whirling, unpredictable ride ``ends with a dramatic free fall back to the launching pad,'' which is like a trampoline, according to the catalog.

This is no staid, button-down trade show. In fact, it is a working midway, absent the yelling, chattering pitchmen, and it is here the serious business of the amusement business gets done.

There are no reliable statistics on the size of the traveling show industry. The top 18 amusement companies earned $6.5 billion in 1989, according to Ward's Business Directory, but this would include permanent as well as traveling shows.

The people in this line of work do not concern themselves with market trends, forecasts, or economic formulas. Instead, they deal in hard cash and deals that are often made with a handshake. Good instincts are deemed more valuable than a Harvard MBA.

This year the gut instincts all point to business as usual, despite Gulf war and recession.

One who knows the economics of the business is Wayne Comstock, manager of Chance Rides Inc. of Wichita, Kan. During the Great Depression, he recalls, ``traveling shows were not much affected. Yes, they dropped their ride prices, but generally they didn't notice the Depression.''

Mr. Comstock's feet-on-the-ground wisdom is simple. ``Even during a depression Americans can always find a few dollars to enjoy themselves.''

It is well he takes such an optimistic view, since his company builds such mechanized monsters as ``Falling Star,'' a thrill ride with an $895,000 price tag. Or, for the lighter of pocket, the $315,000 ``Wipeout,'' billed as a ``fun-filled spinning, tilting, oscillating'' ride that's ``pre-programmed ... for a variety of ride experiences.''

Actually, says Comstock, ``the industry as a whole is growing. It's even with, or slightly higher than, the inflation rate.'' But ``if interest rates get too high,'' his real worry is foreign competition. ``Germany and Italy are our biggest competitors,'' he says.

If the ride manufacturers are the heavy hitters of the industry, the suppliers of stuffed bears, jewelry, balloons, and the multitude of assorted midway knickknacks are the utility outfielders.

Here is where agility and fleetness of foot are rewarded since the merchandise has to be prepared, displayed, and ready to ship by the early February kickoff of the season. Not only that, but the merchandise, called ``slum'' in the trade, has to be timely. That's where patriotism and the Gulf war come in.

This year's offerings are decidedly bellicose. Legions of cuddly bears march forth, clad in camouflage uniforms. T-shirts bear eagles clutching American shields in their talons; others scream scatological slogans at Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

When the show ended the carnival folks did what they always do - tore things down and moved on to the next spot. This year they moved with a confident, albeit warlike, stride.

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