Last year's Western Montana Fair didn't go exactly to plan. Blisteringly hot temperatures and a midweek thunderstorm helped push attendance numbers down. Of the people who did go, many complained that the attractions weren't worth the entrance fees. There were fewer vendors than in years past, leaving many empty booths inside the Commercial Building. Some lamented the loss of horse racing. But nothing disappointed like the carnival.
Faced with a myriad of problems including an ownership conflict and personnel shortages, Royal West Amusements and Inland Empire Shows arrived late and couldn't open with the fair on the first day.
"I'm sure that it had a big effect on last year's attendance," says Missoula County Fairgrounds Director Steve Earle. "We had kids lined up out here bawling."
Once the company did set up, Earle saw holes in the midway. Of the required 31 rides, Royal West/Inland Empire only had 22 or 23. To make matters worse, several of the most popular rides were broken and closed for most or all of the fair.
"It looked good from the outside, looked like a bunch of shrubs in a circle," says Earle. "But then you walked into a little amphitheater and you were like, 'Hey man, looks like something goes here.'"
Due to the company's poor performance, carnival revenues were down and the fair lost $7,500 after it negotiated a settlement to cover the losses. Coincidentally, Royal West/Inland Empires' contract with the fair expired in 2012. Despite an invitation to rebid, the company declined.
Five new offers to provide the Western Montana Fair's carnival came from as far away as California and Texas, but North Star Amusements of Billings and Cody, Wyo., won the rights. For the first time in 54 years, the Missoula County Fair has a new carnival.
"We're pretty excited," says Earle. "They had great local references and we're expecting a good turnout."
North Star promises to bring at least 31 rides and a minimum of 20 games. "A lot of people have basically the same rides but we have a lot of bigger ones," says North Star office manager Arlene Lauer.
Included in the lineup are usual staples like the Zipper, Typhoon, Gravitron, Kamikaze and, of course, a Ferris wheel. Among the newer rides in north Star's repertoire is Pharaoh's Fury, a giant boat that swings through the air as King Tut's face looks out from the twin bows. The Tilt-A-Whirl has a plaque that explains the ride's history as a carnival classic.
Second-generation carny Kenny Andrade says the Zipper has been his favorite ride for his entire life. Now that he's operating the ride, he's "living the dream." Known as one of the most nauseating attractions at the carnival, Andrade assures that he usually take it easy on the controls, unless someone really wants a wild experience.
"Lots of people act tough before they get on, but halfway through and they're done," he says. "I've seen a grown man cry and puke at the same time on this thing."
Becky Barnes retired from the carnival business after 13 years, only to come back as a food vendor because she missed the people so much. "I couldn't get away, going to certain towns just feels like coming home," she says.
Based on her years of experience, Barnes offers a classic itinerary for those looking to take in the carnival. She suggests starting with a game that'll guarantee a prize, such as the balloon pop or bottle bust, and then riding one of the classic attractions, like the Kamikaze or ferris wheel. Candied apples or cotton candy is a must.
If you have little kids, she says stick to the easy stuffespecially if they're easily spooked. "It's crazy but they always like the simplest stuff," Barnes says. "They'll wear themselves out in the glass houses and obstacle courses. The most popular of all though is the super slide, which is cool because parents can ride it too without feeling silly."
For kids feeling a little braver, try the Bear Affair. It's a family ride where up to six people at a time sit inside the belly of an enormous bear that could pass for Smokey's cousin.
The game area offers attractions that guarantee prizes every time to ones so hard that the carnies themselves swear they're impossible. Wacky Wire is similar to the board game Operation. To win, players have to slide a metal ring down a twisted and spinning wire without the two touching.
"It's easily the hardest one we have," says game operator Mike Holcomb. "I don't know how anyone can beat it."
Earle, who is stepping down as fairgrounds director later this summer, is anxious to see how the new carnival plays out. But that nervous energy will not translate to him getting in line.
"It looks fun," he says. " But I don't think I'll be out there riding anything."