6 Life Lessons Learned from Working as a Carny

#3. You're Probably Going to Get Stuck on a Ride

Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images

So while you're probably not risking your life when you get on a ride, you are risking your time. Google "amusement park ride stuck" and you'll come up with a whole schwack of stories, and these are just stoppages long enough to be considered newsworthy. You're probably not going to find yourself hanging upside down for three hours, but in my experience, there's a reasonable chance you'll find yourself stuck for a least a few minutes, because amusement park rides break down faster than the logic of a political YouTube comment.

I saw rides break constantly, although I should note that I worked in a smaller park where some of the rides were old clunkers. I'm sure in Disneyland they keep every ride in peak condition and sacrifice virgin mice in the bowels of Big Thunder Mountain every morning, whereas our only line of defense against technical failure was shifty mechanics who spent as much time hitting on girls half their age as they did working.

Jen Siska/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Oh my God! Tell him to get that horse costume off and get back to work!"

And sometimes it's not the age of the ride, but the design. The bad boy below was almost brand spanking new when I got behind the controls, but it had a flaw that made it difficult for dumb people like me to operate.

Via Splash Mountain
And no, it wasn't the epilepsy-inducing color scheme.

It had a foot pedal that shut down the ride if you let up on it for even a moment. I'm sure there's a valid mechanical reason for that, but all I know is that operators would shift their weight or get distracted or just forget, and then guests would have to spend the next 15 minutes putting up with jokes from bystanders asking them if they were "hanging in there."

Then there are the mistakes that just happen when you put teenagers in charge of things, like driving a train around with its brake on until it, well, breaks. I could give you the details of how I saw basically every ride stop working at one point or another, but you get the idea.

None of these are serious problems, and you shouldn't be worried about getting on a ride that's a loose screw away from exploding into an orgy of fire. But between operator and maintenance incompetency, it's no surprise that shit breaks. If you ever experience it, don't panic. The only way you'll be in danger is if you try to clamber out of your restraints, and yes, I saw people do that. Just sit tight until Boxcar Bill and Steve "the Stabber" Sanchez come fix the ride.

Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
If you know what I mean.

#2. Bumper Boats Are Designed by Sociopaths, for Sociopaths


The Stanford prison experiment demonstrated that even the slightest amount of power can go to people's heads, and I think bumper boats are continuing proof of that. Put a water gun on a raft and suddenly everyone thinks they're Commodore Perry.

A ride on our bumper boats would often begin with some hellion "accidentally" spraying the operator trying to unmoor them. Then they'd try to spray their friend still waiting in line and soak half a dozen strangers instead, because aiming is hard when you're distracted by your sadism-boner. Next they'd go after the mini-golfers next door. Once the golfers had taken cover, they'd hunt down boats whose captains foolishly believed they could mind their own business and have a peaceful regatta.

And they were never heard from again.

When the pacifists were driven to an early exit, the aggressors battled each other, bumping again and again while ignoring all calls to return to shore. Finally, after they had finished staging a recreation of the Battle of Trafalgar as fought entirely by douchebags, they would leave the high seas. Flush with bloodlust and the thrill of victory, they would give one final volley to everyone who was getting out, because the government has yet to respond to my suggestion that we extend laws against attacking non-combatants in war to cover bumper boat operators.

There's something about access to a water gun that turns otherwise pleasant people into monsters who assume that everyone wants to get soaked in water on a chilly late September day. I'm not a violent man, but had piranhas appeared out of nowhere to attack these people, I wouldn't have been in any hurry to call it in.

While some guests do everything short of boarding another vessel to live out their pillaging pirate fantasies, others get to experience the thrills of being stranded at sea. Most bumper boats don't have the battery power to make it through a full day, and ours would inevitably break down. God help you if you were dead in the water -- you might as well have stood up and told everyone else that you thought their grandmothers were commie whores for the way they'd immediately savage you. Our rescue attempts would come under constant fire, and sometimes our rescue boats would run out of juice as well. So we'd have to send out a second rescue boat to create the world's stupidest fleet, all while the people waiting in line somehow managed to judge us for our ineptitude yet not lose interest in standing around for half an hour for the privilege of getting soaked and stranded.

Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
"We should all be fine in these clothes, right?"

Finally, the ride featured a cheery little sea shanty that repeated every 15 seconds, like Patrick Swayze's singing scene in Ghost. Listening to it for an entire day was the soundtrack of madness. I will remember it until the day I die. So if you're riding bumper boats and the employees are a little rude to you, try not to take it personally. It's just that they're soaked to the bone and their minds are fraying into tattered wrecks of what they once were.

#1. The Games Are Even More Rigged Than You Realize

Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images

Telling you that amusement park games are rigged should be about as shocking as telling you that the KGB helped the CIA fake the moon landing to intimidate the Martians. Everyone knows. But what might surprise you is just how rigged they are. Luckily, I learned enough to teach you how to beat the system and win a gigantic plush Rasta-banana that you'll stuff in a corner of the basement for six months before accidentally setting it on fire when your stoned ass decides it would be hilarious to pass it a joint. So you're welcome.

Via Crapsouvenirs.com
"It smells like real bananas ... and racism!"

For example, anyone who's played carnival basketball knows that the hoops are small and the balls are overinflated, but that's just the start. The backboard will be slightly angled to make it useless, the hoops are often oval-shaped, and all that netting in the background? It's there to throw off your depth perception. The best way to shoot the ball is to arc it in underhanded, but that makes you look like a doofus. And you don't want to look dumb in front of your adoring child or dynamite date that you're trying to win a prize for, which I assume is the only reason people play these games.

The test of strength? You can swing the hammer like you're cosplaying as Thor, but unless you hit the sweet spot, you're probably going to fail. Usually that's the dead center of the target, but not always -- at my park, you had the best luck if you hit the very bottom. Having an old-timey mustache probably helps too, but the trick is to realize that it's more about accuracy than raw strength. You know, just like you wouldn't expect from a game called a "test of strength."

A little known secret: You can also win by threatening the employee with the hammer.

Balloon darts? The darts are dull and the balloons are underinflated. Aim for the biggest balloon and arc your shot so the dart drops down with all its weight. It's the sort of strategy that would be perfect for getting your ass kicked in an actual game of darts, but it's what you need to do if you want to walk away with a plush Stewie Griffin. Because then, and only then, will people respect you.

How about water gun races? It's more about the quality of the gun and target than your accuracy, because those things get less maintenance than a sex offender's facial hair. Watch a few games and see if one gun is winning a lot. Then shove people out of the way to grab it. Don't be afraid to knock a few kids around -- it's not your fault they don't realize that's a key part of the game.

Creatas/Creatas/Getty Images
And trust me, you don't even want me to start with this bullshit.

Winning a carnival game is like making love: It takes finesse, you regret paying for it five minutes after you're done, and you go home with something you didn't have before. What's important is that it was a learning experience.

You can read more from Mark, including an article about his time working a carnival burlesque show, at his website.

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