Graveyard Shift
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Carnival Workers Describe What The Life Is Really Like

Updated April 26, 2021 47.8k views15 items

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 on-site. 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 I am a senior in college now... 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 an hour and a half), then set them all back up (about seven 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 too 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.