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Classic Carnival Rides: Fun Facts

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The spinning lights of a carnival at night is a unique beauty.

The spinning lights of a carnival at night is a unique beauty.

For so many kids and some adults, summertime is carnival time! Sticky, greasy foods and screaming people and long lines and hot blacktop and games that rip you off. Ah, good old-fashioned fun. But the big draw has always been the rides themselves. Some "old", some modern - and not all are created equally.

Every year we hear about the latest and greatest amusement park rides. The highest drop. The fastest take-off. The most loops. This ever-running competition of roller coasters and other theme park attractions is great! It ensures new thrills. But there is a story behind the rides that have been around for years and a reason they still maintain their popularity. You can find them at almost any carnival - and for this reason you'll quickly realize I've neglected to include the above-mentioned roller coasters in this list as, while some large carnivals do feature them, these particular big thrills tend to be more of an amusement park staple than that of a town carnival/fair.

So let's take a trip down memory lane for a quick look at some ever-popular, classic carnival rides.

The classic Tilt-a-Whirl

The classic Tilt-a-Whirl


A popular "flat ride" often found at town fairs is the Tilt-a-Whirl. Double spins are the thrill here - freely twirling open carts rotating in a circle on a platform. The platform rises and falls in its circular pattern, adding to the momentum of random spins by the carts. The rider has little to no control over the force of a spin.

Did You Know:

...the unpredictable nature of the Tilt-a-Whirl's spins is called chaotic motion?

...the Tilt-a-Whirl was invented in 1926? was built in creator Herbert Sellner's basement and yard?

...a 1927 model is still in operation today, traveling with Tom Evans United Shows? 2001 a Tilt-a-Whirl car derailed with three children on board, though thankfully none suffered serious injuries?

Get 'scrambled' at any amusement park in the country.

Get 'scrambled' at any amusement park in the country.

Scrambler (Twist)

Also frequently called The Twist, as well as a variety of individually chosen names, the suspended carts on this ride offer passengers the illusion that they will crash into other riders as they are spun and thrust around the circle of the connected beams.

Did You Know:

...The Scrambler is known as the Cha Cha in Australia?

...different sources cite different dates for the original creation of what we know as the commonly recognized Scrambler, but they all seem to agree the year falls sometime in the 1950s?

...once the ride gets going passengers are shifted toward the outer edge of the cart, meaning smaller/lighter riders should always go on the inside (aka closer to the ride center)?

"Gravitron", as the spaceship ride is most commonly known.

"Gravitron", as the spaceship ride is most commonly known.

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The Gravitron is often also called some form of Starship or Alien Abduction at carnivals across the world. This completely enclosed ride features panels against which riders lean. As the ride begins to rotate faster and faster centrifugal force works its effect on rider and pad. With an invention date of 1983, the Gravitron's predecessor was the Rotor.

Did You Know:

...a Gravitron once spun apart? Injuries were seen, but no deaths.

...NASA experiments for simulation use similar forces?

...80 seconds is considered the ideal ride time?

...there's a reason for the Gravitron carnival ride's tendency to be more popular with kids and teens than adults? It's not just tolerance (or lack thereof) for spinning. The heavier the body weight, the more force exerted on the face and chest.

Teacup rides may also appear as spinning bears, apples, balloons, and anything else under the sun.

Teacup rides may also appear as spinning bears, apples, balloons, and anything else under the sun.


They may not always take the form of teacups. Sometimes they are giant spinning apples, sometimes friendly dragons. I've seen many variety of the spinning teacup ride at carnivals. But the concept is always the same, even if speeds change. Passengers enter a cart that generally takes on a fun shape and rotates with other carts in a large circle. During this rotation passengers may take the wheel - literally - at the center of their cart and spin their own individual car as fast as can be allowed.

Did You Know:

...guidelines state that children's rides should not spin faster than eight times a minute?

...Disney's Mad Tea Party, the Disney version of the teacup ride, is available at all five resorts worldwide?

Fun houses come in all shapes and sizes - and themes.

Fun houses come in all shapes and sizes - and themes.

Fun House

Not strictly a ride by technical definitions, the fun house (or a haunted house or house of mirrors) is a classic attraction of carnivals all the same and deserves a spot on this list. Who doesn't feel like a kid again when they venture into the silly tunnels of warped mirrors and obstacle courses and shifting floors? Unfortunately many fun houses do have a height limit, not allowing us grown-ups to participate in the fun.

Did You Know:

...the jets of air that shoot up from the floor were originally designed to lift up women's skirts? is said that the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles inspired the attraction of a house of mirrors?

...there has been a lawsuit over a haunted house attraction in which the woman claimed it was too scary?

The swing ride at your local fair ain't the swingset in your backyard...

The swing ride at your local fair ain't the swingset in your backyard...

Swing Ride

It goes by many names. Chair Swing. Swing Carousel. Swinger. Chair-o-Planes. And so on. But it is generally the same experience: passengers sit in their own individual swing suspended from a rotating top. As the ride begins the seats are lifted higher above the ground and then the ride starts to turn. As it spins the seats are flung out almost horizontally. Occasionally the rotating top also tilts for added motion.

