By Eric Peterson | Sep 21, 2014
Victor Wisdom knows carnival rides inside and out, but his company is good at making just about anything on wheels.
"We can make anything for anybody," says Victor, calling the company's factory in northeastern Colorado "a one-stop shop."
Since Victor's father, the late Jerry Wisdom, sold the family carnival to focus on converting existing rides to trailer-mounted systems and later building new amusements, the company has been one of the leading manufacturers in the industry.
The family has been in the carnival business in Colorado since Victor's great-grandfather, R.T. Dowis, bought a merry-go-round in 1908. Back then, Dowis would ride the rails from the Rocky Mountains to the Nebraska plains.
The family was later responsible for all sorts of innovations that made carnival rides easier to transport and assemble, including a fan-like ferris wheel that became the industry standard. Victor himself has been in the business himself for most of his life, and starting managing carnival crews before he turned 10.
But Wisdom Rides has also built everything from portable oil-and-gas tanks to trade-show displays for Chrysler to military flight simulators and now is working on an easier-to-ship wind turbine. A core competency is building equipment that's easy to mount on a trailer and move from place to place.
Wisdom Rides' employees have a wide range of skills -- making carnival rides involves metalwork, artwork, hydraulics, and electronics -- and the company has a full machine shop, a vacuum former, and a laser cutter in-house.
"We've got amazing people who have incredible talent," says Victor. Sculptor Brad Rhea is just one example -- he's made molds of everything from cobras to baked potatoes in his 30 years working for Wisdom, and in his spare time works with bronze and marble.
Wisdom Rides' core carnival business revolves around proprietary designs for a wide range of rides. The company turned the corner as a manufacturer when Jerry Wisdom bought the rights to the Sizzler in 1973. He improved upon the existing design with better hydraulics, more lighting and Fiberglas seating, and the ride became a midway mainstay. "That's when we went from trailer-mounting rides to manufacturing rides," says Victor.
Today, the company makes about 50 different designs, and many more sub-designs. Bestsellers include the Gravitron -- also branded as Alien Abduction -- a wide range of small roller coasters, and the Tornado. Victor runs the manufacturing side with his wife, Mai, and his sister, Carol Davis, heads up repair and parts operations.
Because of the public-facing nature of the carnival business, Wisdom Rides is especially good at making things that last. "We have to design our equipment for the public to do very strange things to it -- and they do," says Victor.
Challenges: The economy. Since the early 2000s, fairs and other carnival mainstays haven't pushed operators to buy new rides, and that has meant for less orders for Wisdom, and the total number of carnivals nationwide is down from about 800 to about 400. "It's not as easy," say Victor. "There are fewer carnivals than there used to be."
Opportunities: Exporting rides to international markets. Victor says the business has been largely domestic throughout the company's history, but recent orders have come from Austria, Chile, and Vietnam.
Needs: Custom projects for the offseason. "It's so seasonal," Victor says of the ride business. When carnival season winds down in the fall, he seeks custom projects of all kinds. "We're always looking for things to fill up the offseason."
"That's the fun part of the business: building new things and trying to be innovative," he adds. "What gets me up in the morning is to try and do something different."