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Legendary Sky Wheel to make midway return as Strates Shows celebrates 95th year at Erie County Fair

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Tue, May 7th 2019 03:55 pm
The Sky Wheel photo is courtesy of the Erie County Fair.
The Sky Wheel photo is courtesy of the Erie County Fair.

It has been called by carnival historians the “King of the Midway”; a traveling amusement ride so unique, dazzling and spectacular that it defined the Erie County Fair midway for generations of Western New Yorkers.

On Tuesday, the Erie County Agricultural Society announced the James E. Strates Shows will feature the return of the legendary 80-foot-high double-Ferris wheel called the Sky Wheel on its midway in 2019. This limited, one-time engagement is part of the celebration commemorating the 95th year of the Strates Shows at the Erie County Fair.

“The double-Ferris wheel is one of the most requested bygone attractions that fairgoers continually ask us to bring back,” said Marty Biniasz, Erie County Fair marketing manager. “Not only is this rare ride an icon of the Strates Shows midway, it also has a deep Buffalo-Niagara connection as the Sky Wheel ride was once manufactured by the Allan Herschell Co.”

The Sky Wheel debuted on the Erie County Fair’s midway in 1963 and was a featured attraction until 1994. The ride made a brief reappearance between 1996-98 before it was retired by the Strates Shows. Once a common attraction at major county and state fairs, the fully restored version of the ride scheduled to appear this summer is one of only five operating Sky Wheel rides remaining in North America.

Rides on the Sky Wheel will be part of all Strates Shows one-price ride days and “FunCard” ticket programs.

“The Sky Wheel seats 32 people in 16 seats,” Biniasz said. “Riders experience the sensation of a rapid acceleration being propelled into the sky and then the feeling of a free fall as the wheels rotate downwards. Although there have been faster, taller and more modern rides over the decades, the adrenalin rush you get from the Sky Wheel is in a class of its own.”

In 1960, the Allan Herschell Co., then a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wiesner-Rapp Co., purchased the Sky Wheel patents and manufacturing rights from brothers Curtis and Elmer Velare of Long Beach, California. From 1960 until the sale of the Herschell Company’s assets in 1970 to Chance Manufacturing of Wichita, Kansas, Sky Wheels were built at the Herschell plant located at 1165 Clinton St., East Buffalo. At the time of the sale to Chance, the Allan Herschell Co. was the largest manufacturer of amusement rides in North America.

The addition of the Sky Wheel to the 2019 Erie County Fair midway celebrates the exclusive relationship between the Erie County Fair and the Strates Shows. Now in its 95th year, this partnership is considered a historical milestone in the modern amusement industry. According to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, the relationship between the Strates Shows and the Erie County Fair is the longest continuous run of any carnival midway in the U.S.

Unique among today’s amusement operators, The Strates Shows is the only “railroad carnival” in North America. Each spring, the Strates Shows leaves its winter quarters in Florida and begins an eight-month journey by rail that transports their equipment to fairgrounds across the eastern seaboard and northeast. The “fair train,” as commonly known in Western New York, currently is comprised of more than 50 rail cars.

The arrival of the Strates train at the depot in the Village of Hamburg, a living piece of Americana, will be celebrated again this summer.

The Strates Shows is a 96-year-old, family-owned business with headquarters in Orlando. Founded in 1923 by Greek immigrant James E. Strates as the Southern Tier Shows in Elmira, the Strates Shows is considered one of America’s premiere providers of carnival midways. After the death of Strates in 1959, his only son, also named E. James Strates, took over as manager of the company and is still actively involved in its operation.

Now in its ninth decade, the Strates Shows are led by the third generation of Strates family members, including Susan, Jimmy, Sibyl, Jay and John. Nick Strates, who officially joined the show full-time during the 2015 season, is the fourth generation of the Strates family to continue the tradition. Over the decades, the Strates Shows has brought many innovations to the carnival industry, including cooperative promotions, a centralized ticket system, advance ticket sales, and, most recently, the “FunCard” electronic ticketing system that utilizes bar codes to control access to carnival rides on the midway.

The Erie County Agricultural Society is a private not-for-profit membership organization. Established in 1819, the society is the oldest civic organization in Western New York. The mission of the Erie County Agricultural Society, sponsors of the Erie County Fair, is to preserve and enhance, by educational endeavors, the agricultural and historical legacy of New York state.

The 180th Erie County Fair will be held Aug. 7-18. Visit www.ECFair.org.

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