Doni’s Cautionary Tale: Beware of the Carnival

I trace my dislike of carnivals and fairs to a terrifying childhood experience on the Zipper at the Shasta District Fair. As the Zipper flipped, spun and plunged, my skinny twin began to slip beneath our lap bar. Soon, she would be free-falling inside this machine of death.

I knew the Zipper would kill us both, and that’s how I screamed, convincingly enough that my mother — in one of her finest maternal moments — recognized the degree of  her children’s distress and successfully demanded the man stop the ride.

The Zipper was my last carnival-type ride experience, aside from merry-go-rounds and Disneyland rides, which don’t count.

For many years, a carnival has occupied east Redding during north-state schools’ spring break – rain or shine. It’s strategically erected at the south-east corner of the Mt. Shasta Mall parking lot. You can’t miss it, which is the point. When my three children were young, I would actually avoid driving that route the entire week, just so the kids wouldn’t see it.

I thought my carnival-avoidance days were behind me when my kids grew up and moved away.

Last week my daughter-in-law told a sad story of how she and my son tried to take the kids – ages 5 and almost 3 – to that parking-lot carnival, but my little granddaughter was too short for any of the rides, so they left.

They mitigated the children’s disappointment by taking them to Chuck E. Cheese instead (a place I like as much as carnivals). Even so, my daughter-in-law said Austin was still fixated on and talking about the missed carnival. And, well, she was wondering … no promises … but maybe Noni would take Austin, since I was going to keep him overnight Wednesday anyway?

The first thing that struck me at the carnival was the price of tickets: $1.25 each; 20 tickets for $24 (a whopping 5-cent-per-ticket savings), or an unlimited-rides wristband for $25 – for one person.

Twenty-five dollars per person? Are you kidding? Do I look stupid?

The second thing that struck me – shocked me, really – was how many families with multiple kids were buying up the wristbands without batting an eye.

I purchased the 20-tickets-for-$24 packet, an abundant quantity. I imagined that if we had any left over, we’d donate them to some family on the way out. This wouldn’t take long. Austin’s only 5, and I’d go on some rides with him. It would all be over soon.

Turns out most rides required between three and four tickets each.

Yes, apparently I am that stupid.

Our first ride was the carousel. I thought about riding the horse beside him, but wondered about its weight limit. I imagined in vivid, bloody detail the crashing-carousel-horse scenario, followed by calls for an ambulance and a maybe a lawsuit where Brass Ring Amusements Midway of Fun would eventually own my home. I’d spend my twilight years crippled, working in its ticket booth.

I decided it best to just stand near Austin as the horse beside us methodically molested my hip to tinny music as Austin grasped the brass pole impaled through his horse’s body.

Austin grinned the whole time, but kept looking up, which made me follow his gaze. We watched blackened, shiny machinery groan and rotate overhead. Even so, Austin seemed pleased with his grimy, faded steed.

I cursed myself for leaving the hand-sanitizer in the car.
austin on ferris wheelAustin next wanted to ride the green-and-purple dragon train. It looked harmless enough. A bunch of kids were already seated inside the dragon’s many spinal cars, waiting for the beast to get moving. I started to board with Austin, but the ride operator stopped me and said it was just for kids, no adults.

I told Austin we’d find a different ride. He begged. Please, Noni. I can do it.austin on ride without noniI agreed, but hated it with all my heart. I got Austin buckled in snugly, after I’d looked to the ride operator for help and he’d put his hands in the air  — as if under arrest  — and said, “Hey, I don’t buckle kids in! I’d get in trouble!”

Megan’s Law came to mind.

Away went the dragon; a lilting mini roller coaster, around and around its track adjacent to Hilltop Drive. A bigger kid in a nearby dragon car kept yelling at the operator, urging him to go faster, which I was sure was impossible, but it didn’t make me despise that kid any less for asking. The dragon was already going plenty fast.

As the wild-eyed dragon sped around the track, Austin seemed so small; so far away from the safety of his Noni’s arms. I intently watched his face for signs of angst, but his smile remained intact. To me, the dragon ride lasted about an hour. The entire time I stayed pressed against the railing, catching Austin’s eye and waving wildly.

