I stood in the middle of the walkway, surveying the empty carnival booths and bored carnies around me on Thursday night. Two teenage boys used the lone ATM machine, hovering closely to it while making jokes. A small child, barely three feet tall, walks up of her own accord. I say hello with a smile.
"The monkey, he licked it off my arm!"
"What did he lick off your arm?"
Her mother pipes in, "Show her your photo."
The daughter shows me a photo of her standing with a carnival monkey adorned in stereotypical exotic flair, a sequined vest and tiny hat. "He licked the food off my arm!"
Less than 48 hours earlier, a co-worker of mine recounted an old Fiesta Carnival experience from more than eight years ago.
"I felt like I was going to get stabbed. Good luck!"
In my mind, I had forged an idea of a seedy, dark paradise for pick-pocketing and muggings. Quite a few long-time residents had told this two-year resident of similar feelings about Carnival, which is operated by Wade Shows, Inc.
This was not the same carnival.
I found children enjoying the short lines for rides and sharing funnel cakes with their parents. I saw teenagers going through the typical, awkward motions of sitting with their crush on two-seat spinners. At the entrance stood a flock of Christians insisting that we all find the Lord through their free flyers and animal balloons.
Five years ago Fiesta Carnival was held downtown amid the likes of Night in Old San Antonio (NIOSA) and major parade routes with much easier access to the Westside of San Antonio. With thousands of extra people downtown every night for other Fiesta events, this created a packed carnival that was difficult to manage.
"The carnival used to be open from all sides and people could just walk through," explains San Antonio Police Department Officer Shaun Preyer-Johnson, who was patrolling near the water-gun race booth. "You had people coming in to cause trouble. Now there is only one way in and one way out and we see everyone who comes in."
This year, at the Alamodome, a fence contained the entirety of Fiesta Carnival with only one access point. The police presence was beefed up, as well. Standing on the short south edge of the grounds, I could see a coupling of officers every 100 feet. It seemed as though there was an officer for every family in attendance, which might seem like overkill until you consider the context of the recent bombings in Boston.
The Carnival's removal from downtown proper, while making the event more regulated and family-friendly, has produced negative affects as well. The loss of walkability has undoubtedly dropped attendance, because it has now become a destination rather than a whimsical spending of money while passing through. Getting to the east side of the Alamodome requires a car for most families who would rather be setting up camp to see the parades downtown. The move was also coincidentally timed with the 2008 recession. SAPD Detective Schoenberger has seen a decrease in attendance over the years.
"The attendance was a lot higher even last year. I don't know what caused that, but it's probably a combination of the weather this week and the bad economy," Detective Schoenberger said. "People still just don't have the money to spend on something like this."
It had rained sporadically for two days and the humidity was unusually high. Each ride, surely with high operational expenses, was between $3 to $5. A small lemonade was $4.50. The San Antonio Fiesta Commission did not respond to a request for information on how profits are allocated or how their management style of Carnival has changed in the last half-decade. According to Detective Schoenberger, conversations with Wade Shows, Inc. employees revealed a significant decrease in nightly profits since the event's removal from downtown.
"It's been a slow night," one of the Carnival employees tells me as his neighboring colleague causes a stir over my photographing her booth. "She's just had a bad night, sometimes she’s nicer." He takes a puff of his cigarette as I ask him where he's from. "I live in New York, but I love coming to San Antonio. I've been coming a couple years to the Rodeo and I plan to keep coming back. It's a lot of fun."
Everyone seems to be going through the motions of an annual carnival. Most parents look bored, and even my corndog is luke-warm and uninspired. I cannot find one cotton candy machine, which I had accepted as a staple of all carnivals. But in all the mediocre failures there is one great success: The children love every minute of it, racing between rides and laughing the whole way there. Teenagers are teasing each other and making bets to win stuffed animals.
I see a lot of smiles on young faces because Fiesta Carnival has become a safe haven for kids to have fun in a controlled setting.
Maybe it's better advertising or more successful discounts that will give the carnival a boost in attendance, perhaps it's a special Fiesta bus route. Whatever the solution, I would encourage it to maintain the clean, family atmosphere that now exists.
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At 11 p.m. sharp, I exited with a small crowd of customers. Employees immediately followed to clean up the only substantial litter I witnessed all night: Hundreds of pamphlets about sin and salvation from the Christian welcoming group. People had tossed them aside on the grounds outside the gate, perhaps because they didn't need a piece of paper to show them what love is ... Going to the carnival with friends and family was enough.
Fiesta 2013 Coverage: