- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - The business is a family one for Golden Wheel Amusements. Chelsea Eckert, sales and marketing manager and the wife of the founder’s grandson, has to stop to think out loud when counting all the family members involved in the Spring Carnival Series, which was in Ketchikan this month.

“(Her husband) Chase’s younger brother Hayden, the middle one, just got married to Alyssa, who’s our face painter, whose mom runs our food wagon, and whose dad is our ride manager, so if you’re counting all of them,” Eckert said, ticking off fingers. “And her brother works at the funnel cake (booth), but he hasn’t finished school, so he’s not here right now, and then their cousins are coming, so there’s probably about 15 of us … and that’s without Grandma.”

Golden Wheel Amusements was founded by family matriarch Claire Morton in 1967 and has been the only carnival company in Alaska for the past 49 years, Eckert said. The carnival currently has 10 event locations, and Ketchikan is one of the most recent additions to the list.

The carnival returned to Ketchikan for the first time since 1984 last year. Eckert said the 20-year hiatus had a lot to do with the inability to line up the carnival schedule with the Alaska Marine Highway System schedule.

“We really want to keep this Southeast trip going, but so much of it depends on the ferry system,” Eckert said. “… (The ferry schedules), to this day, are the terms that dictate our routes.”

Eckert said Golden Wheel Amusements brought down a dozen rides, four games and one food booth from its headquarters in Chugiak for the carnival. All the rides break down to “trailer size” and will take the Alaska Marine Highway up the coast for Spring Carnival events in Sitka, Juneau and Kenai over the next month.

Eckert said it’s a pleasure to bring the Spring Carnival Series to Ketchikan and other communities in Southeast Alaska.

“At all ages, people are just tickled at the carnival,” she said. “Eyes brighten, there’s little squeals and people just can’t help but be excited when the lights are flashing, the rides are spinning and you know, (people on the rides are screaming). Even if you’re just going to walk around, it’s a fun place to be. We work really hard to make sure that it’s a safe place to be, and that all the little kids and big kids and older people can all have a great time in one area, which (that environment) seems harder and harder to find, but it seems that every age group treasures the carnival without even trying.”

And the carnival is popular - so popular that Metlakatla High School’s prom was rescheduled to avoid Metlakatla residents having to choose between the two events.

“Upon student input and conflict of the carnival coming to Ketchikan (from) May 1 through 5, prom is rescheduled (for) Saturday, May 9,” read the Annette Island School District’s Facebook page on April 23.

Eckert said they try to make it easy for people to come to the carnival “without breaking the bank,” despite the high cost of operating a carnival in Alaska in comparison to the Lower 48. Eckert said local businesses and organizations help keep those costs down, specifically with housing GWA staff.

Though the Spring Carnival is GWA’s smallest event, it still requires a crew of roughly 40 people (the GWA’s largest event, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, requires a crew of 400, according to Eckert). Though the owners and some of the family stay in a motorhome, the Super 8 Hotel is hosting a group of managers, who have to be near the equipment 24-7 in case of emergency, and the rest of the crew is housed at the First Assembly of God.

“Putting 40 people up in Southeast Alaska during peak season is a challenge, but the Super 8 in Ketchikan and in Juneau have helped us out tremendously,” Eckert said. “They really made our housing possible, so it’s (organizations like the Super 8 and the First Assembly of God) participating like that that really allow us to not raise prices for customers, because someone’s going to have to shoulder that cost. We don’t want it to be the customers, but we also have to have somewhere for our guys to live (while they’re here), so as long as people keep stepping up we’re really happy to bring all that we can at the best price that we can.”

Eckert said Golden Wheel Amusements focuses on being an affordable and family friendly environment for carnival-goers throughout the state.

“We just try to bring light wherever we go and carnivals are notoriously dark, so we just hope that people can see that (light). … We want it to be clean and shiny and good and joyful,” Eckert said.

James “Jimbo” Page is one of GWA’s long-time employees, and he said he was originally in the circus business back east, but when a friend called him and asked if he wanted a job at the carnival in Alaska, he didn’t hesitate.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve never been to Alaska.’ So I called (GWA) and they said, ‘Sure, come on up, we’ll hire you,’” Page said. “That was 11 years ago.”

Page said it’s easy to like working at the carnival.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t (like it). … You get to travel; you get to see things (and) meet all kinds of people - people who are nice and people who are a pain in the neck,” Page said.

And the trip to Ketchikan and back up the coast makes for a more dynamic commute than other routes, Page said.

“This year and last year, we’re starting the southern tour now, so it’s kind of neat that we get to see Ketchikan and Sitka,” Page said. “When you go to Fairbanks, it’s just the same road up and the same road down, so it’s really kind of fun to see if you see anything different, any animals or anything like that (on the ferry). It’s just fun traveling.”


Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com

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