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A sales ticket to ride

In a haven for retired carnival workers, rules are loose enough to erect a roller coaster and sell it to a browser on wheels. Bye, Wacky Worm.

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published March 4, 2004

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The Wacky Worm sits along U.S. 41 in Gibsonton, where it was sold after weeks on the market. "I've honestly got to say, it's the first time I've ever bought a ride off the side of the road," says its new owner.

GIBSONTON - In a lot along busy U.S. 41, a full-size camper awaits a buyer. Same with a couple of semitrailer trucks.

And then there's the Wacky Worm.

It's monstrous, it's green and, until recently, it could have been yours for only $125,000.

For weeks, the Wacky Worm - a genuine children's roller coaster that has worn a for-sale sign in Gibsonton since early February - has drawn stares from confounded commuters, all wondering the same thing:

Who buys a roller coaster from the side of the road?

"That piece is a very unique piece," said Bob McKnight, the Fort Lauderdale-based carnival concessionaire unloading the Wacky Worm. "It's not like selling a car or house."

Yet for weeks, the 15-foot-tall Wacky Worm stood parked on a grassy lot, like an on-the-market pickup truck, its tiny black and orange "FOR SALE" sign resembling a postage stamp on a refrigerator box.

On Wednesday, the toothy, grinning Worm finally found a home. An Indiana-based carnival purchased and dismantled the ride, meaning drivers will no longer see the green roller coaster on U.S. 41 near the Alafia River.

"I've honestly got to say, it's the first time I've ever bought a ride off the side of the road," said Danny Houston of Mid-America Shows in Indiana.

However, such sales do take place, especially in Gibsonton, a haven for retired carnival workers, a community where liberal zoning standards allow residents to erect carnival equipment in their back yards.

Chris Osak, owner of the Showtown USA Lounge, says the community hosts a large carnival trade expo each February. Eagle-eyed drivers can spot roller coasters, game booths and food stands for sale along local roads.

"If they've got equipment they want to sell," said McKnight's father, Butch, an ex-carnival worker who lives in Riverview, "they'll set it up around town in Gibtown."

The Wacky Worm was the last of this year's crop to go. Bob McKnight, who runs a carnival business called Big-Hearted Bob's Inc., purchased two El Salvadoran Wacky Worms a few years ago.

Though the rides have been popular with children, McKnight said it was time to let one go.

"The economy's been bad," he said.

McKnight said he decided to sell the coaster up in Gibsonton because there was no way he would be able to unload it in Fort Lauderdale.

"You can't even drive a truck down the street I live on, let alone a ride or something of that nature in your front yard," he said. "These people would go ballistic."

Gibsonton is also an ideal market, given its high population of ex-carnival workers. McKnight's odds of selling the ride improved each time someone with ties to the industry drove by.

Sure enough, during a break from the Florida State Fair, Houston came rolling along. He stopped, scribbled down McKnight's phone number and called to make an offer.

After a few weeks of shopping the Wacky Worm around, McKnight agreed to sell Houston the ride for $100,000 - a steal, given McKnight's original asking price.

The ride is now off to Indiana to be cleaned and refurbished. But Houston says local riders may not have seen the last of the Wacky Worm.

"I'd like to bring it to Tampa to the Florida State Fair next year," he said.

That's no consolation to the Worm's former owner, who was sad to see it go.

"It's a piece that's unique," McKnight said. "It's a hard piece to lose."

- Jay Cridlin can be reached at 661-2442 or cridlin@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 4, 2004, 01:15:01]


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