Traveling Carnivals

Flashing lights, people laughing and screaming, music playing, the carnival is in town

In Alpharetta, Georgia, during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, we had a traveling carnival set up in an empty lot a couple of times a year. These would have a convoy of trucks and trailers that would, within a few days, erect a bevy of rides, concessions, and games.

Most histories credit the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—which brought together the largest mass of showmen ever assembled up to that point—with the traveling carnival’s origination. Otto Schmidt, a participant, organized the Chicago Midway Plaisance Amusement Company, and he and his acts set out on a tour of the Northeast.

From spring to fall of 1902, seventeen carnivals toured the United States. They pitched their tents in empty fields or vacant lots or were booked in conjunction with state and county fairs, these having become a welcome diversion for the small towns that served as the center of isolated farm communities.

By 1905, there were forty-six traveling carnivals plying their trade. By 1937, an estimated three hundred different shows traversed the country. They would have several rides, fun houses, concessions, and games.

Admission was free at all the carnivals I attended, but you could buy tickets for the rides. One ride would be a certain price with savings, per ride, if you bought several tickets. Of course, you needed cash to get your food or play the games.


Ferris Wheel

They would have a colorful Ferris wheel that would tower above everything else and attract attention for miles. The original Ferris wheel, sometimes referred to as the Chicago Wheel opened in 1893 and was designed and constructed by Ferris Jr.


I did a previous post on my favorite carnival ride, The Scrambler. Click the link to read all about it!


Another one was the Gravitron which first appeared at Morey’s Piers in 1983 and quickly became a fixture at amusement parks in many countries. The Gravitron is 48 padded panels in a circle where riders place their backs.

It spins reaching 24rpm in 20 seconds causing the centrifugal force to remove the riders from the floor due to the slant. It causes a lot of fun and nausea.

Fire Ball or Ring of Fire

The Fire Ball is an amusement ride manufactured by Larson International, aka the Ring of Fire or Super Loop. This has replaced the similar caged train. It is 58 feet 9 inches high, 56 ft 1 in long, and 41 ft 11 in wide. It has a capacity of 20 people, with 10 two-person seats.

It rocks back and forth, gaining momentum with each swing until it finally gains enough momentum to complete the loop. This leaves the riders hanging upside down several times.

The Zipper

The Zipper is an amusement ride invented by Joseph Brown under Chance Rides in 1968. A long, rotating, oval boom with a cable around its edge pulls 12 cars around the ride. Except at peak times, most operators will only fill half of the cars at one time with riders.

It is a very rough ride and was named by Popular Mechanics as one of the strangest amusement park rides in the world. The passenger capsules travel around the perimeter of the boom at 4.56453224 revolutions per minute (rpm), not particularly fast, but the “flip” around the end of the oblong frame causes a sudden burst of speed and sends the compartments flipping end over end.


Herbert Sellner invented the Tilt-A-Whirl in 1926 at his Faribault, Minnesota, home. The earliest Tilt-A-Whirls were constructed of wood, powered by gas motors, and featured nine cars. Modern rides are constructed of steel, aluminum, and fiberglass, and it is powered by seven small electric motors and has seven cars.

As the platform rotates, parts of the platform are raised and lowered, with the resulting centrifugal and gravitational forces on the revolving cars causing them to spin in different directions and at variable speeds. This causes a very chaotic motion.

Bumper cars

Some claim bumper cars were invented by Victor Levand, who worked for General Electric, while others say it was Max and Harold Stoehrer of Massachusetts, according to the Showmen’s Museum in Miami.

A small version of this ride can be used in traveling carnivals. They used to get their power from a rod running up to the ceiling and now they are powered through the floor. The cars were originally designed to drive and dodge other cars. A good bump would wreck the first cars.

Kids Rides

There were also rides just for the kids like a smaller version of bumper cars or adult ride versions that went slow. There was usually the Cup & Saucer, Train Ride, and variation on the Bouncy Castle.

Games of Chance

Fish bowl game, goldfish

Goldfish was a popular prize when I attended carnivals. Yes, real live goldfish. They had a game where you would throw ping pong balls at the bowls and if you got one in you won a goldfish in a plastic bag. You know how a ping pong ball bounces so this was a hard game.

