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Pandemic pause: A quiet summer not the norm for amusement ride operators
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Pandemic pause: A quiet summer not the norm for amusement ride operators

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ALMOND — The Tilt-A-Whirl hasn’t spun since last fall.

The Zero Gravity ride is idle, along with the bumper cars, a giant slide and Pharaoh’s Fury, an Egyptian-themed ship on a massive pendulum.

The Bumble Bee Bop remains packed away, too. It normally allows children to fantasize as they travel in a circle while piloting one of the undulating, airborne plastic insects.

Chip Kedrowicz, owner and president of Rainbow Valley Rides, can relate to his young customers.

Imagination is about all he has left this summer as the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out most of his business and that of other amusement operators who travel the fair and festival circuit.

Rainbow Valley Rides

Vehicles normally on the road this time of years are stored in one of the many buildings at Rainbow Valley Rides near Almond.

“I never thought in a million years that our season would be canceled,” Kedrowicz said. “I never thought it would get to this point and this extreme where you wouldn’t be able to operate. But obviously it has.”

Kedrowicz’s midway remains tucked away on trailers in massive storage sheds. There is no smell of deep-fried funnel cakes sprinkled with powdered sugar or the sounds of generators, loud music and the carousel’s calliope. Revenue has evaporated, and even if the Shawano and Ozaukee county fairs (his only two remaining events that haven’t been scrubbed) go on as planned, Kedrowicz isn’t quite sure how he’ll find adequate and experienced seasonal staff for what could be just a couple of weekends. He’d also be required to spend thousands of dollars to register his fleet of vehicles with the state Department of Transportation so they can legally be on the road.

This has been anything but a typical summer for anyone as every single aspect of life has been impacted by the pandemic.

Rainbow Valley Rides

Chip Kedrowicz takes his time painting parts for a children's train ride. The specialized paint costs $300 per gallon but is designed to withstand heat and the wear and tear of a traveling amusement company.

Tourism in the state will lose billions of dollars, according to even the most conservative predictions, and most businesses that are open are operating at reduced capacity, with restrictions and limited offerings. There are no trips to Miller Park for Milwaukee Brewers games, Summerfest has been canceled along with the AirVenture in Oshkosh. Family travel plans have been altered, most youth camps are shuttered, and many youth sports leagues will not be in action. Small and large businesses alike have seen sales plunge to unthinkable levels.

Scores of county fairs will not be held this year, and the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis is also history for 2020. Community events such as Riverfest in Watertown, Cheese Days in Monroe and the Good Neighbor Festival in Middleton are all canceled for this year, along with fireman’s picnics and church festivals across the state. The events are normally the bread and butter for amusement ride operators that also include A&P Enterprise Shows in Custer, Mr. Ed’s Magical Midways in North Freedom and Wenzel Amazements in Allenton.

Rainbow Valley Rides

The Lolli Swings are idle at the headquarters of Rainbow Valley Rides. Normally, at this time of the year, the ride would be set up at fairs and festivals around the state. 

Earl’s Rides in Weyauwega has been in business since 1932. Its normal summer stops include Dorchester Days, Heritage Days in Clear Lake, Booster Days in Hudson and the Crawford, Forest and St. Croix county fairs. But not this year.

“Well it is unfortunately official,” the company posted June 2 on its Facebook page. “We will not be going out at all this summer.”

Rainbow Valley Rides

The Zipper was removed from a storage shed last week at Rainbow Valley Rides so many of its lights could be replaced with more energy-efficient LED lights. A lack of business has allowed the company to do projects that might have waited until winter.

‘Hopefully we can bounce back’

Kedrowicz should have been in Milwaukee this weekend where he usually splits his rides on Father’s Day weekend between two Catholic parish festivals. Instead, most of his 50 employees are out of work and Kedrowicz is hunkered down in his shop in rural Portage County about 27 miles southeast of Stevens Point, where the downtime is being turned into busy work for his two sons and two other employees.

Last week, the Zipper was getting new LED lights, while the Rio Grande, a train for children that includes an engine, two cars and a caboose, was in pieces being prepped for new flooring and a fresh coat of paint.

“It’s different,” Hampton Kedrowicz, 21, said of his summer. “Hopefully we can bounce back from it by next summer.”

Hampton will be a senior this fall at UW-Oshkosh where he’s pursuing a degree in marketing. His older brother, Chase, 23, just graduated from UW-Milwaukee with an economics degree. Chase recently purchased a funnel cake wagon from an uncle to operate at each of his father’s stops. Over the years, Chase and Hampton have sold tickets, operated rides, done maintenance and assisted crews with putting up and tearing down the midway, rain or shine.

Rainbow Valley Rides

Brothers Hampton, left, and Chase Kedrowicz are normally on the road this time of the year working for their father's amusement ride business. But due to COVID-19, the two have been busy repairing and maintaining rides at the company's shop near the village of Almond.

This summer will include each taking tests for their commercial driver’s licenses. If they pass, they’ll be able to drive big rigs from city to city.

“It’s like farming,” Chase, 23, said about working for his father’s amusement company. “You need to do a lot of everything but it’s good experience.”

The genesis of Rainbow Valley Rides goes back to the 1960s when Chip Kedrowicz’s father purchased an octopus ride and began booking it at traveling shows when he wasn’t working at what was then Consolidated Paper in Wisconsin Rapids. By the early 1970s, the elder Kedrowicz began purchasing more rides and ultimately created his own traveling carnival based out of Rosholt. The company moved more than 25 years ago to its current location after a trucking company went out of business and left behind ample indoor storage space that proved to be a perfect set up for Rainbow Valley Rides. The company has about 70 pieces of large equipment that includes semi-tractors, trailers, rides, campers and duel-wheel pickup trucks that can receive goose-neck trailers. Nearly all of it is stored inside over the winter.

Rainbow Valley Rides

One of the first trucks used for Rainbow Valley Rides was this 1966 Ford 600. It no longer runs the road but is a reminder of the company's history.

Chip Kedrowicz, 53, said he canceled an order for a $700,000 new ride in March and applied and received payroll protection money from the federal government. He’s also talking with other amusement operators about possibly combining operations on a temporary basis to service any fairs or festivals that do decide to go forward.

“We’re all hurting and we’ve all got holes in our seasons. It’s challenging enough to begin with being a seasonal business,” Kedrowicz said. “There’s more to it than you think. And you don’t want your equipment sitting.

The fresh-cut hay and rows of potatoes growing in the sandy soil that surrounds the Rainbow Valley headquarters appears normal, but not for Kedrowicz. He typically works seven days a week, lives out of a camper at this time of the year and returns just in time to wind down in a tree stand with his bow in pursuit of a trophy buck as the harvest is in full swing for his neighbors.

But this season will likely go down as the worst in company history. The stress he’ll need to relieve this fall will come from an entity he never imagined and hopes to never see come again.

“This is the first summer I’ve ever been home,” said Kedrowicz, as he looked over his full storage sheds that should be empty. “I’m kind of out of my element.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.

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