GRAND ISLAND, Neb. — The roller coaster at the Nebraska State Fair clacked down its steepest drop Saturday and elicited screams, right on cue.
Moments later, Kenzie Conrad, 16, of Grand Island said the Crazy Cat Coaster is just one highlight of the fair's new midway.
She also mentioned the water flume ride and one called the Inverter, which swings and rotates riders upside down.
“It's more fun,” she said of this year's version of the midway.
That's the kind of customer feedback State Fair officials hoped for this year when they signed just their third carnival contract in the past 45 years. The new midway provider is Wade Shows, based in South Spring Hill, Fla.
“They've got a fantastic reputation,” said Joseph McDermott, State Fair executive director. “We just felt they would be the best fit for our fair.”
State Fair officials also hope to avoid the kind of accident that occurred last year when a Grand Island woman was struck in the head by a decorative panel that fell from a ride. She sought medical treatment for the injury.
The decision to offer a five-year contract to a new midway provider was made before last year's accident, McDermott said.
Wade Shows owner Frank Zaitshik said his company works hard to provide a safe experience for all riders.
All rides at the State Fair underwent three inspections before the event opened Aug. 23. One was done by the company's own certified inspectors, the second by a private contractor hired by Wade Shows and the third by inspectors who work for the Nebraska Department of Labor.
State inspectors, as they do every year, spent three days making sure all of the fair's rides passed a 50-item checklist, said Gerald Brown, manager of the Nebraska elevator and amusement ride inspection program.
“It went really good, just some superficial stuff,” he said. “These guys are top shelf.”
A state inspector who lives in Grand Island also walks through the midway several times during the fair, doing visual inspections, Brown added.
Besides the safety inspection, Nebraska law requires carnival companies to carry insurance and undergo periodic nondestructive testing of certain equipment and welds.
No government agency tracks the number of accidents by individual amusement company, said a spokeswoman for the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officials.
Brown said rider misconduct and operator error are the leading causes of amusement ride accidents. Equipment failure accounts for a relatively small percentage of accidents.
Wade Shows, the third-largest traveling carnival company in the nation, sold rides to 15 million people in 2012, Zaitshik said. It had fewer than 12 incidents result in litigation, he added, and none involved fatalities.
The company's workers strictly enforce the 36-inch minimum height limit for the kiddie rides, which isn't always popular with parents who have been accustomed to getting their shorter children on a ride, Zaitshik said. But the height limit is set by manufacturers for safety purposes.
Next year, the company will offer a free playground for children shorter than 36 inches, he said.
Belle City Amusements, also of Florida, ran the fair's midway from 2008 to 2012. For at least 40 years prior to that, the fair used a company called Murphy Brothers, which no longer exists.
Wade Shows, which provides carnival rides at events in 14 states and Puerto Rico, has been in business for more than 30 years, Zaitshik said. The traveling carnival now in Nebraska came from the Missouri State Fair and will head to the Oklahoma State Fair next week.
The company brought 38 rides to the State Fair's 210-foot-wide, 800-foot-long midway. The number of rides is comparable to last year's fair.
The midway includes a spinning ride called the Fighter that is one of only two in the world, Zaitshik said. Another interesting fact: The water flume ride requires five semitrailers to transport.
Wade Shows also brought dozens of potted plants, a shaded area lined with picnic tables and a greater variety of food and drink booths. The fair director said he's impressed with the look of the midway.
“They do a wonderful job taking care of the smallest details,” McDermott said.
With temperatures Saturday climbing above 90 degrees, it wasn't surprising that the line was longest for the water ride.
Hayden Moural, 10, of Grand Island also figured out if he stood in just the right spot outside the ride, he could catch a splash from the flume.
Hayden said he liked the new rides just fine, but he misses one from last year.
“I'm mad they took away the Ring of Fire,” he said.