Ride of their lives

Family takes phrase 'live where you work' to new heights

September 04, 2006|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,sun reporter

After the Starship 4000 and the Tilt-A-Whirl have spun their last riders into screaming dizziness, after the line for onion-smothered Italian sausages has dissipated for good and no one's huddling anymore to watch the pig races, the carnival at the Maryland State Fair will pack up tomorrow for another nomadic trek.

That's when, for some, the real action begins.

Over 36 hours, about 300 people who travel and live in the "carnival community" will tear down the show, pack it up and load it onto dozens of tractor-trailers. Then, they'll jump into RVs and haul their convoy elsewhere.

Perhaps to the Arkansas State Fair in Little Rock.

Or the State Fair of Virginia in Richmond.

Or maybe to church festivals in Jacksonville, Fla.

Such is the life of the carnies - families often of second- and third-generation carnival operators who offer a timeless, wholesome brand of outdoor amusement.

It's the life that Scott MacNeill of Perry, Fla., has lived since age 6, when he got involved in the family carnival business helping to disassemble the Twister ride his father bought the year he was born.

For 21 years, he has worked for Stuart, Fla.-based Deggeller Attractions, which owns the traveling carnival. He's the ride superintendent. He and his wife, Sally, also operate their own rides and games companies, contracting through Deggeller.

"It takes a good two days to set it up, but it's always whatever you got," says Scott MacNeill, 48. "If you got four days, then it takes four days. If you got one day, you take one day. Rain or shine, cold, and the show must go on."

The show begins each year on Feb. 1, with as many as 30 stops throughout the South and Mid-Atlantic. The MacNeills live out of their RV and home school their children, Cole Wyatt, 7, and Joan Kathryn, 3. When the shows are in Florida, Sally MacNeill and the children stay at home and the children attend private school there. They meet up with Scott MacNeill on the weekends.

Their oldest son, Scott Henry MacNeill, 23 and a fourth-generation carny, works most of the year at the Jolly Roger amusement park in Ocean City. When that closes, he joins his parents for the last two months of their tour.

When they travel, the carnies form a close-knit community who depend on each other to make things work. The MacNeills say they know that in the past carnies have been improperly stereotyped as greasy, dirty folk: Truth is, they say, they're just ordinary people who got hooked on the traveling show and ultimately went along for the ride.

"It's like a small town. We all specialize," says Sally MacNeill, who once taught for the kindergarten-through-12 grade school that Scott helped set up while they traveled. "On Sunday, we're full-time moms. On Monday, we're full-time accountants. Some of us work the games. Some work the rides. Some work the food."

Scott MacNeill is responsible for ensuring that the rides, games and events go off without a hitch. That means throughout the day, he plays troubleshooter, repairing lights and changing flat tires on rides. He boasts that he can fix 80 percent of the rides you see at carnivals. For the other 20 percent, he'll call a repair shop and get instructions over the phone.

"This is a billion-dollar industry that has continued to survive, even with the permanent entertainment, because of people like Scott, who are interested in keeping it alive," Sally MacNeill says.

Just after the carnival started at the fairgrounds in Timonium, Scott MacNeill received a new Starship 4000, a flying saucer-shaped ride. The $350,000 machine performed well for about a day, but then the gearbox locked. He had a replacement part shipped overnight from Texas, and the ride was busily spinning its 21 rotations a minute the next day. The show, Scott MacNeill says, must go on.

"There are days when I say, `Man, I wish I was working somewhere else,'" he says. "Especially when it's raining and 30 degrees out. But we always seem to get it done, one way or another.

"It's hard work. You got long hours, the pay's not the greatest. We start guys at $300 a week for a salary and give them a place to stay in our bunkhouses, which are set up for two-man rooms. But I really enjoy what I do, and it's really nice to see the people out here having fun and enjoying themselves."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

To see a slide show, go to baltimoresun.com/carnival.

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