Carnival Workers Describe What The Life Is Really Like

By Jacob Shelton

A favorite American mythology is that of the carnie – someone who works at a carnival. These hardworking people are young and old, from all walks of life. They live on the road throughout the summer and fall, setting up and tearing down rides, or hosting games to bilk people out of their money (unless you know the secrets to beating their tricks). They even have their own language.

At least that’s what people think about carnies. It turns out their real lives have more dimension than anyone gives them credit for. The carnies of Reddit have answered some questions about what life’s really like when they’re on the road.

Some Carnivals Are Super Corporate

From Redditor /u/Xyrenn205:

I’ve worked nine years at one of the largest single-unit carnivals in the country. It’s the exact opposite of what most folks… describe. We have a full drug testing center onsite. You have to be clean-shaven, no tattoos (if you do, [you have to] cover them), and wear clean uniforms. If you get busted for [illicit substances] you’re gone.

It’s definitely not the mall parking lot show that most think of when you hear “carnival.” We only do a handful of large events each season, generally for a month at a time.

It does tend to be full of gossip since everyone works and lives with each other in close quarters… Ride and customer safety is the number one priority. We take pride in what we do.

The Crews Can Form Cliques

From a former Redditor:

My dad owns a traveling carnival. It was started by my grandfather in 1956. He bought a truck-mounted merry-go-round and charged people 10 cents to ride it. From there, it grew into what it is today.

I’ve worked there since I was pretty young and am a senior in college now (hoping to get a different job after college, but it was a summer job between years). It’s actually a really fun environment. There’s always tons of drama between all kinds of people. Most of the employees are actually nice people, but for many of them it is almost a job of last resort. Some of them love their job; some dislike it and do it to get by.

It becomes very cliquey. Everyone has their small group of people they work with on a ride and become close to. I would set up and tear down the merry-go-round every week with the same crew; we were each other’s backbone.

We open at around 5 or 6 pm on Saturday, close at 10 or 11 pm, tear down rides (about four hours), drive them to the next spot (typically about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours), then set them all back up (about 7 hours). By the time all is said and done, it’s usually about a 20- to 24-hour shift of hard physical labor, depending on how smoothly things go.

They Often Feel Judged By ‘Townies’

From Redditor /u/Senbo:

Most of the stereotypes stem form “back in the day” carnivals – when fugitives… and all-around seedy people could only find work on a carnival. Even today this is still pretty prevalent on the smaller shows. So this is a fair one to assume. But the carnival I work for… has spent a long time building their image up to try to distance themselves from the stigma. No rigged games, daily ride inspections, and regular and random drug testing and background checks go a long way [toward] cleaning up the carnie image.

A major stereotype I hate is that we are all crooks and criminals. Most carnies are just people with nowhere else to go – usually no family to speak of [or] skills to get them a career. For me it’s more of a family tradition, and I also can’t stand staying in one place to long. So usually we don’t tell townies that we are carnies because they immediately judge us for it.

Late Nights Are Common

From Redditor /u/wobblywalker:

Carnivals/fairs are a lot of hard work. I never worked the rides, but my parents had several concession stands when I was growing up and we’d spend every summer moving from fair to fair, working your [butt] off, tearing down, driving for hours, setting up, and doing it all over again.

I remember a lot of late nights when my mom would come home to our trailer late after the fairgrounds had closed. She cleaned and closed up the pie stand, only to stay up into the wee hours counting money and balancing all of the cash registers’ records, snatch a couple hours sleep, and get up early enough to set everything up and restock before the fair opened the next morning.

My parents sold the business when I was still young and I hated them for it because to a young kid it was so much fun! But it was getting harder and harder to make money, with each fairground becoming more of a bureaucratic morass every year. Combined with the fact that fair season didn’t line up well with my school’s almost year-round schedule, they thought it best to quit the business.

It was a really good business for a long time though. My dad built his own candy apple stand when he was in college and stayed in the business for over 30 years. He said you could make enough money each summer to last the year and a lot of his old carnie friends travel all over the world when they aren’t working fairs. We have a lot of interesting family friends from the fair business.

Some Carnies Get To Meet Cool Bands

From Redditor /u/randycarl67:

I did grounds crew and stage setup for county fairs for a summer after high school. Very long hours – up to 20 a day for five to seven days straight. Go to work at 6 am; go to bed at 2 am the next day.

Lots of hard work, but I got to meet some great people – especially the bands we set up for.

The Carnie Life Is A ‘Frat House On Wheels’

From Redditor /u/sublimefan42:

I’ve traveled and worked on four or five shows of various sizes, mainly in the Midwest and Northeast. The life is really like a frat house on wheels: rampant [use of illicit substances] abounds.

The party moves from town to town weekly, of course. The midsummer small spots were nice because the hours were short, but the end of the season and the state fairs are where the big money’s at. I worked the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul last year and was averaging over $30 per hour – cash, no taxes – which was phenomenal. I got into the life through family, and though I’m in college now I will likely go out again next season.

It’s Not A Romantic Life

From a former Redditor:

I worked at a traveling carnival for a little under a year after high school. It was low-paying and hard work. Ninety percent of the employees couldn’t really get jobs elsewhere for various reasons.

Imagine a trailer park that moves, but remove all the good honest people who can’t catch a break; that’s the best summation of the carnival I worked at. The romanticism and brotherhood that a lot of books and movies try to evoke didn’t really exist.

Carnies Have Each Other’s Backs

From Redditor /u/lbj18:

I worked on a circuit that had four units. It was great pay if you worked game – hell, if it was a good fair you could make $10,000 in a month. But you still got paid great for what you did. And if you get lucky… you will get tax-free pay.