I was prepared to make a scene if I had to stop that dragon in its tracks, ala my departed mother, Claudia Jo Chamberlain.

A circle of motorcycles was the next stop. In retrospect I blew it by putting Austin on what would have been the back of a driverless bike. In my defense, somehow, the back seat seemed safer. But after the ride began I felt badly for Austin when I realized my mistake. The more savvy children who sat at the front of their vehicles were in full pretend-control of their motorcycles. They vrroomed around the track, small hands on their plastic throttles and metal handlebars.

Thankfully, Austin didn’t seem to notice the difference.

Next came a gentle kiddie locomotive. Austin shared his car with a little girl who appeared oblivious of her passenger. The ride traveled about 2 miles an hour, which was perfect.

austin on dragon rideAt last we found another ride where I could join him; huge egg-shaped creatures that had a shaded bench seat inside, all wrapped up safely, with a big turning wheel in the middle to make it go faster.

I needed to buy more tickets at this point, which was making the $25-wristband look like a bargain, but it was too late for that now.

I didn’t take my own photo of the Dizzy Dragon because it was impossible to hang on and snap a picture at the same time. Austin loved being the master of the wheel as we lurched back and forth, side to side, around and around. I was starting to feel nauseous.

dizzy dragon

The aptly named Dizzy Dragon. Photo by Amusements of America.

Thank God, that was pretty much the end of rides fit for a 5-year-old. I checked the time. We’d been there all of about 20 minutes; 10 minutes longer than I would have considered ideal.

I reminded Austin of our picnic we’d packed earlier, which he agreed was a good idea. (Noni Doni tip: Have a follow-up event planned as a carrot to entice the child away from a place you’re so done with.) 

We’d nearly escaped the Midway of Fun when a carnie woman at the goldfish booth yelled out to Austin as we walked by.

“Hey, kid, look at your shirt! It says you play to win!”

I did a double take at Austin. She was right. Apparently he’d arrived at my house wearing that shirt. His mother, bless her heart. She thinks of everything.


The goldfish carnie lady asked Austin if he wanted to win a prize with a ping-pong throw. It’s lots of fun! You can do it!

Second to the rule about carnies not buckling children into rides, should be a rule that they don’t speak to kids. Just adults.

Austin said yes. YES, he wanted to have fun and win!

Five bucks later Austin had a basket of ping pong balls in front of him, a basket that sat upon a mammoth ice chest. That ice chest should have been a clue, if I weren’t recovering from the effects of the Dizzy Dragon. 
austin winning his fish
One throw after another Austin miraculously thankfully missed getting any balls into that sea of green bowls filled with anguished-looking goldfish. Until the second to the last ball. He got one. And on his last ball, he got another.

I was just glad it was over, and was all, “Hey, that was fun. Let’s go on our picnic!”

Not so fast. The goldfish-booth carnie lady whipped into action. She opened the ice chest. Lo and behold it contained water, and about 5,000 goldfish prisoners. She deftly netted two fish – neither of which was the classic goldfish gold, btw. She scooped up a baby silver fish, just for good measure.

I said no thanks.

Austin, my first-born grandchild whose shirt said it all, looked at me in disbelief. He said he’d won the fish. They were his.

He plays to win.

Five more bucks later the carnie woman sold me a little plastic fish holder that I pretty much had to buy. It was an offer nobody would refuse.

 I guess I could give you the fish in a plastic bag, but you know, they might not do well in the car, you know, water all over and so on and so forth … 

I’ve seen those same carriers at the Dollar Tree labeled as insect-catchers.


Austin was excited, and relieved, too. He said that finally, I’d have a pet of my own. I wasn’t surprised by this comment. Austin often asks me if I’m not lonely living by myself, without even a pet (to clean up after and feed and board when I’m away). I always tell him I’m happy living alone. Really I am.

He never believes me.

