Melissa Koinis has enjoyed working the carnival all her life.
"A lot of people think of us like, 'Oh, they're a carny, there must be
something wrong with them,' " she said. "But it's not like that. We're
here to help people have fun."
A 2005 Traverse City Central graduate, Koinis, 18, worked the water
race game Monday for Arnold Amusements, the Traverse City-based company
that runs the Cherry Festival midway every year.
Koinis has been around "the show," as it's referred to, since birth. Her parents were carnival workers.
"When I'm going to school, I miss everybody out here," she said. "All the people get along; it's like a family."
Our friend, Mike R. backs this up 100%. When asked how is your season, he pointed out that it was "just beginning." The spots around "Detroit" are always a little tough "due to a reduced economy but the fun begins when we hit Traverse City which we always look forward to." Mike has been in the business since the mid 90's when he traveled with concessions owners, Marcus Brumberger and Tom Hoey. His first experience at running a game was the Rope Ladder and that perhaps is why he is so lean. He has great things to say about the Arnold family and looks forward to every new season with great zeal.
This year is the 25th anniversary for Arnold Amusements, owned by Ivan
Arnold, who got his start in a hamburger stand at the Northwestern
Michigan Fair. His son, Tom Arnold, manages the day-to-day operations,
and his nephew, Alex Arnold, 15, is being groomed as the next
"We're all from Traverse City," said Tom Arnold. "It's always good to be home."
He said carnival work requires commitment and a willingness to devote much time to traveling.
Arnold operates from February to November, working in Michigan, Georgia and Florida.
"This is like a small city - we deal with electric, we deal with water, we deal with permits," he said.
Arnold periodically subcontracts local people to work the carnival. They sign a waiver and fill out tax information.
"We don't have any right now because we're full," Arnold said. "We usually have openings on the rides."
For this show, Arnold arranged visas for 12 workers from Veracruz, Mexico.
Ride supervisor Nathan Butters, 36, has been with Arnold for 14 years. He said workers generally send their money home.
"The biggest thing we fight out here is the old carnival stigma,"
Butters said. "Nowadays, people just make a living - it's such a
Butters said there are superstitions unique to carnivals, though.
"It's kind of a traditional thing," Butters said. "We're very superstitious people."
He told a story about a midway that caught fire from a peanut stand. As a result, no boiled peanuts are allowed on the midway.
Despite the superstitions, Butters said Arnold has never had a major accident or injury.
"Every day, we take a couple of rides, go through them and nit-pick them," he said.
Butters said his wife and two kids travel with him on the road.
"My mindset is, 'my kid is going to be on this ride today - it has to be safe, he said.
And it's not uncommon to develop close relationships with other workers, he said.
"We're family out here," Butters said. "We live, we work, we eat, we sleep. You can't help but get close."
Butters said it takes a special kind of person to work the carnival life.
"I have guys who've worked here for 20 years and guys that cycle right
through," he said. "When people ask me about getting carnival work, I
tell them it's the hardest job you'll ever have in your life," Butters
Ride operators average 17 to 18 hours a day, getting salary after taxes.
"You have your carnivals out there that are still shady," he said. "But this is a business."
Their 126-foot Giant Wheel towers over the 30-40 foot Ferris wheels at most county fairs. They have a double-deck carousel and a $2.9 million Top Spin ride that flips and rolls boxcars full of screaming riders. Strates Shows, which will provide the rides and games at the Orange County Fair this year for the first time, boasts of the giant rides it brings to town. The fair ended a 45-year relationship with Amusements of America to go with Strates, which does the New York State Fair in Syracuse and fairs all along the East Coast. "We definitely went all out this year for a new look on the county fair," said Michael Gurda IV, the fair's general manager. "Basically we just raised the bar on what our carnival is." Strates can afford to bring in the huge rides, which fit on five or six trailers, by moving them in an old-fashioned way. The company goes from town to town on the last traveling carnival train in America. "You're limited to where you can go because of the rail," said George Weston, Strates' general manager. "But now because of the fuel costs, where they are, what a blessing. Other companies can't afford to move the five- and six-trailer rides." Strates' mile-long train will chug into Maybrook early tomorrow morning, around 8 a.m., carrying 35 flat cars and 10%2