ELKHART — He settled into the seat and lowered a U-shaped bar over his shoulders and chest. The giant pendulum began to twist and swing backward and forward, hiking him up to a 120-degree angle. The cold iron scent of warehouses wafted past with each swing.
Danny Huston had traveled more than 4,000 miles for this moment — to ride the “Freak Out.” The problem?
It wasn’t finished.
Huston is the Co-CEO of North American Midway, the company that provides all of the food, rides and employees in the midway at the Elkhart County 4-H Fair. He has the job that every kid wants when they grow up — to pick out fair midway rides.
He started his first job at a dunk tank when he was 12 years old. Forty years later, Huston is still in the business of summer games and rides.
Picking out the Rides
Now he spends much of his fall traveling to ride manufacturers around the world. Stamps from Italian, English and the Netherlands have all found their way into Huston’s passport.
Some Elkhart 4-H favorites came from these expeditions. The “Freak Out” came from the Netherlands, while the new “Twister” hails from England.
The “Freak Out” has been a fair favorite, a swinging pendulum ride that brings riders roughly 70 feet in the air. When Huston first packed his bags to meet with the manufacturer of the ride, it wasn’t even finished being built. When he arrived, just enough was done that he was able to safely strap in for a test ride.
Rides like the “Freak Out” cued buyers like Huston and his team into the trends of the business.
According to Amy Girton, Director of Communications & Media Relations with North American Midway, the best fair rides are all about the speed.
“We have found that guests love a thrill — the faster the better,” she said.
Huston keeps a watchful eye on reactions and analytics, too. He will watch the reaction of children and teenagers when they’re on the rides, noting which are the most exciting parts. This lets him decide what kinds of rides to buy in the fall.
He and his team also keep track of how many people ride each attraction throughout the week, what days are the most popular and what rides have the biggest draw.
“Rides are native to the area,” Huston said. “In Indy, they like elephant ears and pork, in Michigan they like cheese curds — it’s the same with rides.”
He works with his sons Blake and Mike, who oversee the Elkhart County 4-H Fair. They and the rest of the midway staff are encouraged to share their own observations.
“At the end of the day I’m the one who writes the check … but I place a lot of faith in what they tell me to with equipment,” Huston said.
So Which Rides Make the Cut?
Huston has his own ritual when deciding which rides he will buy. Many of the ride design companies are based overseas, but there are U.S. representatives who try and pitch rides to Huston. If the ride can hold a high capacity of people and can fill one of their needed holes, he flies out to see it in person.
Like any business, Huston seeks have a variety of products. He must ensure that each of North American Midway’s 132 fair venues can offer something for everyone. Slower rides for the kids and family friendly activities are a must to balance the high velocity rides.
And while he usually only buys new, there are occasionally used rides that make it in.
“It’s like buying a good car,” says Huston. “You pick out the one with the least troubles. It’s the same with rides.”
Huston and his sons meet with the fair board to decide which rides will go and which will stay. A few of the funhouses that were set up last year will be cut to make room for the new attractions.
The New Rides
While classics like the number one grosser, the Ferris Wheel and favorite roller coaster the “Crazy Mouse” remain, fairgoers will have a few new rides to look forward to this summer.
The “Twister” will be returning to the fair, with its large tilted turn table and spinning cars set on top. It is a high capacity ride that is the only one in the state.
The “Himalaya” will be returning for an encore after two years. If there is loud music from the midway this year, it is probably coming from the “Himalaya.” The ride goes forward and tries to intensify the experience with plenty of sound.
The “Jumpin Jumbos” will be flying elephants that children can move higher or lower as it spins above the midway.
The “Traffic Jam” is a new funhouse that is set up for any age to enjoy.