A traveling carnival (US English), usually simply called a carnival, is an amusement show that may be made up of amusement rides, food vendors, merchandise vendors, games of chance and skill, thrill acts, animal acts. A traveling carnival is not set up at a permanent location, like an amusement park, but is moved from place to place. Its roots are similar to the 19th century circus with both being set up in open fields near or in town and moving to a new location after a period of time. Unlike traditional carnival celebrations, the North American traveling carnival is not usually tied to a religious observance.
In 1893 the Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition (also called the Chicago World's Fair) was the catalyst for the development of the traveling carnival. The Chicago World's Fair had an area that included rides, games of chance, freak shows and burlesque. After the Chicago World's Fair, traveling carnival companies began touring the United States. Due to the type of acts featured along with sometimes using dishonest business practices, the traveling carnivals were often looked down upon.
Modern traveling carnivals play both state and county fairs along with smaller venues such as church bazaars, volunteer fire department fund raisers and civic celebrations. Traditionally, on the evening of the last day of the events, the sponsoring organization will often pay for a fireworks display that signals the end of the day's festivities.
Through most of the history of the 19th century, rural North America enjoyed the entertainment of traveling shows. These shows could include a circus, vaudeville show, burlesque show or a magic lantern show. It is believed that the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was the catalyst that brought about the modern traveling carnival. At the Chicago World's Fair was an avenue at the edge of the grounds called the Midway Plaisance. This avenue of the fair had games of chance, freak shows, wild west shows (including Buffalo Bill whose show was set up near the fairground) and burlesque shows. It also featured the first Ferris wheel constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Following the Chicago World's Fair, the term "midway" was adopted from the Midway Plaisance to denote the area at county and state fairs where sideshow entertainment was located.
Otto Schmitt, who was a showman at the world's fair, formed Chicago Midway Plaisance Amusement Company. The company featured thirteen acts, including some from the World's Fair, and began a tour of the northeast United States. His company closed due to poor business practices before completing its first tour. Some members of his company formed their own successful traveling carnivals after Otto Schmitt's company closed . The appeal of this new type of entertainment was embraced. In 1902 there were seventeen traveling carnivals in the United States. The number grew to forty-six in 1905 and by 1937 there was an estimated 300 carnivals touring the country. One such show, The "IT Shows" set up yearly on probably every empty sandlot in NY's Brooklyn,Queens and surrounds.
Worldwide there are many different traveling carnival companies. Most carnivals are not made up of just one operator of rides, food or games. Many of these venues are operated by independent owners who contract (or "book") with the carnival. These independent owners are contract to pay the carnival operator a percentage of what their ride or stand gross in sales. A large carnival operator, however, usually owns the majority of the rides and possibly a few special interest items (i.e. food wagons or games) with the rest being booked with the independents.
Many carnival operators are so big that they have carnival "Units" or divisions. Each of these Units may consist of six or more major rides. By having these units a carnival operator can have a carnival operating in many different areas during the same week.
Rides and stands are generally transported by truck. The rides generally have wheels mounted on the base and the rest of the ride is then dismantled and folded up to allow for over the road transport. Food stands are usually tow-behind trailers, although there are still some booths that require complete take down and packing. Some large carnival operators use the railroad to transport their equipment from one location to another. A traveling carnival operator may schedule their carnival for certain seasons. They will have their carnivals in warm climate southern areas and then move into northern regions during the warmer months. A traditional winter home is Florida for carnival operators. Gibsonton, Florida became a famous winter home community for carnival workers (slang term: carny) to live.
Admission is free to many carnivals. A larger carnival, at an events like county and state fair, may charge an admission fee. Tickets or all-day passes are usually sold for rides. Exhibits or displays may charge their own entry fee. Some entertainment acts (such as a music concert, tractor pulling or a demolition derby) may also require the purchase of a separate ticket to see them.
