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State, local officials keep eye on carnival safety

Every amusement ride and amusement attraction open to the public and operating in Illinois must be inspected before its first operation and annually thereafter. In addition to rides such as Ferris wheels, this includes haunted houses, mechanical bulls, and inflatable attractions, or bounce houses and moonwalks.
Every amusement ride and amusement attraction open to the public and operating in Illinois must be inspected before its first operation and annually thereafter. In addition to rides such as Ferris wheels, this includes haunted houses, mechanical bulls, and inflatable attractions, or bounce houses and moonwalks.

Do not rock your seat on the Ferris wheel, or Skinners’ Amusements staff reserve the right to kick you off.

No standing on the fences. No running around. No intoxicated riders.

“We have the policy on the back of our tickets,” said Pat Skinner, co-owner of the Marengo-based company. “We reserve the right to refuse ridership.”

Skinners’ Amusements celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, a witness to the many changes in rules and regulations for the carnival industry. This includes the Carnival and Amusement Rides Safety Act adopted in 1985.

Carnivals can be big business for many local organizations that rely on them for fundraising, but there are annual state permitting requirements to ensure public safety standards are being met before a single dollar changes hands.

“A lot of people don’t know that the Illinois Department of Labor is responsible for regulating rides,” spokeswoman Anjali Julka said.

Skinners’ Amusements does the carnivals for several local events, including Harvard Milk Days and the McHenry County Fair. Pat Skinner said that in the past four or five years, she could recall only a pinched finger or two involving members of the public.

She said inspection sheets on rides in use are done every day, with the operators going to each one, checking off the components, and signing off.

They also hold safety meetings at least once a week and sometimes more.

Still, rider responsibility is key.

“Rider responsibility is a big issue,” she said. “Of all the different types of accidents that have happened in the industry, it was really the riders that have created it.”

There are other hiccups. Most recently, on July 9 at Fiesta Days in McHenry, 10 people were stranded on the Zipper for about an hour. Each car was lowered after its brakes were released and no one was injured.

Kay Bates, president of the McHenry Area Chamber of Commerce, which runs Fiesta Days, said organizers go for family-owned and operated amusement companies. This year was the third that the chamber went with Kentucky-based Great American Amusements.

Bates said they found the company through good references, but said they submit information on every operator to police for background checks.

“To be perfectly honest, it’s not as easy as maybe it was 20 years ago to find an amusement company,” she said. “We’ve been very fortunate to find this one, and it’s profitable enough for them to come up here.”

The chamber makes money by getting a percentage of ticket sales, which can be between 15 percent and 25 percent, depending on the operation, Bates said. She declined to say how much money the carnival raises, but Fiesta Days is a major fundraiser for the organization.

Ron Russell, board president of the Lakeside Legacy Foundation, said the Lakeside Festival held around July 4 also is the largest fundraiser for the organization. It, however, negotiates carnival contracts for several years at a time and has been working with Windy City Amusements.

By having volunteers staff the ticket booths, they are able to take a higher percentage of ticket sales.

The city of Crystal Lake has a carnival ordinance, and the city inspects the equipment, Russell said.

At this year’s festival, he was made aware of only one incident where a child fell getting on or off a ride, but he said it was not related to the ride’s operation.

“We’ve never had a life-threatening injury on our festival grounds that I can recall, and I have been involved in quite a few of them,” he said.

Mechanical issues can be par for the course.

“You have to realize that you have mechanical equipment, which is just like your car, so you are at some point going to get a breakdown along the line,” Russell said. “As soon as there’s a problem, they shut down the ride so it can be repaired.”

Getting a permit

Every amusement ride and amusement attraction open to the public and operating in Illinois must be inspected by the Department of Labor before its first operation and annually thereafter. In addition to rides such as Ferris wheels, this includes haunted houses, mechanical bulls, and inflatable attractions, or bounce houses and moonwalks.

For example, Bounces R Us in Richmond is a registered operator, as is Donley’s Wild West Town for its carousel, kiddie coaster, menagerie and train.

People who rent inflatables for parties do not need a permit unless it will be used at a public event.

Rides and attractions that do not require a permit include pony rides, permanent ball crawls, and playground equipment. Water slides are regulated by the Illinois Department of Health.

To be inspected, every owner first must submit a completed application packet to the Department of Labor. Once a ride or attraction has been approved for operation, a permit sticker good for one calendar year is issued to be placed on it.

There are requirements for the operators, too.

At the time of inspection, owners are required to provide documentation that they have conducted a criminal history records check and sex offender registry check for all operators, attendants and assistants. Owners also must show that the operators received training, and a substance abuse policy must be in place that includes random drug testing.

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