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Monday close-up
Behind the scenes: City of Fun Carnival brings summer excitement to Utah County and beyond for 50+ years

A date, a night out with friends, family fun: These scenarios and many more attract attendees of all ages to carnivals. For as long as city celebrations have been held in Utah County, carnivals have helped play a part in bringing cross sections of the community together as a staple in summertime Americana.

According to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, an estimated 500 million attendees visit carnivals, fairs and festivals across the United States annually.

However, behind the neon lights, alluring games and sweet-tooth-satiating food booths is a traveling group of people dedicated to a lifestyle of entertaining communities and long, hard work.

“It’s just all I’ve ever known,” said Pam Zoeller, general manager and vice president of City of Fun Carnival, based out of Pleasant Grove. “This job is not for everybody,” said Zoeller. “It’s a hard life to live, and it takes a special kind of person to do it.”

Zoeller, an American Fork resident who stands as the second of five generations working in the carnival’s 50-plus-year history, grew up learning the ropes of the industry working for her parents, Lou and Lois Melendez.

Lou Melendez, a World War II veteran, attended Ricks College (now Brigham Young University Idaho) and finished up his business degree at BYU’s Provo campus, where he met Lois Melendez. Lou Melendez got his start in the carnival industry when his standout application letter alone got him a job at the amusement park at New Jersey’s Seaside Heights (decades later made popular by the MTV reality television show “Jersey Shore”).

Zoeller recalled, “He and the owner really got along great.” The owner had invested a successful kiddie ride as a side project, and eventually handed the ride over to Lou Melendez. Lou Melendez invested in another kiddie ride as well. However, things changed when the owner died; he was fired and the owner’s son was put in Lou Melendez’s position. So, he was left with no job, two kiddie rides and a family with two children.

Zoeller explained that Lou and Lois Melendez then moved to Provo, Lois’ hometown, to start anew. “Both my mom and dad just worked and worked and worked until they got two little rides up to this mammoth thing we have now,” said Zoeller.

As Lou Melendez got older and less involved with the carnival, he and his daughter would joke in a kind hearted, tough-love fashion about what would happen when he died as they bounced from spot to spot.

“Well, it depends on the spot, Dad,” Zoeller recalled telling her father. “If it was a slow one, we could take care of you and have a funeral. If it’s a busy one, you’re going in the freezer until the end of the season,” she said with a smirk.

After Lou Melendez had stays in a veteran’s home and senior center, Zoeller got a call from her brother in 2011 while moving rides from an event during a relatively fruitless May. Lou Melendez had passed away.

“It was an empty week,” Zoeller said. “So, the whole crew could go. They all loved him, and I thought, ‘Well, OK Dad, you planned that one, didn’t you?’”

Today, Lois Melendez, 87, stands as the CEO of City of Fun Carnival and takes care of some office work, while her daughter, Zoeller, handles the bulk of the carnival’s logistical operations.

“I have to decide where we’re going to go, and I make the contracts for each individual town,” Zoeller said. “In a year, we only move about 7,000 miles. We just cover Utah, Arizona and a little bit of Idaho and New Mexico.”

The carnival typically begins in March in Parker, Arizona, and ends around Thanksgiving wherever the fall takes them. Winter months are often spent scheduling spots and doing heavy maintenance and overhauls on rides.

Land and a source of water are the two main commodities events provide the carnival, and City of Fun provides the rest, explained Zoeller. “People don’t understand the area and all the resources one needs to effectively and safely run rides.”

Generators to produce mass amounts of electricity, specialty driver’s licenses to tow rides and additional endorsements to haul the generators, required mobile housing for workers, and a tightly-tuned route schedule up to five years in advance are a few of the things running through Zoeller’s mind daily.

Weather is an unpredictable aspect that directly affects the carnival’s financial bottom line, and one that can produce some scorned guests.

“Most people think the carnival just comes in and makes money and takes it all away with them,” Zoeller said. “We pay the city, committee, or whoever’s in charge a certain amount to rent the land. So, when it does rain, we’re the ones that take the chance whether we’re going to make any money or not. Whoever we’re doing the celebration with, they always get paid. We don’t always end up at the end of the week with money.”

The carnival is full of family, both literal and honorary.

Of the approximately 65 employees, 10 are directly related to her, spanning from her mother to her granddaughters. Her brother, Brad Melendez Sr., is the carnival’s president. Midway manager Frank Morales, related to Pam by marriage, has a few family members and their relatives involved with the carnival himself. Morales, now in his 40s, began working for Lou and Lois Melendez and the carnival at the age of 14.

City of Fun Carnival owns 22 rides. A Native American firm from Canada called the Dream Catcher Café runs the food services at the carnival. The games at the carnival are owned by outside individuals who contract with the carnival.

