MAKING IT: Bringing carnival fun to Alaskans by road, rail and ferry

Golden Wheel Amusements is spending its golden anniversary year working hard, a family tradition.

Pictured in the banner above: Jacqueline Leavitt and Chelsea Eckert of Golden Wheel Amusements (Josh Genuino / Alaska Dispatch News Creative Services)

If you've been on a carnival ride in Alaska, chances are it was Golden Wheel that made it happen. They transport rides, games and concessions all over the state, to iconic events like Fur Rendezvous and the Alaska State Fair, making sure families everywhere have the chance to enjoy festival fun and fair food.

Every year in Palmer at the Alaska State Fair, Golden Wheel Amusements takes special care to position their Ferris wheel so riders get an unobstructed view of the Matanuska Glacier as well as the perfect vantage point to survey the fair below.

"Who can blame Alaskans for wanting to be on the Ferris wheel and enjoy the view?" said Jacqueline Leavitt, who owns the three-generation Alaska business with Joe, her husband of 22 years.

Jacqueline and Joe serve as the bridge connecting Golden Wheel's founder and matriarch, Claire Morton, to their children who will one day hold the keys to the midway.

Spreading joy all over the state

By the end of each season, Golden Wheel has visited the communities where nearly 80 percent of all Alaskans live, according to Chase Eckert, Jacqueline's eldest son and the company's safety manager.

"We travel as far south as Ketchikan and as far north as Fairbanks," he said. "We are the only carnival that travels via road, rail and state ferry system."

Managing equipment transport logistics led the family to another business venture. They own and operate a trucking company, Diamond Ring, Inc.

Expanding their capacity for equipment leasing and trucking is next on their business to-do list. Additionally, decades of experience selling concessions has readied them to expand into catering. With each generation, the business that started with just a single ride, grows.

"We believe in the value of fun," Jacqueline said "You know, you go into these communities and the kids they cry when you leave and they draw pictures and say, 'Thank you.'"

The family tree

In 1966, Claire came to Alaska to pick up a ride she purchased with money she saved working at a carnival in Washington. Her intention was to bring the ride back to that carnival and work as an independent operator. Fur Rendezvous organizers, worried that they would be losing a meaningful addition to their festival, asked her to stay. She agreed, and her two young daughters, Jacqueline and Cathy, experienced their first winter in Alaska.

"It was a close-knit group back then. All the people knew that there was this family coming up to do the Fur Rendezvous, and people were really happy. Fur Rendezvous was a big deal back then," Jacqueline said, remembering their warm welcome from the community. "The Greens, from David Green Furs, they gave me and my sister fur parkas, because we were just little kids from Washington—I still have that little fur parka."

Jacqueline spent her childhood spinning cotton candy and traveling the state. She left Alaska and started a career in Washington, but was called back home to help her family. It turned out to be a decision that changed her life. When she returned to the carnival as an adult, it was there she met Joe.

Joe spent his early years on a ranch in South Dakota. At the age of 16, he ran away to join the carnival.

"He ran to the end of the field, and jumped on a carnival truck and ran away with the carnival," Jacqueline said. "He really did!" He eventually came to Alaska and began working for Jacqueline's mother. Now Jacqueline and Joe own the business and are making plans to pass it down to their children one day.

Their youngest son, Hayden, followed his parents' example and found love at the carnival, too. He met his wife, Alissa, at Golden Wheel. "Her mom and dad came to Alaska to work with us—her mom manages our food. Her dad manages our rides," said Jacqueline.

"And the tree grows," she added.

Changing with the times

Even as a kid, Jacqueline saw that launching a business in 1967 Alaska required grit. "[My mom] did things that we couldn't do," she said. "She worked so hard. She worked unceasingly."

As Alaska changed, Claire, and later Jacqueline and Joe, adapted their vision for Golden Wheel. During Claire's tenure, the years were focused on growth and building relationships and doing the best with what they had. Under Jacqueline and Joe, the focus has shifted to streamlining business practices, identifying their strategic vision, updating the rides and leading the way in setting safety standards for the state with the help of their sons.

Chase and Hayden went to Juneau this year to speak with lawmakers and lobby for increased regulation and tougher safety standards in Alaska for amusements, which include everything from Ferris wheels to ziplines. Why would an amusements company request increased compliance and government oversight?

"Because those are my friends and this is my home, and this is my family," said Jacqueline. "What would I do? I need, every single day, to know that I've done every single thing that I could to keep your children safe."

Employees regularly receive continuing safety education. "It's hard to have fun if you're not being safe," said Chase.

Choosing the family business

College was mandatory for Joe and Jacqueline's kids partly because of Grandma Claire's foresight to set up education savings accounts for each of her grandchildren, which she was faithful to feed. Claire only received an 8th grade education herself, so a college education was something she wanted to ensure for her grandchildren.

Jacqueline said, for her part, "I wanted them to have that education so that they could choose. So they didn't just have to be in the family business. The carnival can't be anybody's second choice. It's too difficult, there's too much on the line."

Chase is all in. He knows that the business is not entirely on his shoulders yet, but he also looks forward to continuing the legacy that was started by his grandmother and grown by his parents.

"We are excited to help provide a world class carnival and state fair experience to the communities we grew up in," he said. "We believe that Alaska deserves to have a carnival that supports Alaskan businesses, families and is willing to put the patrons' safety and enjoyment first."

The next 50 years

Joe and Jacqueline purchased the company from Claire in 2000, and turned to her to cover the financial gaps early in the transition. Now they've decided to take a different path.

"My mom is a very, very frugal person. Whatever we had was what we could afford. I never, until maybe the last three years, started taking commercial loan assistance," Jacqueline said. Working with their banker to secure financing has allowed the family to expand the business without jeopardizing Claire's well-deserved retirement. And while she may be retired, Jacqueline says her mom still comes to the carnival.

"If you're not around the carnival, then you're not around your family," she said.

The entire family understands the value they bring to the Alaska communities they visit. Chase's wife, Chelsea, coordinates events and special projects. She even tours with the company's mascot, Poly, a polar bear, to volunteer and share joy and messages about safety. They are the school business partner for Chugiak Elementary School, where, thanks to Golden Wheel, kids have the best field days.

Jacqueline said, "Bloom where you're planted … and planted, and planted." Because although they live a nomadic lifestyle, they find their extended family each time they set up the carnival.

Jacqueline added, “It’s just like this huge blend of people that maybe would never meet in a neighborhood, but they all meet at the fair.”

This article was produced by the creative services department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.