Family-run carnivals: decades of fun for community festivals

MARK LAKE ENTERPRISES PHOTO

MARK LAKE ENTERPRISES PHOTO

During the Great Depression, Scott Lake made a living one penny at a time, and his business has grown to modestly sustain a fourth generation of the family today.

Penny arcade games – pinball, hands-on table hockey and other challenges of quickness or deftness – were affordable entertainment for beleaguered families in the 1930s. Soon the Wisconsin entrepreneur had a multi-state work circuit, hauling six semi-trailers of these games from Georgia to North Dakota.

What began as a whim turned into a livelihood known today as Mark Lake Enterprises, after the founder’s grandson. Gone is the arcade and subsequent sideshows of genetically abnormal beings. At the modern carnival’s core are 10 rides – a three-lane slide to the dizzying Round Up – and games of luck or skill. Sales of funnel cakes to pickles on sticks complement whatever the client decides to sell.

The typical customer is a Catholic church or other festival organizer, from Egg Harbor to Waukesha this year, and the Lake family business is one of at least 10 in Wisconsin that operate portable carnivals from shopping mall parking lots to county fair midways.

The seasonal work immerses amusement show operators from now until early autumn. Lindsey Lake, great-granddaughter of Scott, literally was born into the business. She arrived during a church festival in the Milwaukee area 20 years ago and by age 6 was running a duck pond game under adult supervision. Today Lindsey is an accounting major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and handles midway finances.

“I want to be able to do it all in this business – not just sell tickets” for rides and games, the co-manager says. Her counterpart, brother Beau, is a UW-Whitewater grad in charge of business mechanics. Dad Mark Lake is the owner.

Setup of midway apparatus takes two or three days, and an event usually requires 20 employees, most hired from their hometown of Eagle.

“It’s harder to compete,” Lindsey says. “We see so many carnivals go under” because of low attendance or fewer bookings. She thinks fewer churches organize festivals “because finding volunteers (for non-carnival activities) is hard, and all the permits necessary to hold an event are extensive and expensive.”

Lindsey considers church festivals “important to our industry, and people should attend these events so they don’t continue to disappear.” Instead of relying on posters plastered around town, word gets out through Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums.

Keeping rides safe, updated and attractive are crucial to a carnival’s success: “When I was younger, rides could be older and not look the best, but not anymore,” Lindsey says. Flashy lighting and signage are commonplace, and eventually credit card swipes or online sales will replace ticket takers.

Most popular for Mark Lake Enterprises is the Tilt-A-Whirl, purchased by Fred Lake Sr. at least 50 years ago. Newest is a fun house with mirrors, bought from another carnival operator. It is not unusual for carnie owners to buy rides from each other, to freshen their offerings. Lindsey says a new ride might exceed $1 million.

For more about her family’s business, which began with the arcade in 1931: marklakeenterprises.com, 262-719-5293. This year’s customers include Festa Italiana, July 17-19 on Milwaukee’s lakefront, and Brat Days, July 30 and Aug. 1 in Sheboygan. Check carnivalmidways.com for other traveling carnivals and event schedules.

A small number of large companies dominate the amusement park industry nationwide.

The Walt Disney Company’s market share is 51.8 percent, reports global researcher IBISWorld, which predicts the nation’s 476 amusement parks will take in $15.6 billion of revenue this year, a 2.9 percent increase from 2014.

After Disney are Universal Parks and Resorts at 16.8 percent; SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, 8.3 percent; Cedar Fair, 8.1 percent and Six Flags Inc., 7 percent.

Primary markets are teens and families with young children, although IBISWorld observes that “the gradual aging of the population may also mean a shift in what operators offer in certain areas as they cater to a slightly older audience.”

The biggest new project nationwide is Diagon Alley, a $400 million and 20-acre site at Universal Studios in Orlando, whose themes play up popular books for children, including the Harry Potter titles. universalorlando.com, 407-363-8000

Closest to Wisconsin is Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, Ill., which is celebrating its 40th year and has 80 rides on 100 acres. The park is one of 18 Six Flags Inc. parks in North America and opened between Chicago and Milwaukee with three roller coasters in 1976. Now it is home to 14, including Goliath, billed as the world’s tallest, steepest and fastest wooden roller coaster. sixflags.com, 847-249-1776.

Within Wisconsin are amusement park extremes. For example:

Noah’s Ark Waterpark, Wisconsin Dells, is the largest waterpark in America. It has three miles of waterslides, uses five million gallons of water and covers 70 acres. noahsarkwaterpark.com, 608-254-6351

A specialty at Little Amerricka, Lake Mills, is restored amusement park rides. That includes a 1950s wooden roller coaster. The quaint park is the subject of a new mini-film documentary by Kurt Raether. littleamerricka.com, 608-620-5224