“My midway manager and this crew that we have here can get this all down, loaded on the trucks and ready to pull out in about five hours,” said Zoeller. She explained that rides can cost her anywhere from $200,000 to $900,000 for a single attraction.

Teardown days are the longest days for employees.

City of Fun typically moves into an area on a Monday, and sets up rides and conducts thorough safely inspections before opening around noon on Wednesday. However, there’s variance on the days and times from spot to spot. Saturdays are usually the last night of operations, and the carnival does safety inspections before opening at noon, and stays open until whenever the event ends, sometimes as late as midnight.

Upon closing on teardown days, employees then spend til about 5 a.m. tearing down rides then transporting everything back to a storage yard in Lindon before the sun rises.

In overnight-hop situations, employees begin work around noon, teardown from midnight until about 5 a.m., and then go to a new spot to then begin setting up the carnival once again for another event.

“That’s what you do in this business,” Zoeller said. “You make a commitment to an event and you’ve got to be there. But, they all kind of even themselves out. One week you get a lot of rest, and the next week there’s no rest.”

Burnout can be a serious issue in the carnival industry. Zoeller pays her employees after teardown from each event, and explained, “When you get to the next spot, you don’t know if anyone’s going to show up or not.” Fortunately, she said that retention has been a minimal issue for the City of Fun.

Crucial to keep the carnival running is the H-2B Program, which sends Zoeller about 25 workers from Mexico each year. H-2B is a federal program that allows employers to temporarily hire non-immigrants to do non-agricultural labor or services in the United States, as stated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

“They’re really awesome workers,” said Zoeller. “They don’t complain, they don’t have bad habits, and they’re all polite and clean. They’re my highest paid people out here,” she said.

Gaspar Gutierrez, a 41-year-old man from Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, has been working through the H-2B program for 13 years, and spent every year with City of Fun Carnival. “I get to learn different things every day,” he said.

Zoeller described Gutierrez as her “go-to man” for electrical repairs. Gutierrez said he starts his shifts inspecting rides, and the rest of it maintaining equipment and controlling the crowds. Besides frequent energy drinks to keep him alert during long hours, he said that, “providing for my family keeps me going.” He is married with five children.

“He spends some of his money each year on equipment or tools of some kind, to take back to Mexico and make a better life there for his family,” Zoeller said. “It’s hard to be away from them for months at a time.”

Through all the hard work, there have been spots of fame for City of Fun Carnival.

City of Fun was featured in the carnival scene of the 1993 coming-of-age comedy film, “The Sandlot.” The carnival scene was filmed in American Fork, and other Utah locations were featured as well. “City of Fun” can be seen on the ticket booth as the carnival scene opens.

“We had to have everyone dress in 1950s clothes,” she said. According to Zoeller, filming took place the night before they opened in American Fork, and persisted until nearly 4 a.m. “Those were bratty little kids,” joked Zoeller of the cast of children, “and their mothers were even worse.”

However, young people, such as Zoeller’s granddaughter, Jayde Briones, may be crucial in the carnival’s future.

“When I finally got tall enough to reach the drink machine in the cotton-candy wagon, that’s pretty much when I started working,” said the 16-year-old.

“It was always fun growing up as a kid, riding rides and stuff,” she said. “But as I got older, I got more into getting to know the workers, and it’s more like a family out here. I mean, we’re not a normal family, but that’s the whole fun part of it.”

2 mass shootings in less than 24 hours shock US; 29 killed

It took just 30 seconds in Ohio and zero bullets in Texas for officers to stop two mass shooters this weekend, but not before 29 people were killed and about 50 injured in less than 24 hours.

Officers gunned down the Ohio shooter at the doorstep of a bar-turned-hiding place in the middle of Dayton’s nightclub district, and arrested the El Paso shooter as hundreds fled a crowded shopping center. Though the two attacks staggered a nation accustomed to gun violence, the bigger shock may have been that the death toll wasn’t even worse.

In the Texas border city of El Paso, a gunman opened fire Saturday morning in a shopping area packed with thousands of people during the busy back-to-school season. The attack killed 20 and wounded more than two dozen, many of them critically.

Hours later in Dayton, Ohio, a gunman wearing body armor and carrying extra magazines opened fire in a popular nightlife area, killing nine and injuring at least 26 people.

The attacks came less than a week after a 19-year-old gunman killed three people and injured 13 others at the popular Gilroy Garlic Festival in California before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

The El Paso shooting was being investigated as a possible hate crime as authorities worked to confirm whether a racist, anti-immigrant screed posted online shortly beforehand was written by the man arrested. The border city is home to 680,000 people, many of them Latino.

El Paso authorities offered few details about the assault, but Police Chief Greg Allen described the scene as “horrific” and said many of the 26 people who were hurt had life-threatening injuries.

In Dayton, the bloodshed was likely limited by the swift police response. Officers patrolling the area took just 30 seconds to stop the shooting, which unfolded around 1 a.m. on the streets of the downtown Oregon District, Mayor Nan Whaley said.

