The Carnival: It’s Just Not the Same

The Carnival: It’s Just Not the Same

Lauren PesinTuesday,1 September 2015

Since the late 1800s traveling carnivals have attracted crowds around the world. Fairs of all sizes and shapes have wowed the young and old with rides, games, food, and side shows (freak shows, oddities, circus acts, demolition derbies, and animal tricks).

I’ve been going to traveling carnivals for three decades now. Over the years, I’ve created cherished carnival memories, mostly involving romantic ferris wheel rides, overstuffed teddy bears, cotton candy, laughing with friends, and fireworks. From preschool days into adulthood, I’ve continued year after year to return to the carnival lights and the aging, but rocking carnie rides.

Although not all carnivals are the same, most that I’ve been to in the past 30 plus years have shared three basic categories of attractions, including food, rides, and games.


Fair food has essentially stayed the same for over a century. The public expects funnel cakes, fried dough, cotton candy, candy apples, foot long hot dogs, corn dogs, ice cream, popcorn, and lots of fries. These universally non-nutritious edibles continue to satisfy fair attendees with minimum standards of quality at exorbitant prices. I paid $10.00 for a small fried dough (with powdered sugar and cinnamon) and small diet soda (flat and foul tasting). I do love caramel apples, which I only eat at fairs, so I would pay just about any ridiculous price.


The classic and cheesy tilt-a-whirls, round-ups, haunted houses, zippers, rockin’ roller coasters, and other outdated throwbacks attract thrill seekers of all ages. There’s something about neon flashing lights, set to the rhythm of an amusement ride and eighties hair bands. Years ago, I gladly paid the few tickets to ride with friends or my teen crush of the day. I distinctly remember a magical and innocent kiss atop a nighttime ferris ride.

Recently as I waited in line with my husband and seven-year-old son, I was somewhat distracted by the sight of rusted bolts and bars, frayed safety straps, and questionably sober attendants. Although I didn’t feel strong enough to do anything about it, I pondered the risks associated with multiple rides. Unless you Groupon or extreme coupon, most people pay a ridiculous fee to ride, averaging $3 to $6 a ride for rides that last an average of 3 minutes.

The sights and sounds of the rides trigger good memories, making me want to continue the tradition. However, removing the associated nostalgia, I was left rather empty by the experience. The rides are just not cool; they’re old, dilapidated, last too little, and cost too much. With so many options for entertainment, I’m convinced that carnivals aren’t worth the price. I don’t want to disparage all carnivals. The quality and value of the attractions varies depending on the hosting company, the carnies contracted to manage the carnival, and the location and frequency of the event. My focus is on your average carnival with standard rides, food, and games.


Perhaps the most disturbing of all is strolling down games alley being harassed, ridiculed, and typically pressured to play a game. Be it shooting balloons, fishing for gems, throwing darts, or proving your strength, carnival games all come with a carnie. Game carnies entice the masses (via sugar or poison) to play and encourage people to spend more money than the prize is worth. We all know the average carnival prize is worth about 15 cents and was made via the blood, sweat, and tears of children in a developing nation, but for some reason (money) fast talking carnies will insist they have to make 900% on each prize given away or they have to pay. I don’t know how they survive or why I walk by the games at all. I guess sometimes you just want to toss rings, bags, and ping pong balls.

Perhaps I’ve grown cynical, but somehow the carnival of today seems different than what I remember. In recent years, I’ve found a mix of sad and desperate, with just a sprinkle of fun.

How much longer can this outdated attraction survive? How much longer will crowds continue to fuel substandard and overpriced entertainment? If traveling carnivals adapt to modern times, what amusements would you come to see?


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