TAMPA — The days of carrying bands of tickets to go on rides at the Florida State Fair are over.
The roller coaster is going digital.
Admission for all rides at the fair, which opens next month near Tampa, will be deducted from a prepaid card that's scanned each time you use it — replacing old-fashioned tickets and perhaps ushering in more flat-fee armband days.
"Tickets in one form or another have been around since the beginning of rides," said Chuck Pesano, executive director of the Florida State Fair Authority. "We always have change in life, and this one, we think, has some real positives to improve the experience for our consumers."
The fair calls them FUNCARDs. Like buying old-fashioned tickets, fairgoers use cash, debit cards or credit cards to get the cards in $5 or $20 increments. Like old tickets, they're issued on a use it-or-lose-it basis. Then at each ride, the fairgoer presents the card and the operator scans it to deduct the cost. At any ride, the fairgoer can ask the operator how much is left on the card.
But unlike the old tickets, a fairgoer who loses the card while on a ride that twists upside down or spins in circles no longer has to search for it or wonder if a stranger pocketed it. Instead, he can take the receipt to a booth. Attendants can find the card in the system, cancel it and issue a new one with the remaining credits.
Unlike some other fairs that went digital in the past decade, the Florida State Fair is using the cards only for rides. Cash is still required for games and food.
The Iowa State Fair faced heavy backlash a couple of weeks ago when it announced it would implement a mandatory cashless payment system this year not only for rides but for food and games as well.
That fair reversed course when people flooded social media bemoaning the change.
For Florida, the cards might make it easier to increase the number of armband days in the future. For years, fairgoers have requested more days when they can go on as many carnival rides as they want for a flat fee.
The problem with armbands, though, is that there is no way to track which rides are getting the most foot traffic. This information is essential for the Florida State Fair because it divvies up the proceeds to its many operators based on how popular their rides are with customers.
To establish a base to allocate shares, the fair always used tickets — not armbands — on Saturdays.
"We're excited about this," Pesano said. "We've always had to limit the number of armband days, and once we get comfortable and see that this is working the way we need it to work, that's going to give us the flexibility to add those Saturdays and possible other armband days."
Organizers say they have put security precautions in place to protect personal financial information and to prevent ride operators from double or triple scanning the cards.
"The FUNCARD and armbands don't have any personal information on them," said John Prestianni, director of finance. "It's just a bar code. All information is retained in the software, so if someone loses a card or armband, there's no information people can steal."
Frank Zaitshik, CEO and president of Wade Shows, has been using the technology with his rides at other fairs since 2012.
"We've always prided ourselves on being a company that's ahead of the curve," said Zaitshik, who is bringing 35 rides to this year's fair, including roller coasters. "Customers carry less and less cash. You see it in every day life. If you go on a cruise, a cruise is cashless anymore. Airplanes are cashless."
One concern with a digital system is the learning curve for operators who have not used it before, and its reliance on Wi-Fi to transmit the information from each ride to the main system. The technology director and carnival midway operator will conduct a session with operators the day before the fair opens.
"I think the Florida State Fair has done their due diligence in communicating with myself and others in efforts to avoid those mistakes," Zaitshik said. "When you're wireless there's always some challenges, but they're pretty well-run with fiber optic."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.