The Vivona brothers are at home for the 47th year with the Eastern Carolina Agricultural Fair under way through Sunday at the ECA fairgrounds.
The brothers, Morris, 89, Dominic, 77 and Phil, 74, are owners of Amusements of America (AOA), which provides the rides and everything involved with the annual fair. Dominic and Phil are graduates of Duke University with business degrees.
The family has been in the carnival business since 1940. Before that, they were in the frozen custard business.
“They didn’t have any ice cream places in those days like the Dairy Queen and Caravel’s,” Morris said. “So we had a frozen custard machine that we took to different carnivals. We made the custard in front of our customers, and they had to dip it. Today, you just put a cone there.”
The Vivonas traveled widely with carnivals until 1940, when the carnival owner told the family that he was putting in his own ice cream.
“My father said we’re going to start our own carnival,” Morris said.
There just happened to be a Ferris wheel left over from the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
“We bought the Ferris wheel,” Morris said. “We took it and the ice cream machine and we played local festivals in New Jersey. Then, we bought a merry-go-round, a swing ride, an Octopus and more equipment.”
There were six brothers when they started. Three are left.
Amusements of America’s first southern headquarters were in Sumter from 1954 to 1972. They then moved to Miami from 1972 to 2008.
The company is now headquartered in Florence.
“We love Florence,” said Dominic, who lives in Mount Pleasant with his Charleston-born and bred wife, Helena.
“When we close up here Sunday, we go to Charleston for the Coastal Carolina Fair,” Dominic said.
The brothers are married, and their wives travel from fair to fair with them. Additionally, their children are involved in different facets of the business.
How do they manage to get along so well?
“We haven’t found each other yet,” Morris said.
“No, it’s because they don’t have any guns,” Helena quipped.
“The bottom line is we have a lot of patience with each other,” Phil said. “We don’t have any problems.”
The season begins at the end of March and runs through the first week of November. The brothers are on the road 8½ months out of the year.
What do they enjoy the most?
“All of this has a certain thrill to it,” Phil said. “When the lot is full, all the rides have lines to them and everybody is having fun, you really get a jolt of excitement.”
“It’s a happy business,” Helena said. “We see happy faces all the time.”
Morris says it’s been a good life, one he would do over in a heartbeat.
“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I have a good married life,” the New Jersey native said. “I’ve got good kids, good brothers, and they have good kids.
“Our children know what to do. They know how to set the fair up, take it down, do the booking and operate it. We’re just out here to help them.”
Dominic says the most popular ride is the roller coaster followed by the Fireball.
And there’s a new ride this year called the Extreme.
“The Extreme has done very well,” Dominic said. “It goes real fast.”
Among the other new faces AOA has on tap this year are Rosaire’s Royal Racers, the magic of Lance Gifford & Co., the Fearless Flores Circus and Thrill Show and live bands playing daily.