6 Life Lessons Learned from Working as a Carny
I spent a summer in high school operating rides at an amusement park, because being a carny was slightly more dignified than flipping burgers and my parents didn't consider playing video games and masturbating to be a valid form of self-employment. While I didn't learn any carny secrets like where they keep the bodies of the guests who get lost in the haunted house, I can tell you a few things you should keep in mind the next time you decide you're in the mood for a day of roller coasters, crappy food, and screaming children.
Everything You Assume About Vomit Is True, and Then Some
Anyone who's played RollerCoaster Tycoon can bring to mind the image of a sickly, green-faced guest spewing pixelated puke after riding your sadistic coaster that offered more g-force than astronaut training. Well, there's a reason that game was called a simulation. Guests throw up a lot, either because they don't know their limitations or because they underestimate the effect that bags of cotton candy and hamburgers that look like they were cooked during the Reagan administration have on their stomach.
Not counting my one-man fetish stage show, I was thrown up on three times over the summer, once by a little kid who I assume mistook me for a garbage can and twice by people on the Round Up, like a puke lawn sprinkler.
One of these fucking things.
For the unfamiliar, guests stand in a circle as the ride lifts and spins at a dizzying speed, which is considered fun by people who love the raw thrills of motion sickness. One day while operating it I started getting sprayed in the face by what I assumed was rain. Then I realized there wasn't a cloud in the sky and, well, thinking about it years later still makes me feel unclean. At least the second time someone started vomiting down on me like a surreal biblical prophecy, I realized what was happening and could duck for cover. I can only imagine what his poor companions were going through.
Yeah, that's right. As many disgusting YouTube videos are happy to show you, anyone who throws up on a ride is probably going to splatter other people. WARNING: Don't click the play button if you don't want to see exactly what I've been talking about:
Supposedly this can put other riders over the edge, leading to a tastefully named "barf-o-rama." I never witnessed it, but there's no reason it couldn't happen. I'd suggest always sitting at the front of a ride, just to be safe.
In addition to getting The Exorcist treatment, I had to clean up after countless people who were kind enough to throw up on the ride instead of me. And don't assume this is all limited to intense rides -- kiddie attractions can be vomit magnets, too. I once threw up on a ride meant for children because I had been suckered into going on my nemesis, the Round Up, beforehand. There are few things more humiliating to a teenager than making your co-worker clean up your own vomit while a bunch of children either laugh or recoil in horror. Anyway, my point is that pretty much any surface you touch at a park has probably been coated in vomit and cleaned by a teenager not paid enough to care about proper hygiene. Have fun!
"It's been an hour and a half. Shouldn't you go stop the ride?"
Parents Want Their Children to Die
Many rides have height restrictions that either prevent kids from boarding or limit them to certain sections, like the middle of a swinging ship instead of the ends, which go higher but might fling them like a trebuchet to land in a mushy pile of other children a mile away. Kids always try to cheat, usually with uncreative methods like standing on their tiptoes, whining, or just hoping that the guy working that day is straight up out of fucks to give. What's more surprising is that parents vehemently argue against the restrictions as well, and when we gave them our standard line about how it's for the safety of their children, they responded with a resounding "meh."
I'll always remember the woman who tried to bring her infant on the log flume. Despite looking like he had just had his cord cut, mom insisted he would be fine to come with her, because nothing says responsible parenting like holding a newborn on a bumpy ride featuring steep drops, a lake, and no seat belts. When I politely pointed out that this was against our rules, she got pissed off and argued that because she had been standing in line for a long time, she had every right to risk her child's death, evoking an obscure legal clause that says laws stop applying to you if you're patient enough. I had a hard time thinking of a counterargument that didn't involve graphic imagery of dropped and drowned babies.
If you look closely at the water spray, you can see, like, half a dozen babies just flying out.
The most common argument we got from parents was that their kid got on last time and was fine, which is like arguing that because you drove without a seat belt one time and didn't crash, you might as well go ahead and do it every day. I'm not saying the rides are deathtraps, but 4,400 kids a year are injured on amusement park rides, and 67 of them are hurt seriously enough to require a hospital visit. If a teenager making near minimum wage is more concerned about your child's safety than you are, the only ride you should be on is one that ends at the Child Protective Services waiting room.
At least I never had any parents flip out and swear at me, but that absolutely does happen. Because if you can teach your children to belittle minors half your age for doing their jobs while also teaching them that you don't care about their safety in the same profane rant, you can use the time saved to stuff more mini-doughnuts in your mouth. It's called efficiency.
"Did you see the way he was just shaking with rage? That's how it's done, kids!"
Size Doesn't Matter
My park's main attraction was called the Vortex, because it's carny law that all rides have to be named like they're third-rate comic book characters.
I like to imagine it was once white, but then point #6 from this article happened.
You'd assume this would be one of the most dangerous rides and one of the most difficult rides to operate, and you'd be wrong on both counts. Which is embarrassing, really. Get your shit together. No, all we had to do to run it was push a few buttons. And while it's simple by roller coaster standards, fancy ones at big parks rely more on computers than pimple-faced high school students to keep them running smoothly.
Meanwhile, you know that dinky little kiddie roller coaster that even small town fairs have? Usually the cars are in the shape of a dragon or little airplanes? That toddler trap was the bane of my existence. It was spitting in the face of God, and daring him to do something about it.
"Alright, is everyone ready? Did everyone kiss their mothers one final goodbye?"
Putting aside the fact that I'm only slightly better with children than the clown from It, this son of a bitch was both a huge pain to operate and probably one of the more dangerous rides in the park. Unlike most rides, you had to manually time when it stopped. If you fucked up -- and you would -- you had to grab the train and physically yank it down to the platform while the kids were busy unbuckling their seat belts and trying to climb out into thin air, because kids are dumb and only slightly less enamored with head trauma than NFL players.
One time a wheel flew off and pelted me in the leg, and while I'm sure watching the ride their children were on literally fall to pieces before their eyes really inspired confidence in the parents, I was just glad the wheel didn't take a different trajectory and clean the clock of some poor kid waiting in line. In what will perhaps always be my greatest deadpan performance, I had to tell people that the ride was temporarily closed for "maintenance" while holding the wheel, which is like a doctor telling a nurse they need a Band-Aid while holding an amputated leg.
One that they ironically lost on the kiddie roller coaster.
That ride actually made the local news after an "incident," and while details were vague, it was shut down a few years later, due to what I assume were reports of a haunting by the ghosts of concussed children. And while I'm proud to say I didn't maim any kids on my watch (not something I can say about every job I've held), other kiddie ride operators aren't so lucky. There have been several serious injuries and deaths, as many or more as there have been for adult rides.
So paranoids, take note. Much like how flying is statistically safer than driving, the big complicated-looking rides at amusement parks are probably safer than the ones that look about as thrilling as doing your taxes. Again, serious accidents are rare, but they happen just enough that you now have the perfect excuse to refuse your children's requests to go to the park on days when you'd rather just stay home and nurse a hangover.
You're Probably Going to Get Stuck on a Ride
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.
"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.
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.
If you know what I mean.
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.
"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.
The Games Are Even More Rigged Than You Realize
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.
"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.
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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