Long Island Business News – Q&A: Mike Newton, Newton Carnivals

December 16, 2010 by Claude Solnik

For some people, life’s a cabaret. For Mike Newton’s family, it’s a carnival. Newton, with his brother John, is co-owner of Newton Carnivals, an East Northport firm their father, Lewis, founded more than 60 years ago. We talked with him about the mobile show business.

What was it like growing up in the carnival business?

I started with my brother, helping out when we were 7, 8, 9 years old. My father taught me how to spin cotton candy at the local school events. We worked on weekends during junior high school in the summer season.

Did you think back then that you’d go into the family business?

I did. I probably didn’t really firmly feel that way until my second year at college. That’s when I realized that I could make a good living at something that was close to my heart and part of the family tradition.

How did your father get into this business?

My dad started in Brooklyn soon after the war when he was asked by a parish priest if he could provide them a Ferris wheel for an event they were having. He dabbled in providing merchandise for old-fashioned bazaars. He would give not-for-profits TVs. Whatever they used, they paid for. Then he got into the ride business. The parish priest asked him if he could do that.

How have things changed since then?

The equipment is very modern. In the old days, even electrical systems, to get power from ride to ride and concession to concession, was very antiquated. Now electrical systems are silent and environmentally friendly.

How have computers affected things?

The cycle is timed for the ride. In the old days, the operator of the ride would operate it the way he felt. Today, most or all rides are set on computers. The level of safety has been improved.

What’s the latest technology?

(Light emitting diode) lighting. It’s been around in our industry for six or seven years. It’s just starting to be affordable. We’re looking to upgrade and have LED lighting. You save tremendous amounts on electric. We have to power our shows on generators.

How important is lighting?

Think about carnivals. What catches the eye is the lights. You could have a little kid come to a carnival at night. His eyes will pop open. If you can take 50 percent of your power requirements and reduce that, it’s worth the investment.

Who holds most of the carnivals?

Ninety-five percent of our sponsors are not-for-profits, from churches to chambers of commerce to fire departments to the rotary to the Elks. They provide the space and the volunteers and the cause and participate in revenue sharing with us.

Are you seeing more interest from nonprofits?

Because of our limited resources, two events a week, we have to be fairly selective. It’s not like we can produce 10,000 widgets. We do see interest from groups. We have an amazing level of volunteerism on Long Island. We feel it’s a great market and will continue to be so.

Do you do events for companies?

We did the 10-year anniversary of JetBlue this year in August. They rented a full mini-amusement park. We set it up at Kennedy airport for all their New York employees. (Corporate events are) few and far between. It’s probably affordable if you consider what they spend for big corporate parties.

Do you have additional revenue sources, for instance, from renting out your equipment?

We had a commercial shoot a few weeks ago. We rented our merry-go-round. They rethemed it for an LG smartphone. It’s currently playing on regular TV.

Are kids less excited by carnivals because of video games?

Last season was an uptick season for us. There’s always going to be a big demand for fun and relaxation in your local community at a quality outdoor amusement event. And the weather was with us. Last season, September through October, we hardly had a rainout on the weekend. The season before, we probably lost eight weekends.

What’s the most popular ride?

For us, it’s the Pharaoh’s Fury, a swinging boat ride with an Egyptian theme with a Pharaoh’s head. Also, the Super Shot where they drop down. It takes you up slowly. Everybody sits in a circle. It goes up 90 feet and suddenly drops.

What do carnival people do in the winter?

We plan our next season, from logistics to marketing and promotion, trying to foresee the new trend when it comes to amusement rides, amusement games or even the prizes used in the games. And then restoration. Our goal is to bring our equipment out for the next season better than the prior season.