Actually, I was thinking the Midway of Fun fish would go home with him, since his family has plenty of space, perfect for herds of goldfish. Besides, I knew they had a fish tank. Austin corrected me and said no, the fish tank now holds hermit crabs, a gift from his Grammy Paula.

I took action and texted my son and daughter-in-law the photo of their irresistible son and his prize-winning fish. austin holds fish at carnivalMy son texted a reply: That’s cool he won you a new fish. You know what goes great with fish? Hermit crabs.

I will remember this.

My daughter-in-law texted her reply: Lol, thanks so much for taking him. I felt horrible we hadn’t been able to take him. 

I imagined my son and daughter-in-law kicking back in patio chairs, laughing, doing high-fives and clinking beer glasses.

… One’s born every minute. 

Before our picnic Austin and I stopped by PetSmart across the street from the parking-lot carnival. As we approached the store a beat-up van pulled up nearby. A man emerged with a boy about Austin’s age, and a woman with a blanket-wrapped infant pressed against her chest. The little boy held a plastic container with water sloshing inside, identical to Austin’s.

The man smiled and nodded knowingly to Austin’s Midway of Fun fish.

Location, location, location, you smartie PetSmart store!

I asked a serious-looking young salesman for the minimum supplies necessary to keep a goldfish – make that three – alive.

He inhaled deeply, and exhaled his expert reply. I glazed over and saw my life flash before me as he talked about goldfish potential to get more than a foot long, and how they they need at least two gallons of water per fish, and then there’s the whole business about tanks, lights, oxygen and risks of toxic water, a “waste” byproduct.

When I said I wasn’t interested in buying the professional setup with the store’s recommended hoses, pumps, plants, etc., he looked at me as if I were an animal-hater. He said in that case, I’d need to change the water daily. His tone sounded more like a threat than advice.

OK, fine.

Meanwhile, Austin was eyeing with increasing interest the elaborate, colorful fish-tank decor, things like pirate ships and volcanoes and buried treasure, little made-in-China sculptures in the $30-to-$60 range you could fit in a lunch sack.

I stayed strong in the face of pet store temptation. I spent 10 bucks on fish food and some mandatory chemical drops for the water, since the PetSmart guy said Redding’s chlorinated water would kill the fish.

Good to know.

Once home, I poured the fish into a big glass jar that once entertained dreams of holding cookies.

Austin got busy writing the fish a note, which he taped onto the jar’s side. It featured his question, and the fishes’ answer, which he swore they told him.austin taping fish note

Q: What do you like to do?
A: We like to play with are (sic) cousin jellyfish. 

austin note on fish bowlHe named the fish Dumbo (because he’s gray), Tigger (because he’s orange and black) and Norm (because he’s white, like the polar bear on Norm of the North).

With the fish securely housed, fed and swimming in their new home, Austin and I finally went on our picnic at that little park near the river near the Sundial Bridge and amphitheater on the way to the rodeo grounds. It’s one of my favorite places.austin by the river

We walked to the riverbank, and Austin asked if we found any frogs, if we could take them home. I said sorry, but I already had the responsibility of three new pets now.

We left after 4. Apparently, that was exactly when about 3,000 vehicles departed Bethel’s School of Supernatural Ministry at the Civic Auditorium. It took me 15 minutes to navigate what should have been less than a 5-minute drive  from Auditorium Drive to my Garden Tract neighborhood.

Austin went home the next day without the fish. He seemed fine with that. In fact, he’s already dreaming of and drawing pictures of new, future pets.

austin at 5 dreaming new pets

Meanwhile, my sister says she might make a koi pond in her backyard this summer, and if I can keep the fish alive long enough, they are welcome to go there.

And Cinderella can go to the ball if she can get ready and find an outfit in 45 minutes.

Until then, I’ve got the super-pooper trio of Dumbo, Tigger and Norm counting on me. And Austin’s counting on me to keep my new housemates alive. 
austin gold fish sign from the other side

And speaking of counting, I’ve done the math:

Carnival ride tickets: $29
Goldfish game: $5
Plastic goldfish house: $5
Fish food and water purifying drops: $10
Lessons learned: Priceless

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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60 Responses

  1. Avatar tom says:

    You are such a good Noni.

