Throngs of curious carnival folks trekked thousands of miles last week to browse the bedazzled confines of Gibsonton’s International Independent Showman’s Association (IISA) trade show, which hosted over 300 industry-related national and international vendors.
In a seven-day span highighted by award shows, balls, a golf tournament and industry seminars, attendees came to see the latest and greatest in rides, food, carnival games and overall industry innovations.
“It’s like our Super Bowl,” Ray Siulc said of the largest trade show in the carnival industry. “You can see it and sell it here first.”
Siulc, 65, accompanied his friend and fellow Buffalo, NY resident Rich Rodems, 58, to hawk Rodems’ inflatable water slides and bounce houses.
The long-time friends braved ice and snowstorms, often moving only 200 miles in 12 hours, for a trip that took four days instead of the intended 21 hours.
“This is basically the foundation we lay for the rest of the year,” Rodems said. “It’s a well-thought-out plan for many of us.”
Many of the trade show attendees follow a common circuit, first attending the American Rental Association’s Orlando-based show, before heading west for the IISA and the Florida State Fair.
Established in 1966 as a non-profit organization, the IISA is the largest showmen’s association in the United States. With over 4,500 members within the outdoor amusement industry, the IISA consists of concessionaires, manufacturers, suppliers, performers and attendants.
Known to insiders as the “Gibtown Showmen’s Club," the organization relies on the trade show as its biggest fundraiser. Thousands of dollars are donated each year to charitable organizations as well as to scholarships for those in the industry.
Boasting a motto of “Fun is our business,” the IISA strives to promote the rich history of carnivals and sideshows while attracting younger devotees.
The industry hasn't been helped by the recession.
“It hit many of us pretty hard,” said Billy Willis, a game operator for Chicago-based North
American Midway Entertainment. “We have to also try to stay relevant and innovative and offer upgrades like installing ATMs in our booths.”
Willis, a Montreal native with over 50 years in the industry, got introduced to it at the 1967 World’s Fair in his homeland.
Willis’ dad had popcorn and cotton candy machines, along with themed souvenirs.
“One of my first memories is learning to roll the cotton candy cones with my little brother,” Willis said. “To us, we lived in a magical world and it continues within me.”
Members of the industry form a tight-knit society.
Riverview and Gibsonton are home to Florida’s large carnival community, who reside there during the industry’s off-season. Members are highly active in the surrounding community with fundraisers and donations.
“It is like a big, extended family, especially here,” Willis said. “I’ve run into so many folks here that I grew up with over the years. It’s like coming home.”
One of his “family” is the legendary “King of the Sideshows,” and Riverview resident, Ward Hall.
At age 14, Hall, a 10th-grade dropout, ran away to join the circus.
By 16, he was performing in a sideshow, and by 21 had a sideshow of his own.
Called the modern-day P.T. Barnum and the last-of-his-kind sideshow promoter, the 84-year-old Hall works tirelessly preserving and promoting the only life he has known.
“Seeing Ward is always a highlight for me,” Willis said. “I met him at the 1967 World’s Fair and we have been family ever since.”
“One of the misconceptions people have about our industry and lifestyle is that we are a troupe of disconnected folks.
“Just look around here and see all the handshakes and hugs — now that’s family.”