TAMPA — It's early morning on the midway. The walkways are pristine. The air doesn't yet smell of fried fair food. And dew still clings to the carnival rides, making them shine in the sunlight.
This is Frank Zaitshik's favorite moment of the day.
"It's when I know I'm in the right business," he said.
Zaitshik owns Wade Shows, the largest ride operator at this year's Florida State Fair, which opens today. Of the more than 100 rides on the midway, 28 belong to him. And Zaitshik's rides are often the best of the best, according to Chuck Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority.
Maybe that's because Zaitshik, 67, grew up on the midway.
His parents owned gaming concessions and he traveled with them from fair to fair. Going by the nickname "Friendly Frank," Zaitshik has fond memories of helping operate the game booths.
Even so, his parents made him promise to choose another life. But his idea of coaching football never panned out after college, and he soon returned to the fair.
Wade Shows was founded in 1912 by Lee Wade and started with small events around Detroit. Zaitshik of Lutz bought the company 33 years ago and has traveled across the country with it ever since. During that time, he witnessed firsthand both the beauty and the struggles of the carnival business.
"There was a time when we were proud to be called 'carnies,' " Zaitshik said. "Today, we find it very disrespectful because most people use it in a negative connotation or as a stereotype."
Life as a carnival worker could be considered a subculture. Workers travel most weeks of the year. Many sleep in one of the company's 35 bunk trailers. Others have their own camping trailers and join the caravan traveling from show to show.
"This job is not easy," Zaitshik said. "These are salt of the earth, hardworking people pulling 10-, 12- and 14-hour days."
It can be difficult to find people willing to work that hard, he said. That's one of the reasons Wade Shows utilizes a visa program that allows foreigners to temporarily work in the United States. This year, Wade Shows has about 125 workers from Mexico.
Running a fair company as large as Wade Shows takes planning. The company is still tearing down rides from its stint at the South Florida Fair in West Palm Beach, which ended earlier this month. Some rides are at a fair in Texas. And workers are transferring some of its rides to the Pasco County Fair, which starts Feb. 18.
Some of its best rides, though, are at the Florida State Fair.
As one of the country's only independent midways, the Florida State Fair has the opportunity to choose rides from multiple companies, Pesano said.
"That allows us to have a large number of the major ride operators," he said. But for Zaitshik, it means a constant struggle to stay ahead of the competition.
"You're always in search of that signature piece that has a wow factor no one else has," he said.
"Kids are playing games while they are waiting in line," he continued. "People have the attention span of a gnat."
Marina Zaitshik, his 17-year-old daughter, could be the answer. She's interested in joining the family business after college.
"I see some of the things he's doing, different, new things," she said, "and I think about what I could do to make the carnival business different, how I can make it better."
That's exactly what fair organizers are hoping for.
"I believe we'll continue to see computer technology make rides more on edge, more crazy, more wild," Pesano said.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.