  2. Avatar david kerr says:

    That kind of extravagance was out of the question when I was a child born in the 1940s.  My parents were raised in the Depression and expected it to return.  The Catholic church taught that self denial is good for the character and enables one to participate in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  Giving up things for lent was much discussed.

    We stopped asking because we knew the answer would be no.  A glass of soda was something you got at the grandparents.  Pizza once a year on vacation.  That’s how to raise a boy to deliver the Free Press route in the snow.

    My best friend in high school’s glasses were broken.  For all of 9th grade, the black glasses were held together by white adhesive tape.  One teacher used to tease him.  My friend recently died, after becoming a professor of Medicine at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

    Today’s children are raised with a sense of entitlement and self indulgence which will not serve them well.

  3. Avatar Cathy says:

    What a great day for Austin, full of happy memories! Good job!

  4. Avatar Doug Mudford says:

    I uttered my first swear words as a 9 year old rider of the “Bullit”, a carnival ride later discontinued because of a disturbing tendency to fly from it’s mounts. With a string of profanities that made the barker blush, I tried to stop the ride. The carnival and I permanently separated.

  5. Avatar Darcie says:

    Oh, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with Austin.   I was laughing so hard tears were rolling down my cheeks.   This was a ‘classic Doni’  tale – it’s been too long!

  6. Avatar DougM says:

    David: Boo hoo. Get over your sad self and give the next generation what we wanted.

    “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematicks and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, musick, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelaine.” John Adams, Letter to Abigail Adams, May 12, 1780.

  7. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    All it takes to develop a life-long aversion to traveling county fair/shopping mall carnivals is having a brief conversation with a carny.  If you’re going to trust those tweakers with safely rigging the rides, you might as well trust them to do your dental work, too.

  8. Avatar Ginny says:

    Yes, in my day, as a Catholic (which I am) or not, we didn’t have the money to do some things for just pleasure.  Yet, we survived.   Once in a while, it doesn’t hurt to have fun!!!  Life can’t be all black for heavens sake, today!

    Cute story, Doni.  Enjoyed your trip as a Noni!



  9. Avatar Claudia Hastings says:

    LOL…avoiding driving by the carnival is something I can really relate to.

    I didn’t take my granddaughter this year, but perhaps next year.  Thanks

    for the “lessons learned”.

  10. I still remember how helpless I felt when  Annie, age nine,  spent several long minutes trapped inside one of those horrid rides that closes up and spins around in the dark.  And my kids still tease me about spending $20 to win a stupid 99 cent SpongeBob toy for Max, because the Carnie kept goading me….

    The grandparent gig is all about over-indulgence and enjoying every moment for the wonderful, crazy gift that it is.  I think we’ll skip the carnival.

  11. Avatar Eleanor says:

    Oh, Doni – what a wonderful Noni you are.   I’m sure Austin will always remember this day (and so will you…….)

    I love ‘Doni’s cautionary tales’ – so amazingly written, even without the photos I could picture it.

    (and BIG thanks for the warning – I have two little grandchildren who would go through that $$ so fast)

    Good wishes to the fishes.

    • Thanks, Eleanor.

      By the way, about the fish … the smallest one — Norm — didn’t make it. Austin helped me bury it under a blueberry bush, after saying a few words about what a good fish he was.

      Then Austin said he’s changing Dumbo’s name to Norm, which means Norm is still alive.

      Don’t ask me what that means for Dumbo.



  12. Avatar Sue Tavalero says:

    Thank you so much for that story! I also avoided the whole mall area when my kids were young. Felt I needed hand sanitizer at the fair, walked far, far away from the gold fish guys, had panic attacks while my kids were riding the strawberry ride, and so on.  I am going to get a little grand baby this summer! Your whole story just made me smile!! I think I saw my future …. ?

  13. Avatar Ralph Boggs says:

    What a wonderful story, Doni! I sure miss your newspaper column. Thanks for the day brightener!

