TONTITOWN — Cotton candy, corn dogs and funnel cakes, thrown in with Ferris wheels, ringtosses and the sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring in the background of a Tilt-A-Whirl ride.
What could bring this combination together in the same place this time of year?
What else? The Tontitown Grape Festival.
And this year, it’s the job of the Mitchell Amusement Rides Co. to bring that carnival atmosphere to the 111th Tontitown Grape Festival, which got under way Tuesday night with all the rides, food and fun so many have come to expect after all these years.
Glad to be here
Gus Mitchell is a third generation amusement ride company worker and now the owner/manager of Mitchell Amusement Rides. Mitchell oversees the everyday operation of most of the carnival-type fun on Henri de Tonti Boulevard in Tontitown this week.
From the Himalaya ride blaring popular hiphop music while soaring at thrilling speeds, to the delicious turkey legs and shrimp on a stick, it’s up to Mitchell and his crew to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“For this particular event, we bring about 200 folks,” Mitchell said. “We also hire a bunch of locals, and we encourage that. There’s a lot of folks we have to transport and put up for this, and it helps when we can have the local people help. It also gives back to them.”
Mitchell knows plenty about the business. His family has been involved with the festival and carnival life in one way or another for years. But now at the head of the pack, Mitchell wants to make sure all of that training, all of those long nights on the road and those early mornings pitching tents in stop after stop weren’t for nothing.
Because this year, atleast for Mitchell Amusements, something was different. This year, for the first time, the grape festival came calling.
“We just got started in the grape festival, but we hope to start a long-term relationship with them,” Mitchell said. “The last company they had, they were very faithful to that company. But in this business, some are more fortunate than others, and this is a tough, tough business. So we had gotten word about the festival, and we had been watching it for quite sometime.”
After getting the lucky break when an opening came at this year’s festival, Mitchell and his group are hoping to make the most of it. But they know making a good first impression is very important, especially in these tough times.
“We met with the folks here on the board and met with the festival chairman, Mike Franco,” Mitchell said. “He was just a super guy, and we met a number of town committee members who were wonderful people.
“We’ve been in the mix of planning this for sometime,and I think at first I would say they were maybe a little skittish about us. They were maybe just scared about change. But once they met with us, I’m confident we were able to dismiss those feelings. Because we’re not here to change anything. We’re just here to enhance it and make it better.”
Not for the weak
When he was about 17 years old, the best he can remember, Thomas Vincent started his work in the amusement ride business. Some 15 years later, he’s still going strong.
“If you like it, it ain’t too bad,” Vincent said. “You’ve got to like it, though. You’ve got to like the work.”
Vincent operates one of Mitchell’s multicar rides at this week’s grape festival. Originally from Louisiana, Vincent has followed the company from town to town and state to state with hardly any rest along the way.
As a festival worker, Vincent explains, there is little time off when the season gears up. In fact, from February to November, Mitchell Amusement workers are going almost every week on the calendar.
“We don’t have weeks off,” Vincent said. “I mean unless there’s a dead week on the calendar, but that doesn’t usually happen.”
While Vincent has been in the business for 15 years, he might be one of the exceptions. Even though the Mitchell group is a family run business with 28 family members chipping in, according to Gus Mitchell,there is plenty of turnover in the traveling festival line of work.
“We have some come and-goers,” Vincent said. “Some of them stay, and some of them last. You spend a lot of time on the road, and if you can’t handle that, then this isn’t for you.”
Even though some can’t hack it, Vincent can. And he will, he says, as long as it remains the same fun festival way of life he’s been used to all these years.
“It’s good work,” Vincent said. “It really is.”