There’s a preconceived notion that the carnival business is rife with unsafe, fly-by-night operations with little oversight of its employees. It’s a notion that Danny Brown, owner of Mesa, Arizona-based Brown’s Amusements, likes to dispel – and it starts with how he gets his show moving on the road.
“Every week or so we haul around 35 carnival rides in 42 DOT-qualified trailers and box trucks that we own ourselves, while adhering to the same regulations as any independent trucker or freight carrier,” Brown told FreightWaves from a carnival location in Salt Lake City, Utah, in late June.
Because Brown’s Amusements employs 24 drivers with commercial driver’s licenses, those 42 loads that contain rides with names such as “Tilt-a-Whirl,” “The Zipper” and “The Himalaya” have to be moved in two separate “swings.” That, in turn, allows Brown to keep distances between carnival locations to under 150 miles and avoid bumping up against hours of service limitations.
“When you put in 450 miles in a day [three 150-mile trips], you have to be able to stay behind the wheel to drive,” Brown says. “I’ve actually changed my routes and locations over the years and stepped away from some pretty good fairs because it was getting too hard to do that. When we went to electronic logs, we really had to start watching what we were doing and to plan better ahead of time.”
Brown and his wife Sherry are a second-generation amusement industry family, taking over a business that his parents had started. Beginning as concession-stand owners in 1979, they began to expand the business, and by 1996 had grown to 12 rides, 10 games and a food concession. Brown’s Amusements is now three times that size, operating 42 weeks a year at county and state fairs and other mid-size carnival venues along routes within a region that includes Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.
Traveling carnivals tend to be small, family-owned businesses, and transportation costs, particularly diesel prices, are a constant concern – so much so that the Outdoor Amusement Business Association tracks the current week’s national average diesel price for its members. “Fuel prices are a big factor, and they tend to increase during the summer months when we’re most active,” Brown said.
Due to the short-haul nature of Brown’s operations, new flexibility expected in changes to the hours of service regulations will not directly affect his company. Instead, he’s hoping that more flexibility can bring indirect relief to the lack of truck parking for his long-haul colleagues.
“They have to pull into a truckstop at 2:00 p.m. or 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon if they hope to get a space anymore, because their hours have run out, so it’s definitely affecting the way freight’s getting moved,” Brown said. “You see semis parked on the on and off ramps – it’s crazy where they park because they have no choice.”
Brown’s fleet is relatively modern – his oldest trucks are 2008 models, the newest are 2015s. For hauling carnival rides, he favors International ProStars.
“I’ve had every truck in the world, but we’re not in the freight hauling business, we’re in the carnival business,” Brown said. “Independent truckers like the big Kenworths and Peterbilts, which are awesome, but I need a truck that will get me from A to B that will work every day, and ProStars happen to be my choice right now.”
Brown makes sure all his trucks have sleeper berths – not for the benefit of the drivers, but because they tend to be better at hauling freight. “None of my drivers sleep in a truck,” Brown said. Instead, to give them better resting quarters, Brown’s caravan of 42 trucks includes several that haul bunkhouses that are roomier than sleeper cabs and equipped with showers and air conditioning.
When they’re not hauling or unloading the carnival rides, Brown’s drivers will do other work such as selling tickets, administrative tasks and sometimes even work the rides. But their main job is to get his rides safely to the next location, which Brown says helps eliminate negative perceptions.
“In every industry there are good and bad companies, but the majority of the owners I know are doing a pretty good job of making sure the trucks and trailers are all safe and legal on the highways so that we don’t have problems.”