The Claw: Inside a Makeshift Arcade at Fright Nights
This is the second year E&T Amusements, a company run by a young entrepreneurial couple, has set up a temporary arcade inside Fright Nights at the South Florida Fairgrounds.
Basking in blood-red lights and heavy fog, the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach, Florida transforms in October to a place where hair-raising thrills and horrors rule the roost Thursday through Saturday nights, with haunted houses, carnival rides, scare zones, live entertainment, and roaming characters in detailed, ghoulish makeup.
This is Fright Nights, a local tradition since 2002, attracting people of all ages from across the region, promising horror and haunted house fans a heart-thumping experience. Behind the scenes, however, are countless organizers and volunteers, dedicated to making each Fright Nights better than the last—no easy feat given that the horror genre, in general, keeps growing and thriving, with fans seeking more shock value and disturbing content (if it doesn’t impale or shred, it’s dead). But even the most ardent thrill and terror seekers need a break from the gore-fest sometimes.
“Let’s go to the arcade”
It’s Friday night at Fright Nights and swaths of young adults and teenagers prowl the fair grounds, stopping for food and rides on the carnival midway before heading into this year’s haunted houses—Jed’s Chop Shop, Dead of Winter: Chapter 2, Hockley House, and Cutting Edge. Just before the scare zone entrance, an arcade, guarded by two very large skeletons, sits to the left of the haunted attractions, almost like a safe house, a refuge from the homicidal sights and sounds outside.
It’s early still, only an hour or so after opening, yet small groups of people roam the game room, tokens in hand, searching for the next claw machine to play. A few patrons carry plastic bags filled with prizes earned like plush teddy bears, avocado toast pillows and Sponge Bob Square Pants dolls. A young boy and his father play the Jurassic Park video game, while two teenage girls nearby scream and laugh as the claw machine grabs, drags, then drops a coveted plush, yellow duck inside.
The arcade, by all accounts, appears pristine. Over 80 different games line the walls and interior space, each lit up by florescent greens, pinks, blues, and purples, equipped with enchanting toys inside. Their cartoon eyes and smiles are facing out, through the glass, seemingly in search of a passerby or two or three to throw in a few tokens, or more.
In the corner of the room, at the cashier’s counter, where green dollars purchase gold tokens, one of the owners of E&T Amusements, Eli Weeks, works the computer in between answering customer questions and maybe even a few complaints. Weeks, calm and cool and clearly in his element, takes a set of keys and heads to a nearby machine for a maintenance check.
Weeks, along with his girlfriend and co-owner, Taylor Agnello, aren’t exactly your typical entrepreneurs. They’re teens—fresh out of high school and full of good-natured ambition. But this isn’t their first time as operators, on the contrary, both are highly experienced in the claw machine arcade business.
After a few years of operating candy machines in various locations throughout South Florida, Weeks and Agnello opened an entertainment and amusement company two years ago, when they were both just 16 years old.
Initially, the couple began placing claw machines inside a dozen or so different businesses. These are permanent locations. But, more recently, Weeks and Agnello figured that they could start temporary arcades, placing machines onsite, within seasonal events such as Fright Nights in the fall and the South Florida Fair in winter. This is their second year working both events.
The work is not easy, or always predictable. The pair have been documenting their entrepreneurial journey—the highs and lows— through a variety of social media channels like TikTok and Youtube, accumulating hundreds of thousands of followers, sharing inside tips, and showing the effort that goes into each and every arcade location. Videos posted to their Youtube channel reveal countless hours and manpower devoted to not only their arcade business but growing and developing as young entrepreneurs—a concept which resonates highly with their fan base.
One idea both Weeks and Agnello do not find enticing is working for someone else, or in other words, being told what to do. But for anyone involved in running a business—young or old—having a solid support system in place can make the difference between success or defeat. That’s when the role of family members comes into play. With parents and grandparents on call and often onsite at the arcades, lending a helping hand or offering advice, the couple continue to see growing success and profit margins.
But their success is also somewhat defined by their location: Florida. According to a recent study published by researchers at The Digital Project Manager, Florida is the most entrepreneurial state in the nation, with an impressive 13,238 small businesses per 100,000 residents. The study also found that Florida leads the nation in the creation of new businesses and startups, with more than 2.6 million formed over the last four years.
This includes E&T Amusements, and they’re just getting started.
In the near future, beyond temporary arcades, the pair are looking to open more permanent locations throughout South Florida, focusing on “Japanese style” arcade games (crane, cyclone and pachislot style machines) which have higher quality prizes, and conveniently, a fast-growing fan base within the United States.
But for now, you can find Weeks and Agnello, along with their claw machines, at Fright Nights. Come for the thrills, leave with prizes.
THE NEIGHBORLY FLORIDA is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.