  14. Avatar Janis Hill says:

    Oh yes, I can totally relate to your tale. When my children were young I would also drive alternate routes to avoid that corner. Thank God my now grown children hold the same regard for fly-by-night carnivals and do the same detours. I love to take my Grandchildren for outings and I use a tried and true way to keep control, when ever they ask for something extra, just a simple reminder of…did you bring your money? Works wonders. Since they get an allowance for household chores they have the freedom to buy what they wanted and to also learn a great lesson on how valuable money is. As for the cranky fellow who feels we over indulge our children…please get a life, the glass is really half full and thank God any of us have a nice glass to drink from.  And again Doni Thanks for the tickets!

  15. But since you wrote about it, photos and all, it’s a tax deduction. 🙂


  16. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    My uncle was a peace officer in our small town, and one year when a carnival came to town, he escorted us five cousins to it.  He was in uniform, and one of the barkers gave each of us a baby duck.  Not quite each of us.  I was at another booth when the others got their ducks; so I said to Uncle Terrell, “I didn’t get a duck.”  Uncle was a very shy man and hated to ask the barker for another duck and offered to pay for one.  The barker wouldn’t take his money, and I got my duck.  Most of them died early on, but my oldest cousin’s lived a long time.  Cousin named the duck Morton because he was so downy.  How many of you are old enough to get that joke?

    • What a sweet uncle you had.

      But I don’t get the Morton joke. (Salt was the only think I came up with, but that has nothing to do with being downy.)

      • Avatar EasternCounty says:

        Morton Downey was a talk show host back in the ’40’s and ’50’s.  I didn’t know of him then, but my cousin who named his duck Morton was eight years my senior.

  17. Avatar KarenC says:

    You are  making wonderful memories Doni.

    We used to fly our first born grandson to Redding each year to spend a week with us in the summer.  He is 28 now and still has memories of those wonderful trips.  Yes, we spoiled him but while here, he also learned to do a few chores, which he happily did.  Because of those  trips, he moved to Redding when he  was 23 years old and lived with us for 6 months until he got established.  He is still here, but sad to say not doing the best due to a poor choice falling in love with the wrong person.  He still has his memories, though and I know he treasures those times.

    They grow up too fast, and we grow old right along with them.  Make the most of your years with your grandkids.  We are down to our last two who still want to come and spend time with us in the summer.  But not for long, one is almost ready to get his license and things change dramatically after that.

    • Being a parent means we understand how quickly the children grow, which may be why grandparenting feels so different. We know how precious and fleeting these times are.

      It would break my heart if my grandchildren one day didn’t want to be with me. The moral of your story, as I see it, is don’t let the kids learn to drive.

      Kidding. Sort of.

  18. Avatar Jennifer Arnold says:

    I love this article, and I am sitting here giggling to myself because I have also  been avoiding the carnival car route for the past few years for many of the same reasons 🙂

  19. Valerie Ing Valerie Ing says:

    Ha! Loved this. I’ll have to email you a photo of the glorious pescetorium that has evolved in our kitchen since the day Sophia came home from the fair with….you guessed it…3 goldfish, not all of them gold!

  20. Avatar david kerr says:

    Kids don’t need more stuff.  They need active, imaginative play.  Passive entertainment at a carnival is little better than TV.

  21. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    “The Wall of Death,” about a carnival ride, is one of my favorite Richard Thompson songs.

    Well you’re going nowhere when you ride on the carousel

    And maybe you’re strong, but what’s the good of ringing a bell?

    The switchback will make you crazy.  Beware of the bearded lady.


    Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death

    Here’s a nice version with Nancy Griffith:

  22. Frank Treadway Frank Treadway says:

    BTW,  for those living in the City of Redding and fall prey to the goldfish story, just let the city water sit for about 20 minutes and the chlorine is gone.  My Thai Fighter lived for over a year in chlorine-free water.  And beware of outdoor fish ponds, even guppies will become sushi for our neighborhood raccoons.  Wait until you get to buy a real car for the grandson, start saving now.