Did You Know:

...there was a swing ride at one of the earliest amusement parks in 1908?

...the next attempt at the highest swing ride in the world will be a massive 420 feet (StarFlyer, to be built in Orlando)?

...not far behind, the current tallest swing ride is just over 400 feet? The holder of this record is the New England Skyscreamer?

On bumper cars you can hit your friends and siblings as much as you like without any consequences!

On bumper cars you can hit your friends and siblings as much as you like without any consequences!

Bumper Cars

Who doesn't love taking out their aggression on friends or hapless innocent 'victims' by ramming a car into another so hard it shocks your body back against the seat? Bumper cars, also known as dodgems, consist of small electric carts with direction controlled by the rider, They are, of course, designed to be crashed (okay, "bumped") into other cars on the platform. The cars draw power from the floor and/or the ceiling.

Did You Know?

...signs reading "No Bumping" are sometimes placed around the platform for legal reasons?

...Disneyland once attempted hovercraft style bumper cars as an attraction but closed it due to mechanical failure?

...Six Flags in Illinois boasts the largest bumper cars platform at approximately 51 feet by 124 feet?

"The Pirate Ship", a variation on the carnival ride "The Swinging Ship."

"The Pirate Ship", a variation on the carnival ride "The Swinging Ship."

The Swinging Ship

Seen at most fairs and amusement parks, our next classic carnival ride is a version of the pendulum ride: the swinging ship, or (often) pirate ship. Not always a "pirate" ship specifically, this ride seats passengers in a gondola-style arrangement and begins to sway back and forth. Momentum builds and soon you are soaring into the air and then flying back down and up again. You may feel about to flip out of your seat, but these rides traditionally do not go upside down (though versions similar in appearance certainly do!).

Did You Know:

...the first of the pirate ship's kind was called The Ocean Wave?

...the first example of a swinging ship style ride used in a carnival/circus is from 1897?

...multiple sources, including the Guinness Book of Records, claim that the tallest swinging ship ride is Half Moon at Efteling theme park in the Netherlands?

A standard carnival-sized Ferris wheel.

A standard carnival-sized Ferris wheel.

Ferris Wheel

Warring with the carousel for the classic carnival or amusement park ride is the Ferris wheel. The capitalization comes about as this ride, also known as a big wheel, was named after its creator: George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.

Everyone knows what it's all about. A vertical wheel spins carts full of passengers in a circular motion, keeping the carts upright (in most cases). The seating varies from wheel to wheel. Some hold 2-3 passengers on a bench-like seat with only a bar separating them from a free fall to the ground. Others have carts with walls on four sides and possibly a roof to block the elements. Just like seating, speed - possibly the greatest consideration - changes from ride to ride.

Did You Know:

...the High Roller, opened in 2014 and located in Las Vegas, is the current record holder for world's tallest Ferris wheel at 550 feet? is likely that the Ferris wheel's predecessors date back to the 17th century?

...the original Ferris wheel met 264 feet?

...The New York Wheel, currently roughly scheduled for opening in 2017, will be a huge 625 feet in height?

What is your favorite memory of riding a carousel?

What is your favorite memory of riding a carousel?

Also known as the merry-go-round, the carousel is about as classic as you can get at a carnival. Not only do you find them on the fairgrounds but every great amusement park has at least one and even malls make them a staple.

It really needs no description because the carousel is that well known, but in brief it is a spinning circular platform with seats traditionally in horse form that rise up and down as the ride turns round and round. Speed varies. Some merry-go-rounds will feature bench-like seats for riders who prefer their spinning a little more still or who, for whatever reason, cannot safely or comfortably board the animal seats.

Did You Know:

...the earliest similarity to a modern carousel is from the Middle Ages and was a practice of training for battle? Europe carousels typically turn clockwise while in America they usually rotate counterclockwise?

...the restored Eldridge Park Carousel, in New York, has the title of fastest merry-go-round with a speed of 18 mph?

...the world's tallest carousel reaches 100 feet and is named either the Columbia Carousel or Carousel Columbia (both exist, a pair with one each in different parks)?

Did your favorite classic thrill ride make this list? What other rides are worth a mention in the comments?


tony raguso on August 07, 2020:

I grew up in California and it was a ride that riders with sit on a polished wooden disc on the floor back to back and the disc was slowly turn and get up to speed and you would slide off because of the centrifugal force.

Does anybody know what that was?

Karl tusing on November 21, 2019:

There was a ride in the 1980s that was black n grey and it had a statue of darth vadar on top and it lifted up in thecair and spun you around. And another ride siniker to it had red flashing sirons but spun you around. Also the sea dragon ride.

peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 14, 2015:

i went to this carnival twice in my whole life. Once I was a child and another time with my boy. I love the roller coaster though dizzy

SaffronBlossom from Dallas, Texas on August 21, 2013:

Love this hub! Makes me excited for our state fair to start...I will definitely be enjoying some of these rides. :)

Leslie from South Carolina on July 30, 2013:

Great hub. All these bring back memories. The Gravitron makes me a little nauseous just thinking about the name. My friends and I would try to turn upside down and every which way on that ride...good times :)

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