PALMETTO -- Charles Panacek didn’t have to run off as a boy when he wanted to join the carnival.
The carnival came to him.
This week, the carnival was all around Panacek, as nearly 200 of his workers set up 54 rides big and small around the Manatee County Fairgrounds for Thursday’s 5 p.m. opening of the 96th annual Manatee County Fair.
“When it’s in your blood, it’s hard to get it out,” said the 48-year-old owner of Deltona-based Belle City Amusements, Inc., now in its 68th year.
Nearby, laborers finished erecting the 100-foot high Belle City Giant Wheel.
The whine of a power drill and the clank of steel struts being fastened together were like a symphony to Panacek, who’s began working for his parents at 12 and been doing this full time almost 30 years.
“As a kid it’s always fun to imagine being able to travel with the carnival all summer long,” he said. “Then in college I realized this was the business I was going to be in. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it’s long hours, but we are unique.
“There’s so much entertainment out there for people to spend their money on, but the county fair comes only once a year. We’re proud of our heritage and want to keep that nostalgia there.”
It’s his father’s legacy.
Charles G. Panacek Sr., the son of Czechoslovakian immigrant farmers, visited the fair in Racine, Wis., saw a live pony ride and had an idea.
Since the family farm had ponies, he decided to build a ride himself and start his own amusement business.
Panacek, now deceased, named his new enterprise after Racine, which is known as Wisconsin’s “Belle City of the Lakes.”
Decades later, that simple pony ride has grown into a company whose huge caravan makes Hannibal’s crossing the Alps seem like a Sunday stroll.
The Giant Wheel, for instance, weighs 320,000 pounds assembled and requires four tractor trailers to transport.
“We move a lot of equipment up and down the highway,” said Charles Panacek. “Getting all this stuff in the air with all the heavy equipment we have, it’s a big undertaking.”
Belle City Amusements arrived last Friday and by Monday, the Manatee County Fair grounds were swarming with activity.
Fair Manager Dan West marvels at the transformation every year.
“One day it’s a flat open piece of ground. Next day everything’s up,” he said, standing on the busy midway. “It’s amazing what they do, going from town to town, week to week.”
The Manatee County Fair is the first of 20 fair dates over 34 weeks that will take Belle City Amusements around the Southeast and Midwest.
“We’re on the road 8-1/2 months per year, so you can’t be a homebody by any stretch,” said Panacek, whose mother, son and daughter work with him. “You have to be willing to travel.”
You get to ride all the rides free, too.
That’s a perk not even the owner has fully used.
“I’m scared to ride a couple of them,” Panacek said, chuckling.
“I don’t want to be upside down and flipping around. That’s not for me.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055.