When Freddy Miller called his father, Johnny Miller, late last summer to tell him the fifth-generation family business had been awarded the carnival contract for the Illinois State Fair, “it was probably the most emotional I have heard him in a big majority of my life,” Miller admitted.
Miller said his father, now 75 and operating an RV camp in Greenbrier, Arkansas, the home base of Miller Spectacular Shows, had a knack of booking new fairs, but he had his limits on the sizes of the shows.
“He was proud to see me move our business forward,” said Freddy Miller in an interview in his office on the Midway. “He wants to see us excel in the industry.”
The family-run business, which includes Freddy Miller’s wife, Patsy, and their sons, Trey, 33, and Drew, 30, has played to crowds for two decades at the DuQuoin State Fair in southern Illinois.
Now, Miller gets his chance on a bigger stage.
The Illinois State Fair ranked as the 36th-highest attended fair in North America on Carnival Warehouse’s 2019 Top 50 Fairs ranking. It was sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Miller Spectacular Shows beat out North American Midway Entertainment, which secured the contract in the mid-1990s as Blomsness-Thebault. The contract is for 10 years.
The industry trade Carnival Warehouse reported that six vendors initially competed for the contract, although only two final bids were considered.
It is believed to be the first time that both state fairs have had the same carnival provider.
“Obviously, it was a procurement process and Miller won the bid, but we are thrilled to have them here,” said State Fair spokeswoman Krista Lisser. “They set up two weeks in advance of the fair and have made sure that all the spectacular rides are back.”
That includes the Sky Wheel double Ferris Wheel — called the “King of the Midway,” Miller said — and The Eclipse, which straps four people into pods that rotate inside a larger spinning wheel and is “the only one of its kind in North America,” he added.
A more traditional double Ferris wheel, one of only four or five in circulation now, is also gracing the Midway for the first time in three decades.
In a bow to local history, Miller’s also has two Ferris Wheels — the Eli Eagle 16 and the Little Eli — manufactured by the Eli Bridge Company in Jacksonville.
“(Fairgoers) are going to get a totally new look,” Miller promised.
The State Fair contract stipulates an overall number of rides and so-called “spectacular” rides, like The Eclipse. It also calls for a certain number of rides in Adventure Village, the children’s area.
About 150 workers will be operating rides and working the games and concessions, Miller said.
Like other carnival outfits, worker shortages were problematic earlier in the season, though numbers have shored up, Miller said.
At the Sangamon County Fair in New Berlin, an amusement company running the carnival canceled just days before the fair’s opening because of a worker shortage.
“It’s been a challenge for the entire industry,” Miller acknowledged. “A lot of the carnivals rely on H-2B visas, the workers coming out of predominantly, in the past it’s been Mexico, but they come from all over the world. We’ve had them from Russia, from South America, South Africa. Right now, we’ve got workers from Guatemala, Mexico and Honduras.
“Our company was very successful in getting our workers, but we got them late in the year, so it was a struggle in the early part of the season getting the staffing.”
Workers have to pass criminal background checks and sex offender checks, as well as do drug testing.
“Because we are entertaining families, we need employees who are going to be their best,” Miller said.
Miller said that safety is “non-negotiable with us” and the company “gets inspected in every state we travel to.” Miller’s operates at fairs and other events in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri and Kentucky, in addition to Illinois.
“Some states inspect you once and you may not see them again all year long,” said Miller, who serves on safety advisory boards for amusement rides in Arkansas and Missouri.
Paul Cicchini, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Labor, pointed out that no ride can operate in the state without being checked first by inspectors and given a permit.
Six ride inspectors with the Department of Labor spent the week at the midway certifying rides and attractions.
“We want fairgoers to be confident they can have an enjoyable time on the midway,” said Department of Labor Director Michael Kleinik.
Cicchini said there is one inspector on site every day that the fair takes place.
Fairgoers can report unsafe conditions, accidents or rides and attractions without operating permits by calling the Illinois Department of Labor at (217) 782-9347 or (217) 299-5512 or submit a complaint online.
From what he has seen at fairs earlier this season, Miller said the public’s expectations are “at an all-time high.”
“People have been cooped up. People in Illinois have not been able to enjoy rides since really the end of 2019,” Miller said. “My expectations are that we’re going to have a record-setting fair. It will happen.
“Everybody associated with this fair is going to have to come with both barrels loaded, prepared to do everything they can do to keep the public safe and to do our job.”
Originally Appeared Here