Belle City Amusements

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By DEENA WINTER – Lincoln Journal Star

When your parents own a carnival, you can ask for bigger-than-usual presents.

Like a Sky Wheel – a sort of double Ferris wheel.

Mary Panacek’s son, Charles Jr., wanted one when he was a teenager, so she and her husband bought it. Which worked out well because they owned an amusement ride company and could put it on the midway.

That very Sky Wheel will be spinning passengers and churning tummies when the Nebraska State Fair fires up for the 140th year today.

Mary will survey the scene from her lawn chair perched between two huge tractor trailers that contain the offices of the midway operator, Belle City Amusements.

And Charles Jr. will be running around making sure the carnival operates smoothly.

“He’s the boss,” Mary explains. “I do the PR.”

She’s 84 now, and her husband died years ago, so now mother and son continue the company Charles Sr. started at age 18 after he visited a county fair in Wisconsin and saw the pony rides. His family had ponies, so he started giving pony rides at fairs in the 1930s.

He added more rides, and by 1948 he’d incorporated the company.

Which is why Charles Jr. has lived in a carnival all his life.

On Thursday, his T-shirt was covered in dirt as the midway came to life. Workers were attaching gondolas to the Giant Wheel, washing seats on the Sky Wheel, mopping the floor of the Tilt-A-Whirl and testing lights on the Typhoon.

Every summer, Mary, Charles Jr. and his family leave their homes in Florida and travel the country with a crew of about 60 to about 28 fairs.

They finished the Iowa State Fair on Sunday and headed to Nebraska for the first time. They have more than 100 semi-loads of equipment, but they can set up the whole carnival in a day and a half and take it apart in 10 hours.

Charles Jr. says running a midway is getting tougher, with high diesel prices and increasing insurance, parts and maintenance costs.

Although Mary is hesitant to talk about how expensive the rides are, she lets slip that the “glass house” cost a quarter-million dollars and the Himalaya $750,000.

She is on a one-woman crusade to erase the image of carnies as people with “nasty teeth” and long, dirty hair.

Belle City employees undergo drug testing and background checks; are required to wear uniforms; and are banned from having hair below the collar or facial hair beyond a trimmed mustache.

As if to illustrate her point, a woman in a tie-dyed Sturgis T-shirt and a scraggly-haired man hugging a Big Gulp wandered by, asking to see the boss about a job manning “the kiddie rides.”

Mary pointed them toward her son, but whispered that they’d never get a job there, then asked the Lord to forgive her for saying so.

Every time they set up the midway in a new city, they clean all the equipment and replace burned-out light bulbs.

They analyze which rides are most popular by weighing tickets every night. In Des Moines, the Giant Wheel was the most popular.

This year, Mary was going to sit out the season, but ultimately, she couldn’t resist joining the carnival again.

“It was boring,” the matriarch said. “You just miss it. You miss your friends along the route.”

But she never rides the Scorpion or takes a spin on the Yo Yo.

“I would love to,” she said. “I get motion sickness.”

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Christine Cole | Special To The Sentinel

EUSTIS – Lake County Fair organizers expect to see at least as many people come through the gates — 62,000 — as last year.

That is, if it doesn’t rain.

The family-oriented event, which kicks off a 10-day run at 5 p.m. today at the Lake County Fairgrounds, was marred by wet weather last year.

“During the first four days, we had nine hours with no rain,” said Charles E. “Happy” Norris, fair manager since 1997.

Norris said economic woes are not likely to keep people away but might affect how much they shell out for food and rides.

“Industry people say these are good times for county fairs,” he said. “In reality, their spending might be down a little.”

The fair’s main purpose is to provide a place for county youths to show their livestock and their horticultural projects, which help teach them marketing and salesmanship. But it also has other purposes, including providing a place for adults to show their skills in fields from baking and canning to painting and photography.

And then there’s the food and the fun.

A new midway provider, Belle City Amusements, is slated to bring some rides that will be new to Lake.

The popular Karaoke Night begins at 7:30 p.m. Monday. Talent-show finals will take place at 7:30 p.m. April 11.

The Dirt Brothers, a country-rock band from Memphis, will perform at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday and April 9 and 10. They also will perform at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The Silver Star Band from Leesburg will do shows at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. April 9 and 10.

Other entertainment includes daily firefighting training, Seal Splash-In, Nick’s Kids Show, Oscar the Robot, Denny the Clown and Tom Umiker’s “Our Rural Heritage.”

“This year, we are offering more shows, better-quality shows for the same money,” Norris said. “We are offering more of everything this year. We believe we give a good value for their dollar.”

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By GEORGE H. NEWMAN | The Tampa Tribune

PLANT CITY – A small army of volunteers and vendors put the finishing touches today on the Florida Strawberry Festival grounds.

Thursday at 10 a.m., the show begins.

Trish Qualls puts out stuffed animal prizes around her Fire Fly Water Race booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival. - Tribune photo by JIM REED

Trish Qualls puts out stuffed animal prizes around her Fire Fly Water Race booth at the Florida Strawberry Festival. - Tribune photo by JIM REED

Festival General Manager Paul Davis said everyone has been working hard to get the festival grounds ready for another successful 11-day run.

The Florida Strawberry Festival is family entertainment where patrons get tremendous value for their entertainment dollar,” Davis said. “We are looking for this year to be a great year at the festival.”

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PALMETTO — Set-up of the midway has begun for the 11-day Manatee County Fair, which swings into action in six days.

From the looks of things at the northwest Palmetto site, the 2009 fair shouldn’t be affected by America’s economic downturn. Gate tickets will be sold for between $2 and $7. Children 5 and under are free.

As has been the case at the current location since 1951, fair queens are to be crowned, steers are to be sold, country bands are scheduled to crank up in the big tent, and corn dogs will be consumed in quantity from next Thursday at 5 p.m. through Sunday, Jan. 25, at 6 p.m.

Jeff Blanton holds up a part of The Dark Ride for assembly.

Jeff Blanton holds up a part of The Dark Ride for assembly.

Most days, the midway run by Belle City Amusements Inc. will accept thrill seekers from noon to midnight. An armband for the midway costs $18 to $20.

Early in the proceedings, Fair Queen Katy Kopstad will give up her crown to the 2009 beauty.

Some of the key dates and times for animal events are:

The Dairy Show on Friday, Jan. 16, at 7 p.m.

The 4-H and FFA Youth Swine Show and Sale, Saturday, Jan. 17, at 2 p.m.

The FNGLA Youth Plant Show and Sale on Saturday, Jan. 17, at 6 p.m.

The Dog Show on Sunday, Jan. 18, at 1 p.m.

The Goat Show on Tuesday, Jan. 20, at 7 p.m.

The Steer Showmanship Show on Wednesday, Jan. 21, at 6 p.m.

The Steer Show on Thursday, Jan. 22, at 6 p.m.

The 4-H and FFA Youth Steer Show Sale on Saturday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m.

Photos by TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/ Rick Pegus works to get the Scorpion set up in the ride area of the

Photos by TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/ Rick Pegus works to get the Scorpion set up in the ride area of the

The Manatee River Fair Association and hundreds of volunteers will put on the fair — as it has since after World War II.

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