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Carnival rides highlight the fun at the Spokane County Interstate Fair

By Molly Wisor The Spokesman-Review

This year’s Spokane County Interstate Fair, Sept. 9-18, will have everything from caramel corn to carnival rides, and Erin Gurtel, director of Spokane County Fair & Expo, is ready for the festivities to begin.

This year marks her 18th year with the fair and her fourth as director.

“There’s a real adrenaline rush you get from the planning, the buildup, the executing,” Gurtel said.

The most popular attractions are the food, the animals and the concerts. But according to Gurtel, anyone can find something they like at the fairgrounds.

“There’s a lot more to the fair than just the concerts,” she said.

Especially the rides.

“The carnival is something people get really happy about,” she said.

For Andrea Stillwell, director of Butler Amusements, the carnival ride business is a family affair. She started at Butler Amusements in 2001 when her father, an employee, helped her get a summer job there.

This year, Butler Amusements will supply 36 rides for the fair’s carnival zone . Unlike many of the other attractions, the fair rides give attendees an adrenaline jolt.

“It’s not something that you regularly get to experience,” Stillwell said.

Stillwell said that the most popular fair rides are the Zillerator roller coaster, the Yo-Yo and Lolli swings, Wacky Worm family coaster and the Century Wheel. While some rides, like the Zillerator, are more adept for thrill-seekers, rides like the classic Century Wheel attract more cautious riders.

The Zillerator is the largest roller coaster at the carnival, while the Wacky Worm is a roller coaster made for kids and adults. The Yo-Yo is the largest and fastest swing ride, but the Lolli swing draws kids and adults alike who are more comfortable with a smaller swing ride.

The Century Wheel, also known as the Ferris wheel, gives viewers a more relaxing ride coupled with a bird’s-eye view of the fairground.

“The Century Wheel is likely a favorite because it is the tallest ride at the carnival,” she said.

First unveiled at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, copies of the original Ferris wheel have been fan favorites in carnivals since. But the oldest operating ride at this year’s fair is the 1985 Hampton Corvettes ride, consisting of eight Corvettes circling around, all while being shaded under a large umbrella.

“Everything else is a lot newer than that,” Stillwell said.

Most Hampton rides are made for younger children to enjoy. Despite being some of the least-popular rides offered by the carnival, Stillwell likes the fact that they introduce a younger crowd to carnival rides.

The Zipper, a ride complete with rotating passenger capsules attached to an oblong, Ferris wheel-like center, is a classic fair ride known for its speed and intensity.

“I’m a big fan of it,” Stillwell said. “I don’t know why it doesn’t get as many tickets as some of our most popular rides. It’s one of the top three rides that people think of when they think of a carnival.”

Although Stillwell is a fan of the ride, she can see why some carnivalgoers would want to avoid it.

“It’s not for everybody,” she said. “It’s only for people who want the biggest thrill.”

“We continue to offer the Zipper at most of our events because it is highly requested by each of our fairs,” she said. “Most do not realize it is one of our least-popular rides.”

The COVID-19 pandemic caused Butler Amusements to shut down from March 2020 to April 2021. But Stillwell said that her industry saw a major boost in the post-pandemic world.

“We were seeing record numbers of attendees post-COVID because they were so tired of being cooped up at home,” she said.

“We’re grateful that we’re allowed to safely experience outdoor events again.”

Gurtel is hopeful that the Spokane County Fair & Expo will also experience a nice rebound this year.

“I am very hopeful that it’s going to be an awesome fair,” she said. “What I’m hearing from other fairs around the region is that they’re having exceptional years.”

Regardless of the turnout, she’s ready to enjoy her favorite part of her job.

“The most exciting part of the fair for me is seeing all the smiles on the faces,” she said.

Molly Wisor is a member of The Spokesman-Review’s Teen Journalism Institute, a paid high school summer internship program funded by Bank of America and Innovia Foundation. As the only paid high school newspaper internship in the nation, it is for local students between the ages of 16 and 18 who work directly with senior editors and reporters in the newsroom. All stories written by these interns can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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