Six-year-old Mary Jean Sanders lives a life other kids might envy.
She's surrounded by stuffed animals, games, cotton candy machines and loop-de-loop rides, all handed out or operated by her friends who will let her sample the fun at the drop of a hat.
But to Mary, it's all part of life on the midway. And when you ask her what she does when the lights of the carnival turn on at its latest stop on its summer tour, her mind goes straight to work.
"I do my letters," said the home-schooled daughter of Geren Rides employees Ben and Theresa Sanders. She also said she likes to hang out around "the fishies," the Fish Jumper ride operated by her mother.
Such is the life of a carnival worker, where the traveling troupe of mechanics, magicians and popcorn poppers are your extended family during the nine months or so you're on the road. The Geren family is in its fourth generation of operating a carnival, which is set up until Sunday behind Lakeshore Mall in Gainesville.
Jerry and Joanna Geren run the operation, leaving their home in Valdosta each spring, a few weeks before Easter, traveling around the Southeast and returning home in time for Thanksgiving. Joanna Geren, 73, said her son Glen, now grown and married, along with her granddaughter Hillary, now in college, also grew up watching the midway's lights.
"Carnival kids are rather unusual kids because they are around so many people and they, well, when Glen started school, his teacher said she really couldn't keep him busy," Geren said. "He would do his work and then just stare out the window. They see so much on their travels, and they're working, too."
She said by the time her granddaughter was old enough to be in elementary school, she was already counting out change while sitting on Geren's lap in the ticket booth.
"Out here, families are very close because we're together 24 hours a day," she added. "You and your husband, you get up and go to your separate jobs and you don't see each other for many hours. Out here you're together all the time."
Randy Scales, a supervisor with the Geren carnival, said he has been traveling with the family about 22 years. Originally from Michigan, he started working at carnivals when he was 13 and said he can't see life any other way.
"It's a life. This is not a job, this is a lifestyle," he said, adding that there is a certain amount of customer service involved when doing the job, too. "You gotta want to just see people smile."
"Popper" Jenny Russell, who has been working with the carnival for about five or six years, said she enjoys the travel. Born and raised in North Carolina, she's planning to travel to New York, where a separate Geren crew sets up for the summer on Coney Island, right next to Nathan's Hot Dogs.
Most of the time, customers to her cotton candy and popcorn trailer are nice, she said. But not all of the time.
And that's just part of the job, Geren said.
"Honey, you wouldn't believe. Just when you think you've seen it all," she said when asked about some not-so-nice people she's seen during her 50-plus years in the carnival business. "Yes, I have, but on the other hand, it's so rewarding."
She recounted the story of a phone call she got on her son's phone from a woman, a caregiver, thanking him for the extra care he took in letting her wheelchair-bound friend ride on the merry-go-round. After moving some of the chariots and securing her wheelchair so she could ride, he took pictures and printed them out before they left.
"Things like that, it just goes straight to your heart, and that's what's really rewarding," Geren said. "We try to make memories for the families - good memories - because when you take a child on the merry-go-round, that's a memory for the parents, and then the child remembers at a certain age.
"So, it's a lot of memories."