Shooting galleries were really popular. The guns never shot straight and a lot of the games had moving targets. Some games of this type are the “Cross Bow Shoot”, the “Milk Bottle” game, or the “Balloon and Dart” game.

Nickel Cup/Plate Toss

The nickel cup/plate toss was always one of my favorites. They would place cups, plates, and bowls on a table at the center of a tent. You simply tossed nickels at the glassware and if your coin landed on one it was yours. I never really wanted anything I won but my friend Tim still eats off a plate he won in the 60s.

Throwing Ball to Knock Over Things

There were lots of versions of the ball-throwing game. The goal for them was to knock over something, sometimes it had to also clear the stand (making it harder), or knock over several targets to win. It was especially hard to throw their ball and knock over all the heavy, metal milk bottles. There was a game with clown heads and you’d have to knock over a certain number to win a prize. They were soft and fuzzy at the sides which would cause the ball to easily slide between them. Sometimes the game was to throw a ball through a hole in a wall.

Basketball Shoot

The basketball shoot was another of my favorites. I was very good at this game even though the ball was overinflated, the rims were smaller than regulation, and the goal was set over 10 feet. I won my largest stuffed animals at these.

Balloon Water Race

They always had the popular water race game to blow up a balloon. This was a competition to see who could burst their balloon first by shooting water accurately into a target hole. Someone always wins a prize each game.

Ring Toss

There were several variations like tossing small rings onto bottles. I remember the one that you tossed your circular ring and tried to get it over a square peg. There were rings that were very tiny, up to large hoops, all of which were hard to ring the item being tossed at.

Basket Throw

They would set up baskets at an angle and the goal was to toss a ball and make it stay in the basket. Harder than it looks, the idea to win is to make the ball hit the front bottom basket edge first. This gives you the best chance of it saying in the basket.

Rubber Ducks

Sometimes another ring game but usually a type of fishing game for small children to try and catch a duck with a loop in a fishing pole. If you get the duck out of the pool you win it.



In the past, there would be Freakshows in trailers at the Carnival for an additional fee. 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 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 types of shows.

Thrill Acts

Thrill acts included fire eaters, sword swallowers, the human blockhead, the human pin cushion, and knife throwers. 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 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.

House of Mirrors

This would be a trailer with a cool facade that would let you walk through a cavalcade of mirrors of a variety of kinds that made you look fat, skinny, tall, stretched, and short. It could be very disorienting and a lot of fun.


There were also scary rides or walk-through trailers. These were not that scary but the best ones might have an employee or two that would be inside, dressed up, to jump out at you at the right moment.


Cotton Candy

Food was the staple of any carnival and a huge moneymaker for them. They would take a paper cone and swirl it around in the cotton candy maker and hand you the warm, fresh treat. The candy is made by heating and liquefying sugar, and spinning it centrifugally through minute holes—by which the sugar rapidly cools and re-solidifies into fine strands.

Funnel Cakes

I’ve never had a funnel cake but they sound delicious. The concept of the funnel cake dates back to the early medieval Persian world and was brought to America in 1879. Funnel cakes are made by pouring batter into hot cooking oil in a circular pattern

and deep frying the overlapping mass until golden-brown. Funnel cakes are typically served plain with powdered sugar but can also be served with jam/jelly, cinnamon, chocolate, fresh fruit, or other toppings

Candied/Caramel Apples

American William W. Kolb invented the red candy apple in 1908. Candy apples are made by coating an apple with a layer of sugar that has been heated to the hard crack stage. The most common sugar coating is made from sugar (white or brown),

corn syrup, water, cinnamon, and red food coloring. Caramel apples are covered in a layer of caramel and often rolled in nuts. The recipe for caramel apples came from Mrs. Edna Kastrup in 1948.

Snow Cones & Ice Cream

Snow cones and ice cream were super popular, especially on those hot summer days. Snow cones are so inexpensive for the vendors, shaved ice and a flavoring in a paper cone. In the 1850s ice became commercialized and eating ice with flavoring followed almost immediately.


Carnival or Circus music first started simply with a fiddler or flutist. The first modern circus director and performer was Philip Astley (1742–1814). The most common song is 1897 “Entry of the Gladiators” by Czech composer Julius Fučík. The carnival was a smorgasbord of sounds as different vendors and rides would be playing music during the event. A lot of rides would be accompanied by Rock and Roll of the time, what we call classic rock now.


Excellent video

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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