Video released by police shows 24-year-old Connor Betts being shot down by officers, just steps away from entering a bar filled with hiding patrons.

Had police not responded so quickly, “hundreds of people in the Oregon District could be dead today,” Whaley said.

Betts’ 22-year-old sister, Megan Betts, was among those killed in Dayton.

Authorities identified the El Paso suspect as 21-year-old Patrick Crusius from Allen, a Dallas suburb which is a nearly 10-hour drive from El Paso.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he knew the shooter was not from his city.

“It’s not what we’re about,” the mayor said at a news conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and the police chief.

President Donald Trump denounced both shootings, saying “hate has no place in our country.” Addressing reporters in Morristown, New Jersey, the president said Sunday that “we’re going to take care” of the problem. He said he’s been speaking to the attorney general, the FBI director and members of Congress and will make an additional statement Monday.

Trump also pointed to a mental illness problem in the U.S., calling the shooters “really very seriously mentally ill.”

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, who is from El Paso and was at a candidate forum Saturday in Las Vegas, appeared shaken after receiving news of the shooting in his hometown.

He said he heard early reports that the shooter might have had a military-style weapon, saying we need to “keep that (expletive) on the battlefield. Do not bring it into our communities.”

The shootings were the 21st and 22nd mass killings of 2019 in the U.S., according to the AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database that tracks homicides where four or more people killed — not including the offender.

Including the two latest attacks, 125 people had been killed in the 2019 shootings.

Columbine High School’s rebels working to bring change from Utah County

On April 20, 1999, the lives of hundreds of students were changed forever when they were at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. On that day, two students killed one teacher and 12 students at the school before killing themselves. More than 20 others were wounded.

The aftermath of that day, including years of dealing with trauma, led to a group of former Columbine students, who now live in Utah, to form “Rebels for Change.” The organization is aimed at increasing awareness of traumatic events, such as school shootings, promoting prevention and providing support for those affected.

“We would get together on the anniversary to support each other,” Tami Diaz, Rebels for Change member, said.

But, after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on Feb. 14, 2018, their meetings changed.

“We all came with a feeling that we needed to do something. We can’t just sit around anymore, watching it happen,” Diaz said.

That is when Rebels for Change came to be, named for Columbine High School’s mascot and the pressing need for change to occur.

A need to be prepared

Sarah Bush was a sophomore taking a math class at Columbine High School on the day of the shooting.

“We heard a loud explosion,” she said. But, thinking it was just a senior prank, the class continued working. About 10 minutes later, a teacher ran through the hallway, telling people to get out because someone was shooting.

As Bush and her classmates ran out of the front of the school, she wondered why others were not running out as well. “It was just us, just a few students running out,” she said. As they watched from a park across the street, they saw a few students run out of random doors every couple of minutes. “We realized it was serious when we saw SWAT arrive, then heard more gunshots,” she said.

Then, the waiting began. The reunification process was difficult. Bush and some other students were taken to an elementary school and told to wait on the stage. Other students were taken to various other locations.

“It was an awful, awful feeling of being alone,” Bush said. “I didn’t have any word of my sister.” Bush’s sister was a freshman at Columbine High School. It took more than four hours for Bush and her other family members to find out that her sister was safe.

Bush, who is now a part of Rebels for Change, has found healing in the work that they do.

“We didn’t really talk about our stories growing up,” she said. “It’s been a really long healing process. This has been good for us.”

How they help

Well-organized and practiced reunification plans are part of what Rebels for Change members hope that schools put into place, as well as taking active shooter drills and lockdown drills seriously.

The group also talks to students about noticing signs of impending trouble. Looking back, there were signs that were missed at Columbine High School, according to Diaz. For example, the shooters had written the date “April 20” onto prom posters days before the shooting, she said.

Also, before the day of the shooting, a friend of the shooters turned to Diaz during a class and asked, “Hey, if I gave you a gun, would you shoot me?”

At the time, Diaz thought it was simply an unusual thing to say, but now she realizes it was a sign of the violent mentality of that group of friends.

“When we tell students our stories, the mood changes. They know this is serious,” Bush said. “It definitely brings a sense of reverence.”

Rebels for Change began talking to school district leaders, then branched out to individual schools, church groups, cities, law enforcement, mental health professionals and any others who could benefit from their experiences. They do not charge fees for their presentations.

Diaz said that a lot has changed in the country since Columbine’s school shooting. On that day, students and staff members were not as prepared for a crisis as today.

“We just sat there. We didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We have grown a lot. There has been growth and change.”

Even so, members of Rebels for Change find that there is still a mindset that what happened there will not happen here.

“Our community there was really very much like our community here in Utah,” Bush said.

For more information or to schedule a presentation from Rebels for Change, email Diaz at