  23. Avatar Sally says:

    First, my daughter-in-law is a teacher and brought home a bowl of 2 goldfish – and to my surprise, they were also silver.  They have a Koi Pond, and as the fish grew too large for the bowl, they were added to the Koi Pond.  They turned orange and got HUGE.  Reference carnival rides, having grown up in Los Angeles, I was blessed to be able to partake the joy of Disneyland many times.  The one ride that would make me queasy and really meant for small children was the Tea Cups!  You went beyond the call of duty – that’s for sure!

  24. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Thank you for a great article.  There’s a Redding Urban Legend that the pond next to Shopko on Lake Blvd is filled with giant gold fish released by the carnies before each carnival left town.

    I think Austin will remember this adventure for the rest of his life.


  25. Avatar Daniel says:

    So love your story, my mother was like you but indoing so made me dive more and more into the industry.  I to once had a terrifying ride story but i over came it and i still ride them rides, just be smart watch, and learn the ride and operators make good decisions.  Disneyland is just as scary as a carnival trust me, id rather pay 40 bucks then the 100 just to go to disney.oh aslo i have worked for a carnival, carnies are just like you,me and your neighbor all they want is to give out smiles and memories . Also understand the cost to operate those carnivals are often way way way more then they get back from tickets and food.

  26. Avatar Carla says:

    Very fun to read!  Brought back many memories of similar experiences.

  27. Avatar Mark Calkins says:

    Doni when the girls were younger and wanted to go to the carnival Don would never take them. He was a parole agent and knew the place was staffed with local parolees to fill the staffing gaps.

    After two years that stopped asking and started saying we can’t go because Daddies weirdos work there.  Lol.

    Mark Calkins

    • I can totally picture that!

      It kind of reminds me of my sister-in-law, who told the kids – when they heard music that came from an ice cream truck – that it was a garbage truck. Kids grow up seeing things in special ways depending upon their parents’ unique perspectives. 🙂

  28. R.V. Scheide R.V. Scheide says:

    The Zipper did me in once too, got in with a friend who insisted on spinning the car fast as possible. Got so dizzy I couldn’t walk or sit. Didn’t go on Zipper again.

  29. Avatar Paul Edgren says:


    Too real.

    Reminds me of my childhood growing up in Venice, CA. Many Sundays my sister and I would go to Santa Monica Pier; yes the carnie’s were there too. Just throw the wood ring around the square post and win a watch. Three rings for my 10 cents allowance. You know the answer … no watch. I tried it on several Sundays. Learned early … give the dime to March of Dimes!

    • Oh, Paul, I can totally picture you as a little boy, throwing those rings. I’m glad the disappointment didn’t cause lasting damage.

      Thanks for sharing your memory. 🙂

  30. I absolutely loved this article! My first job at 14 was working at the fair in a food booth. I got to know the Carnies a little bit and they scared the crap out of me! Fast forward two years, I worked at a small hardware store near the fairgrounds. When the Carnies were setting up their rides they would come in to the store to find any way to get a broken ride to pass ‘inspection.’ I saw more scary things during that week then I have ever seen. Because of that I don’t go to carnivals anymore, and I don’t let my kids ride carnie rides. I tell my kids they can ride rides at amusement parks, not carnivals!  My kids know not to ask anymore, because I tell them, its because I want to be able to watch them grow up, not fall off of a faulty ride. It blows my mind how much people spend at those things!


    • Yikes! It’s a scary thought to consider a hardware store the go-to place for ride-repair parts.

      And I’m with you: My mind is blown by how much money people will spend at fairs and carnivals.

      Thanks, Kaarin, for commenting. 🙂

    • Avatar Leslie says:

      I was at a small carnival in North Carolina with my grandchildren.  We were waiting in a line for a kiddie ride and all of a sudden there was a crash and one of the carts fell off the ride and into the gate that was surrounding the ride.  No more rides that day and I no longer trust them either. (I don’t think the children in the ride were seriously injured). Scary.