Men spend countless dollars every summer in (usually) vain attempts to prove their manhood by winning a prize for their girlfriend, wife or child(ren) at the local amusement park, county fair or traveling carnival. Balls are thrown, guns are shot, and rings are tossed all in an attempt to be ‘the hero’. Well, as a former carny who spent years on the road with the Butler Brothers, I’m here to give you a few tips, save you a little cash, and maybe even help you look like the ‘man’ you want your loved ones to believe you are.
First, the basics:
Few, if any, carnivals still “rig” their games. There simply is no need. The odds are already stacked in the operator’s favor, just as they are in the casinos. The prizes are so cheap when purchased wholesale and the games so challenging, that cheating simply isn’t necessary.
The ‘smaller’ the business behind the carnival the more difficult the games will be to win. In other words, amusement parks (backed by multi-billion dollar conglomerates) have no need to ‘con’ you out of a few more bucks, the games on the midway at your county or state fair are run by legitimate businesses as the fair is a repeat booking with nearly guaranteed attendance, and the mini-carnivals that spring up in abandoned parking lots are the most likely to be focused exclusively on your wallet.
Befriending a carny can increase your odds of walking away with a prize, but not at the amusement parks or ‘corporate’ carnivals. Almost all carnies (those who travel from town to town) work on a commission basis. Winners bring players, so fill their needs and they may well fill yours. 😉 This doesn’t work on the high school kids working at the local theme park, as the eyes of their corporate bosses are usually keeping careful watch through nearby surveillance cameras.
Jay White, of DumbLittleMan.com recently shared his tips on “How To Beat  Popular Carnival Games“. He covered The Ladder, Machine Gun Star, Basketball, and Dart games, with fine advice for all, but I’ve got a few more tips for each of them as well:
The Ladder: Definitely the most entertaining carnival game for the spectators. These ladders are connected at only a single point on either end. But it’s unlike any ladder you’ve ever climbed. First off, never grab the rungs of the ladder. Your hands should remain on the outer ropes while your feet either sit above the rungs on the ropes themselves or are tucked into the corner of the rung and rope. Move like an animal – a slow, steady animal. When you remove your right foot from the ladder, your left hand should be moving and vice versa. This allows you to keep your weight more evenly distributed.
Machine Gun Star / Target: You get 100 rounds to shoot out that little star? No problem! Or so you think. This is the most difficult game on the midway, so take any edge you can get! Forget about trying to use the sites to aim, these guns receive zero maintenance. However, keep an eye on the people playing before you. Don’t worry about the ‘accuracy’ of the weapon. Instead, choose the one with the tightest shot grouping. You’ll be tempted to work your way out from the center of the target, but this is a waste of your ammunition. Instead work your way around the outside edge of the colored area. A lot of carnies will leave loading tubes sitting on the counter. These are also poorly maintained and many have their ends crimped higher up than others. Look for the tubes with the shortest amount of space below the crimp as they’ll hold more pellets. Remember that tip about befriending the game operator? They have almost total discretion to determine winners at this game, so bring ’em a beer if you really want to win.
Basketball: Yes, the balls are overinflated, neither the ball nor the hoop is regulation size, and the backboard has more action than a Ft. Lauderdale bar during Spring Break. The key here, as in most ‘ball through hoop/opening’ games is to drop straight down. Forget the backboard and avoid the rim at all costs. In fact, remember when you used to shoot hoops by swinging the ball between your legs and ‘alley-ooping’ it up at the basket? That’s probably your best bet here as well.
Dart Balloons: How hard could it be to pop a balloon with a dart? Well, it gets more difficult when the darts are duller than the corn dog you just ate and the balloons are so limp they’re barely holding their shape. Dumb Little Man suggests bringing your own darts, but are you really interested in carrying darts around all day just for a trinket? Go ahead and use their dull darts. But don’t worry about using the ‘sharp’ point to try to pop the woefully under inflated balloon. Instead, arc the dart so that it hits the board on a steep downward trajectory, thus using the weight of the dart to do the damage.
Test Of Strength: Probably the definitive midway challenge is the ‘test of strength’. Unfortunately it’s not seen much anymore. As mentioned above, even here, it’s not as much about brawn as you might think. Accuracy is the true key to taking hope the Kewpie doll. You need to land the mallet perfectly flat in the dead center of the target. Anything else just wastes energy. Grip the very end of the hammer with both hands so as to get the most centrifugal force and swing it completely over your head, using your arcing back to add power.
Speed Throw: A modern version of the Test of Strength, which measures the speed or power in a thrown baseball or football. Much like its predecessor, accuracy is far more important here than strength. Watch a few players before stepping up yourself in order to judge where the ‘sweet spot’ is on the target. Hint: if you’re looking at an over sized picture of a catcher, it’s most likely not in the dead center of his glove. 😉
Chicken/Frog/Witch Catapult: These were first introduced in the late ’80s and consist of a small catapult with a mallet attatched; a rotating table with 4 to 6 cooking pots, lily pads or cauldrons; and a stuffed or rubber critter. You place the critter on one end of the catapult, whack the other end with the mallet, and try to make the critter land in the pot. The good news is you usually get three critters and only need to get one ‘in’ to be a winner. Make sure to tuck all of the extremities (arms, legs, wings, etc.) under the body of the critter, leaving yourself with a tight little projectile. On your first shot, aim for the cauldron farthest from you and hit the catapult as hard as you can. This will give you an idea of how much force is necessary and how much is too much. Landing a prize shouldn’t be too difficult at that point.
There are many more games out there that I’ve worked over the years. In part two I share the insider secrets to another 7 midway games: Cat Rack, Water Gun / Balloon Races, Dime/Quarter Toss, Bushel Baskets, Skee Ball, Crane Games, and the infamous Milk Bottles.
Hopefully these tips will come in handy the next time the carnival rolls through your town.
The Complete Carnival Midway Games Series-
- Carnival Midway Game Secrets Revealed (Part One)
- Carnival Midway Games Revealed (Part Two)
- World’s Largest Christmas Tree, or… Robbed On The Midway!
- Changes On The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk Midway
- Carnival Midway Games Revealed (Part Three)