Quote Unquote: What it’s Really Like Working for Hawai‘i’s Only Carnival

Since he was 12, Scott Fernandez has worked at E.K. Fernandez, Hawai‘i’s only nationally recognized circus, which Scott’s grandfather (Edwin Kane) built more than 113 years ago. Today, Fernandez runs the show as president/CEO with the same spirit and showmanship—from state fairs to Fun Factories. This month, Punahou Carnival is Feb. 3-4 and Mililani High, Feb. 17-19.
Scott Fernandez
Photo: David Croxford

THERE WAS TRAINING since I was a kid. I learned how to do everything, all the different positions, and I worked every summer. I was learning cost of goods sold and labor percentages when I was 13. There are a lot of mom-and-pop, family businesses where the kids are working and that’s the best business school you could go to.


SEE ALSO: Your Ultimate Guide to the 2019 Punahou Carnival


I GOT TO TRAVEL to all the islands made up as a clown, performing with all the others. Talk about a dream job when you’re a kid. Who does that?


E.K. WAS BORN in 1883. He wasn’t born a citizen of the United States, he was born a citizen of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. He spoke fluent Hawaiian and he actually plotted against the U.S. government and tried to free the queen. He was a loyalist for sure. That was only two generations ago.


I WORKED WITH chimpanzees, with seals, with every type of animal you can imagine. In today’s society, you can’t do that. We used to bring out baby lions and tigers and the public could pet them. That was a unique experience we brought to the public, seeing them up close, learning about them. Talk about creating empathy for these animals.


THE BEST TIME to go on the rides is always in the afternoon. There’s usually a discounted entrance fee and it’s easier to get on. At night is when everyone’s there and it’s jam packed.


“If people leave happy, if there are smiles on the kids’ faces and on the parents’ faces, then we’ve done what we’re supposed to do.”


IF SOMEBODY’S SCARED or sick, we’ll get them off the ride. It’s not like they gotta hold on to the bitter end. We’ll refund everybody and clean up and then start up again. But [when people get sick], it’s usually because somebody says, “I’m gonna have some malassadas and a corn dog and some pizza, then I’m gonna go on the Zipper and then the Super Sizzler and then the Fireball.” There’s sometimes a thing as a little too much fun.


WE HAVE ABOUT 70 trailers in Campbell Industrial Park, about eight acres. We have a fabrication shop, paint shop, woodworking shop. We’re constantly repairing and fixing because everything moves and you gotta take care of the machinery. My welder is a wonderful fabricator named Paul Burke. The only thing he can’t make me is younger or taller.


IN ANY BUSINESS, if you’re selling something, it better be new and fresh and the customer better like what they see or they’re gonna pass you by.


DOING THIS JOB, there’s no off switch. It’s like being a policeman, you’re always on duty. It’s like always being at work, but it’s not work. It’s something we love to do.


WE’VE ALWAYS DONE things in a pono way. The animals are cared for very well. It’s not [performing] acts, it’s educational. The animals at the zoo always have the same smells, the same sky, the same people—except the zookeepers always change. They don’t have enough volunteers there. But the animals that we bring out come with the people who live with those animals. They’re family; that one owner, who’s raised that cub from small to big, is concerned about it every day. And, for the animal, they get to see new environments, take in new smells and sights and sounds. That’s enrichment; the animals aren’t bored. Meanwhile, the elephants are at the same zoo, in the same space, with the same air. For years.


WE WERE SHIPPING our brand new pizza trailer to the Maui Jaycee Carnival years ago, and I go to the pier and ask, where’s my wagon? Must’ve left it on O‘ahu, they say. We called the guys on O‘ahu and they said they put it on the boat. So I go down [to the boat] and see giant scrape marks with the colors of the pizza wagon, on the cotton candy wagon. What had happened was that they forget to chain it down and in 10-foot seas, it went out the back. $300 grand in the middle of the channel.


YOUNG BROTHERS has lost several of our games over the sides [of boats] over the years. I’m always waiting for the U.S. Navy submarine division to call me up one day and ask what time the carnival starts down there.


THIS BUSINESS IS about entertaining, which means many things. You have to have attractions, like performers or singers, games and merchandise, rides and unique products that you can only get at the fair like funnel cakes or cotton candy. And if you leave one piece out of the carnival, then the experience isn’t complete. We have to deliver. I just got back from Czechoslovakia and I bought two rides. I got rides being rebuilt at my shop right now; new panels, new music, new seats. It has to be fresh and exciting.


AT THE MAUI COUNTY FAIR this year, I had a woman who was 99 years old and she got on the merry-go-round. She hadn’t been to the fair in how many years, but we stopped the ride and she got on and she loved it. The carnival is fun for everybody, from the teenagers to tutu to families getting on the carousel or the wave swinger. Me, I like the wave swinger.


THE ABSOLUTE WORST is when we’re tearing down on Sunday and there’s a parent with a little kid with a sad face. They inevitably find me and they ask, can I ride the ride? We’ve been doing this since 1936, and, the whole time, we’ve always only been open two days: Friday and Saturday. But I say, let’s go on the merry-go-round and you can sit on the horse. Or sit in the helicopter. Here’s a bear. Our next event is in two weeks, come back then. Oh, OK. How do you manage that expectation? I’ve gotten a lot of scowls over the years. At least you know you’re wanted.


SOME SAY THE RIDES are too short. Some people are extreme riders and they want to be on for eight minutes. Some people are like, brah, get me off this immediately. Most people are in the middle.


RIDES ALWAYS regenerate themselves. We used to have something called the Round-Up. It was low tech, but now they have a new one called Zero Gravity. The original merry-go-round was called a Flying Jenny. It was steam powered. The old Salt and Pepper Shaker, that ride used to run by a gas motor.


WE REALLY HAVE to overcome the shipping cost. The most expensive lane in the world is between California and Hawai‘i, bar none. A container from Shanghai to Los Angeles is $1,200. A container from Los Angeles to Hawai‘i is $10,200. So compared to the Mainland guys, our carnival doesn’t travel 3,000 miles, but they also don’t have our costs. A big stuffed bear may cost $35, but by the time I put it on a container, it’s $65. Our shipping cost last year was 25 percent of our revenue. That’s becoming a problem. My shipping costs have doubled over the last ten years, but that doesn’t mean I just say that the merry-go-round now costs $6 to go on. You don’t necessarily past that cost along to the customer. You have to make it reasonable, as reasonable as you can get.