Typically, Wilton only has one carnival that comes to town at the start of each school year and sets up at the very visible corner of School Rd. and Rt. 7. But this year, there will be two carnivals just three weeks apart in the same exact spot⎯the Georgetown Lions Club‘s event, which started its 4-day run yesterday evening, and the Wilton Rotary Club’s carnival, which will operate Sept. 18-20.

This is the first time Georgetown Lions are running a fall carnival; they typically only sponsor the one each year around Mother’s Day in May. Traditionally, the fall has been the domain of the Wilton Rotary, as it has been for 26 years and counting.

Pat Russo is the Wilton Rotary member who organizes and oversees the Rotary carnival every year. He’s concerned that with the Lions scheduling their carnival just three weeks before the Rotary one, his organization’s fundraising will take a hit. Russo is worried people will be confuse this weekend’s carnival with the one that’s traditionally in the fall, and they may not want to attend another carnival when the Wilton Rotary carnival sets up three weeks from now.

“The carnival is our major fundraiser for the year,” Russo says. “The reason we’re successful is we’re consistent about it. It’s a child-friendly environment, we have never had any issues, we always have police and security in the evenings, there’s plenty of parking, good lighting. We work with one of the two main CT carnival companies–Tufano; his crews are very professionals, and it’s a class-A outfit, and he’s been very good to us.”

The Lions are working with the other main CT carnival, Stewart Amusements.

Russo points out the growing abundance of local carnivals.

“Georgetown Lions already did a May carnival, now they’re doing an August one. Miller-Driscoll did a carnival in April. The Greek Orthodox Church in Norwalk is having their carnival this weekend. When Tufano leaves our carnival in Wilton, he’s doing a carnival for the Chamber in Ridgefield the week after ours. How many carnivals are you going to have? And how many carnivals can Wilton support?” says Russo.

At the heart of the issue is that the carnivals are meant to be fundraisers for the organizations that sponsor them, bringing in very significant funding. Russo estimates that 2,500-3,000 people attend the Rotary carnival each fall. But he fears that with competition heating up, especially from the Lions’ carnival suddenly scheduled three weeks before theirs, the Rotary Club stands to lose a lot of money–and ultimately so do the local groups supported by Rotary.

As a result, Rotary has had to increasingly turn to commercial sponsors. Now, visitors will find banners advertising local businesses at the Rotary carnival, with Fairfield County Bank’s name on all of the wristbands as a lead sponsor.

Complicating things is that early fall tends to be chock full of events and activities in Wilton, with back-to-school events at the schools, sports practices and games, and an increasing number of fundraisers. The examples Russo cites include the Children’s Day School Touch-a-Truck event on Saturday, Sept. 19; and a Wilton High School varsity football home game on Friday night, Sept. 18, which also happens to be Wilton Youth Football‘s Youth Night. It’s often hard to pick dates and not run into a conflict, especially given that they want to make sure that the Jewish High Holy Days, which are observed in early fall, are respected.

“They have to realize there are other things going on in town that they may not know about because they’re in Georgetown. Other fundraising events simultaneously that will impact how you set up. And there’s no central clearinghouse for events, except for town hall, which is just booking the space,” Russo says, who adds that the Rotary Club reserves the spot each year for the following year. “We run into conflicts. We’ve already booked next year.”

Regardless of the conflict, Russo just wants to make sure that the organizations and individuals helped by the Rotary Club don’t suffer. The majority of the money Rotary raises stays in the community, they say, with local organizations. Among the many they support (along with some matching funds from the regional Rotary foundation) are:  Wilton Commons Senior Housing, WHS scholarships, International Youth Exchange program, Domestic Violence Crisis Center, 3rd Grade Student Dictionary Program, Wilton Social Services Food Pantry/Fund Assistance, Wilton Library Youth Book Program, Wilton Council, WHS Debate Club/Rotary Interact Club, Trackside Teen Center, Norwalk Shelter, Visiting Nurses & Hospice, Wilton Playshop, Wilton Police and Fire Departments’ Appreciation Awards, Wilton Senior Citizen Fire Protection Program (smoke detector installation), Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Wilton CERT, Chamber of Commerce 5K Run, Kick for Nick, Ambler Farm, and Woodcock Nature Center, among others. And that’s just local; there are several others outside of their local area that Wilton Rotary helps.

“For all the donations we make, the money we raise from the carnival is a major piece of our bottom line,” Russo says, “and our money goes back into the town.”

The Georgetown Lions’ say it May be One Time Only

Bob Clark, the vice president of the Georgetown Lions, says scheduling their carnival this weekend was an opportunity that they couldn’t pass up, even knowing that it might impact Rotary. However, says Clark, they wanted to try to compensate in some way for any problems the move caused.

“We asked [Rotary] how they felt about it before we set it up. This date came up and we had an empty date and [Stewart] had an empty date and we told them that if we made money on it we would contribute to the Rotary,” Clark says.

He also says it may just be a one-off situation.

“It was probably just a once in a lifetime deal, because I don’t think we’ll ever get an open date again. We felt bad we were moving in on their territory but felt it was an opportunity that probably never would present itself again.

Clark says that the carnival they sponsor in the spring is a smaller one, with smaller rides. Presented with the opportunity to work with Stewart, which has more variety of rides to offer, they jumped at it.

“We wanted to get bigger rides for older kids, and we haven’t been able to do that in the past. I was able to secure Stewart Amusements for this week. So I did it,” Clark says. “The other carnival company we’ve used has smaller rides so you get younger crowds. We thought it would be nice to get the older kids.”

The money raised by the Lions will go toward helping the organizations they support, including ICAN, a cancer support group in Danbury; CT Eye Research; Lions Club International vision and eye charity efforts; guide-dogs, and more.

How to Move Forward

Russo says the two groups are trying to connect in person to work things out. And ultimately, he’d prefer cooperation and coordination going forward.

“We’re not saying don’t go to the Lions’ carnival, but the reality is, let’s do this intelligently, let’s support each other and not compete with each other,” he says, looking ahead to next year. “You’re going to have two major carnivals within three weeks of one another. I’m concerned that if this continues, people will continue to be confused. It could basically put us out.”

That’s echoed by Janeen Leppert, another Wilton Rotary Club member and the Wilton Chamber of Commerce director.

“Communicating was an issue this year. We’ve never had a problem in the past, and I don’t think they were aware of the impact. We hope people support the Lions’ carnival, because they do great things as well. But don’t forget that the Rotary Carnival is in September,” Leppert says. “It’s important to support both events.”

Anyone interested in talking to Russo about business sponsorships for their carnival can contact him via email

The Georgetown Lions’ Carnival runs Wed.-Sun., Aug. 19-22, 6-10 p.m. daily. The Wilton Rotary Club’s carnival runs Fri.-Sun., Sept. 18-20;  Fri. 6-10 p.m.,  Sat. 12-10 p.m., and Sun. 12-5 p.m..