Brotherhood exists; we look out for each other [whether] we are competing or not… [I]f we did not have each other’s backs we would not be able to tolerate it at all. And my lead had no issue abandoning a thief. We were all honest workers and did not slack off. If you are a former carnie and get kicked off for any reason besides theft, we pull money in and get them a bus ticket home…

Some Carnies Sleep In Pup Tents

From a former Redditor:

When I think of carnies I think of the people who dismantle, assemble, and run the rides and games. I worked in a building that was downtown. There was a huge street fair every year in the summer when most of downtown was closed. The place I worked owned the parking lot where the carnival was. We would change trash bags in the carnival throughout the operating hours, then clean the lot at the end of the night.

There was one camper that traveled with the group. It was for whoever was in charge. The rest of the crew would sleep in truck cabs (not semis), on the ground/parking lot inside the closed-up game structures, and pup tents – lots of pup tents. They would cram in there like clowns on a car. Over the years you would talk to them (most weren’t friendly to outsiders) and learn things about the life. They would get paid for the previous carnival at the next one, I guess to discourage quitting.

They paid for all their own food and I believe fuel for the vehicles that transported everything. They basically made enough to survive but not escape the life. At night after the cops had kicked everyone out of the carnival and we were wrapping up… [t]hey would [take] garbage can liners out of the cans during the night and dump weird sh*t that weighed a ton in the cans.

I would describe most as being on the fringes of society,  and many had an Ottis Toole vibe and look. One guy I talked to… said he had no home and when the season was over they would winter in Florida doing equipment maintenance.

It looked to me like a life just a notch above prison.

Setting Up And Taking Down The Rides Takes A Long Time

From Redditor /u/rg90184:

Hardest work was setup/tear down. We got paid extra and it took an entire day. We’d show up to the dispatch location bright and early at 4 am, get bused to the location for that week, and put together the rides. Easiest were things like the spinning penguins and the spin-out; hardest were the Ferris wheel and carousel.

Our boss was super chill and would take the setup/tear-down crew out to dinner at about our halfway point to decent places. (Think Hoss’s or Perkins.)

Most of the other workers were high school/college kids…

The money wasn’t bad: $7 an hour for normal shifts back when minimum wage in Pennsylvania was $5.85. Setup/tear-down pay was $10 an hour.

The Games Aren’t Always Rigged

From Redditor /u/pacotes:

I used to work as a carnie. Nothing was explicitly “rigged” in the way you would think, but nothing really worked properly… That’s attributable to incompetence instead of malice. Also, even if you were to “win” every other time, the house is still making a huge profit on the prizes.

The rides were decidedly unsafe as well, and their operators were usually untrained, and regularly would [indulge in illicit substances]. After working on setup with some of the most incompetent human beings I ever had the displeasure of working with, I can safely say I’ll never be going to such a funfair again.

Some Carnies Have Their Own Codes

From Redditor /u/pi_master_:

I used to travel with a carnival from 1992 to 1995. I worked the game where the rat would come out of a cup and pick a color. A lot of people liked it and we made a lot of money from the bets.

For the most part it was random because of the rat being spun, and his space training from the night before, but there is a code… to tell the rat where to go. The code was a series of coughs, sneezes, claps, snaps, and spitting dip. The code is fairly simple but I have already said too much.

The Experience Can Be Educational

From Redditor /u/ Dawnydiesel:

From age 12 to 21 years I traveled every summer to state fairs and car shows. The first two years I babysat for the couple I worked for. The third year I worked in a T-shirt booth. After that I managed my own T-shirt booth. The male half of the couple I worked for did airbrush T-shirts and original screen-print designs for the specific fairs/shows…

It was hands down the coolest and most educational part of my childhood: the different people I met, the things I saw, things I did, bartering goods, the massive amount of drinking, learning to keep myself safe, etc.

I watched rides being put together. To this day, my children are not allowed to ride carnival rides. I’m sure there are different regulations now, but 20 years ago they were pretty lax. (I’m 41 now.) I’ve seen teenagers from different towns run away with the carnival for that freedom…

I tripped a Beach Boy, ate fried chicken with Tesla and Firehouse, joked with MC Hammer.

Her Managers Held A Mass At The Start Of The Season

From Redditor /u/unicorns-are-jerks:

I worked for a carnival for three summers in high school. [I] usually did three different fairs, traveling and staying with a friend (her family owned it). I made corn dogs and was later “promoted” to ticket box, because I was good at math, apparently.

As a teenage girl, I met a lot of [unsavory people]. People will say ridiculous things to you when you’re sitting alone in a locked metal box.

The nice part about it, though, [is] I never had to worry about creeps taking action. Carnies watch out for each other, and news travels very quickly. They’re a good bunch of people, honest and usually just looking for a second chance.

Our carnival did weekly tests [for illicit substances], regular haircuts, uniform inspections, and site checks throughout each show. They even held a Catholic Mass at the start of the season to bless the rides and pray for the staff. Management did a great job keeping people motivated and cared for.

Some Get To Take Field Trips On Their Days Off

From Redditor /u/Skirvotle:

We open at 11 am and close at 12 am during opening. During setup and tear-down its about 14 to 15 hours a day with the guys who run the bigger rides such as coasters or the Ferris wheel sometimes working all night if we have a short jump to the next spot.

Our show is much more understanding: we get two days off a week, eight weeks in the winter. And they even provide field trips on our days off so we don’t get too rowdy.

(COVER PHOTO CREDIT: Lesley’s Girls Vintage)

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