At many carnivals there are also concessionaires who run food stands. Depending on the size of the carnival, there may be one or more concessionaires on site. These independent concessionaires, like the independent ride owners, "book" their stands with the carnival operator or venue. The food stands serve a variety of food and beverages. Some examples are snack items like cotton candy, ice cream, fried dough, funnel cake, candy or caramel apples and french fries. Meal items may include pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken. Beverages may include soda, coffee, tea and lemonade. Local and regional specialties, along with ethnic foods, are often available at carnivals. Many carnivals, as of the early 2000s, offer Empanadas and Tacos. At Autumn carnivals, drinks like hot cider or hot chocolate may be featured along with harvest items.
At many traveling carnivals are games of chance and skill. Games like the "Crossbow Shoot" game or the "Balloon and Darts" game will test an individuals target shooting ability. Other games, such as the "Water gun" game, will pit a group of individuals against each other to win the game. Chance is involved in games like the "Duck Pond" game or the "Pingpong Ball and Fishbowl" game. Most games offer a small prize to the winner. Prizes may be stuffed animals, toys, posters, etc. Continued play is encouraged as multiple small prizes may traded in for a larger prize. Some more difficult games, including the "Baseball and Basket" or "Stand the Bottle" game, may offer a large prize to any winner.
While the majority of game operators run honest games, some people are wary of carnival games. This may be because carnival games in the past gained a reputation for being dishonest. It is interesting to note the term "mark" (slang term: "sucker") originated with the carnival.
When dishonest carnival game operators found someone who they could entice to keep playing their "rigged" (slang term: "gaffed") game, they would then "mark" the player by patting their back with a hand that had chalk on it. Other game operators would then look for these chalk marks and entice the individual to also play their rigged game. In many areas, local law enforcement will test the carnival games prior to and during the carnival to help eliminate rigged games. Learning about how carnival games work can help an individual from being cheated.
Many traveling carnivals bring with them an assortment of rides. Some rides are for young children and may include a carousel, ridable miniature railway, miniature roller coaster or an inflatable bounce house. For older children and adults there can be many different types of rides. These rides are designed to use height, speed, g-force or centrifugal force to appeal to the riders' senses. Some examples are the Chair-O-Planes, Ferris wheel, Zipper ride and the Tilt-A-Whirl.
The rides are generally painted in bright vibrant colors such as red, yellow and orange. Multicolored lighting is also used to enhance the rides' appearance at night. Each ride also plays its own music: a carousel may have calliope music playing while the ride next to it may have rock music for its riders. The music for each ride is usually upbeat; however, a ride such as a ghost train will have more somber music.
These rides are designed to be quickly set up and taken down, thus helping the carnival operator in moving them. All state governments inspect the rides before the start of the carnival to ensure the safety of the riders.
In the past, many traveling carnivals also had a sideshow that accompanied them. Admission to see these curiosities or exhibits required an extra fee. Some sideshows featured a single exhibit, but some had multiple acts or exhibits under one tent (slang term: Ten-in-One).
Human acts may include people with multiple arms or legs, midgets, extremely tall people, obese people, people born with facial or other deformities, and tattooed people. The term used for this type of show was called a freak show. Animal oddities such as the two-headed calf, the dwarf miniature horse, etc., were featured in the freak show as well. Changing public opinions and increased medical knowledge have led to a decline of these type of shows.
Another type of act at the sideshow was the thrill act. Examples of these acts included Fire-Eaters, sword swallowers, the human blockhead, the human pin cushion and knife throwers. Some of these types of acts, such as the human fountain, were later found to be fakes. Daredevil shows like the globe of death which features motorcycles performing inside an enclosed sphere or a high diving act were sometimes included. Burlesque shows (slang term: kootch shows) were also part of the traveling carnival for a time as well. Displays like Bonnie and Clyde's death car or Hitler's staff car were also seen at some traveling carnivals.
- All Hallows Guild Carousel, an antique traveling carousel
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