Traveling carnival

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Transportable Ferris wheel in England

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, and 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.[1][2] Unlike traditional carnival celebrations, the North American traveling carnival is not 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.[3] 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.[4] 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 usually make contracts with local governments in order to play both state and county fairs, as well as smaller venues (such as store parking lots, church bazaars, volunteer fire department fund raisers, and civic celebrations).


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 original 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.[3] 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.[3] One such show, The "IT Shows", set up yearly on probably every empty sandlot in NY's Brooklyn, Queens, and surrounding areas.


Ticket booths

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.[5] It is common for the independent owners within a traveling carnival to be related, or have intertwined family histories.[6]

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.[5]

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.[7] 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.[8][9]

Admission is often charged for county or state fairs, but is usually free at most carnivals. Tickets or all-day passes are usually sold for rides. When a carnival is "playing" a fair, exhibits or displays may charge their own entry fee, as well as some entertainment acts (such as a music concert, tractor pulling, or a demolition derby).


Ohio State Fair food stands

At many carnivals, there are also food stands. Depending on the size of the carnival, there may be one or more food stands on site. 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.[10] At Autumn carnivals, drinks like hot cider or hot chocolate may be featured along with harvest items.

Items like deep fried candy bars, the deep-fried Twinkie, Dippin' Dots ice cream, and the blooming onion are some of the food items found at a carnival.[11]


Duck Pond game

At many traveling carnivals, there 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.[12]

When dishonest carnival game operators found someone who they could entice to keep playing their "rigged" (slang term: "gaffed") game,[13] 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.[12] This is not common practice anymore, although there still are a few confidence men in the carnival business.

Learning about how carnival games work can help an individual from being cheated.[12]

Image gallery[edit]


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.[14][15]

Image gallery[edit]


Sideshow at the Erie County Fair Hamburg, New York

In the past, many traveling carnivals also had a sideshow[16] 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).[17]

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.[18] The term used for this type of show was called a freak show. Animal oddities such as the two-headed calf, the 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.[19] Some of these types of acts, such as the human fountain, were later found to be fakes.[17] 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.[20] Displays like Bonnie and Clyde's death car or Hitler's staff car were also seen at some traveling carnivals.[21][22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Free "Definition "carnival"" Check |url= value (help). The Free Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  2. ^ "Carnival". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  3. ^ a b c Baers, Michael (2002). "St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture". Gale Group. Retrieved 2007-08-29. 
  4. ^ citation needed
  5. ^ a b "Carneytown - Planning - Ride Company and Vendors". Archived from the original on 2009-01-22. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Strates Shows History". Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  8. ^ "North American Midway Entertainment Event Schedule 2007". Archived from the original on 2007-07-26. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  9. ^ "Amusements of America 2007 Route Schedule". Archived from the original on 2007-03-19. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  10. ^ Von Drehle, David (2007-07-23). Photographs by Greg Miller. "A new Day at the Fair". Time. 170 (4): 50. ISSN 0040-781X. 
  11. ^ "Frank's Photo Gallery - Foods On A Stick At the Minnesota State Fair Minnesota 2001". 2001. Archived from the original on September 12, 2006. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  12. ^ a b c Goldenberg, Deputy Marshal Dave (2001). "Chicanery On The Midway". Professionals Against Confidence Crime. Archived from the original on 2008-06-10. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  13. ^ Falkiner, Tim; Roger Horbay (September 9, 2006). "page 4 "The Gaffed Milk Bottle Game"" (PDF). Abstract: "Unbalanced Reel Gaming Machines". Viva Consulting. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 27, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  14. ^ "RMIS Library List of Amusement Ride Safety Sites By State". Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  15. ^ "Amusement Safety. Org". Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  16. ^ "An Encyclopedia of Novelty & Variety Performers & Showfolk". Sideshow Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  17. ^ a b Nickell, Joe. "Sideshow! Carnival Oddities and Illusion Provide Lesson for Skeptics". Committee for Skepticle Investigative File Article. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  18. ^ "Sideshow An Encyclopedia of Novelty & Variety Performers & Showfolk". Sideshow Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  19. ^ "Miscellaneous Acts". Sideshow History. com. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 
  20. ^ "History Page year 1948". Strates Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  21. ^ "The "Warren Car" aka "The Bonnie and Cylde Death Car"". Texas Hide Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  22. ^ Robinson, John. "Hitler's Car or should I say the real Hitler's Car please stand up!". Sideshow Archived from the original on October 22, 2006. Retrieved 2007-08-28. 

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