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A travelling funfair, often simply called a fair, is a small to medium-sized travelling show primarily composed of stalls and other amusements.
The British term "funfair" is also used to refer to non-travelling amusement parks. Larger fairs such as the permanent fairs of cities and seaside resorts might be called a fairground, although technically this refers to the land where a fair is traditionally held.
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Fairs contain a mixture of attractions which can be divided into the categories of adult, teenager and child; usually including thrill rides, children's rides, sideshows and sidestalls. Originally a fair would also have had a significant number of market stalls, but today this is rare and most sidestalls only offer food or games. The first fairground rides began to appear in the eighteenth century, these were small and made of wood and propelled by gangs of boys. In 1868, Frederick Savage, an agricultural engineer from King's Lynn, devised a method of driving rides by steam. His invention, a steam engine mounted in the centre of the ride, transformed the fairground industry.
There is constant innovation, with new variations on ways to spin and throw passengers around, in an effort to attract customers. With the requirement that rides be packed into one or more trailers for travel, there is a limit to the size of the rides, and funfairs struggle to compete with much larger attractions, such as roller coasters, found in amusement parks. See also amusement rides.
Some fairs may feature compact roller coasters to attract teenagers and preteens. Roller coasters feature steep drops, sharp curves, and sometimes loops. Roller coasters are generally the most attractive aspect of a fair, but many people come for other reasons. Fairs usually only feature one or two coasters.
Funfairs are seen as family entertainment, and most include a significant number of children's rides. Many of these are smaller, platform based rides like, cup & saucer, toysets, train rides then there are smaller slower versions of the adult rides, Ferris wheels, waltzers, even children's bumper cars. Such rides are usually referred to as "juvenile rides" or just juveniles. There are other items for children, slides, mirror mazes funhouses, and variations on the bouncy castle.
In the 19th century, before the development of mechanical attractions, sideshows were the mainstay of most funfairs. Typical shows included menageries of wild animals, freak shows, wax works, boxing/wrestling challenges and theatrical shows.
Sidestalls and games
Most stalls feature games of skill or strength. The most traditional example being the coconut shy in which players throw balls at coconuts balanced on posts, winning the coconut if they manage to dislodge it.
Other sidestalls range from the trivially easy, such as hooking rubber ducks from a water trough in which nearly every player is expected to win a prize, to the deceptively challenging, which includes games which utilise optical illusions or physical relationships that are difficult to judge. Highly profitable (and therefore timeless) games include:
- the hoopla, in which a ring can be demonstrated to fit neatly around a wooden block, but when the customer attempts to throw the ring over the block, it is nearly impossible to achieve the perfect angle which the attendant deftly demonstrates. There is also a con where the blocks sit up straight with money on as well as a prize and it looks easy to win, the cheat here is that the worker will show you the ring fits and when you have a go he passes you 3 rings that do not fit. The ring that does is called a "coping" ring. Although most of the time this in practice is not necessary as this type of game is based on luck therefore the odds favour the owner. This game is similar to quoits and horseshoe pitching.
- ball-in-the-basket games in which the basket is presented at an angle almost certain to bounce the ball out. (The basket bottom may also be suspiciously springy.)
- basketball-shooting games in which the basket is ovoid in shape and the basketball literally cannot fit inside the rim under any circumstances, but takes advantage of the oval shape an individual expects to see when directly confronted by a circle presented at an angle nearly parallel with the ground. (The sides of such a game are walled with netting which presumably keeps the ball in play, but the netting is typically covered with the prizes the customer hopes to win, which block the view of the basket from the side and thus exposing the hoax.) Sometimes the basketballs are also inflated to their full capacity, thus allowing the ball to bounce out of the hoop more easily.
- archery, air rifles, and paint ball guns with sometimes misaligned sights (or handled by someone who cannot shoot straight), with targets ranging from bullseyes to playing cards.
- Hit-The-Bell, high striker device to test prowess, originally fabricated from various hardware.
Much of the true "con artistry" has been driven out of funfairs in the twentieth century, and combined with an increasing emphasis on the role of families and small children in such entertainment, contemporary showmen often find greater profit in pricing their games far above the value of the prizes being offered, with complex formulae for upgrading to the large prizes that advertise the game and instil desire among customers. The rises in pricing of many sidestalls must often reflect the overheads of running fairground equipment – the cost of swag (see below), diesel, staff and rents.
Typical prizes change to reflect popular tastes. A traditional fairground prize used to be a goldfish in a small plastic bag, but these have fallen out of favour, partly because goldfish are no longer seen as exotic, but also because of animal welfare concerns. Many stalls offer cuddly toys as prizes – many teenage romances are established at funfairs, where thrill rides provide ample excuse for embracing. Displays of skill at shooting and winning a cuddly toy for your girlfriend is a rite of passage for many young men. In showland, the prizes are known as swag and are supplied by a swagman.
- Musée des Arts Forains (The Funfair Museum), in Paris, France
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