Carnivals — They’re not for the average family anymore.

IB Publisher Jody Glynn Patrick blends work and life in this very clear departure from both her column for In Business magazine, and the other bloggers. Awarded national recognition for her previous work as a newspaper columnist, she brings us all back "Closer to Home" with her insights and remembrances. A nice place to be "After Hours." Check back often! Read Full Bio

Cost of a funnel cake (no topping at all) and small lemonade: $8. Cost of a “Ride Any Ride All Day” wristband: $20. Exclusion: bumper cars. The bumper cars had been included in the $18 dollar wristband last year at Brat Fest, so that was a shock when we tried to get my grandson a seat in a car and were told gruffly “not without three more tickets” by the grouchy man running the ride.

We had two grandchildren (and the two parents required to ride along with them) waiting to get on that ride, so the price of 12 additional tickets per ride (above the $80 already spent on four wristbands) was the final straw.

My four-year old grandson started to cry when we pulled him off the bumper car ramp. There was no one behind us or ahead of us, and no one riding the cars. Instead, there was a bunch of whiny, confused kids in the area, surrounded by ticked-off adults. So this ticked-off adult confronted the carnival employee, and when I did, a nearby mom also jumped in to add her two cents to her already large investment, too. And others came within earshot, so we had the making of a “change of policy” request in the works, and he knew it. Public opinion was squarely on our side.

Both the other mom and I were nice about it, but insistent — we had been told the bracelets were good for any and all rides, and our little kids and grandkids were going to ride those rides with the bracelets — period.

Before I go any further with the story, let me add that BratFest is a great event — one of my favorites — but it, like the Dane County Fair and other events, is less and less accessible to recession-weary families because of the nickel and diming practices of today’s carnivals. Rides take 2-3 tickets apiece today, and wristbands — which used to be the better value — are less and less valuable as more and more rides are “excluded.”

“How many kids have ridden your ride today?” I asked the gentleman tasked with sitting by the amusement. He didn’t even have to pull a lever or push a button, seemingly, because no one was allowed beyond the gate without going back to buy more tickets. Since most parents were either offended or tapped out, not even one child climbed in one car the entire hour I monitored it.

“What do you mean, lady?” he asked warily.

“I mean it appears that no one is riding your ride at all today,” I said politely (really, I did not yell or make a scene). “I was told that the wristband covered all rides. Since that isn’t the case, I think this qualifies as a bait-and-switch situation, which is illegal, and so I’d like to talk to the manager now, please.”

He was only too happy to refer the matter to his boss. She informed me that the ticket seller had missed that day’s carny meeting — and he also came to work late and so he missed the message that they decided to charge extra for the bumper car ride that day. So he didn’t know to tell customers buying wristbands that news — that the wristbands did not include all rides.

I explained to her that her employee absenteeism problem was really not my problem, as a consumer. My problem was that my grandson couldn’t stop talking about the bumper cars before we arrived, because it’s his favorite ride. Now he was crying — that was my most pressing problem and concern — because he’s only a little boy and he doesn’t understand that his Nana isn’t going to pay more, on principal alone, due to this being a clear bait-and-switch situation.

Yes, I said “bait and switch” more than once. That phrase gets attention from carnival managers and from some city attorneys who don’t want carnivals in their towns. It’s the “abracadabra phrase” — and sure enough, suddenly the ride was magically opened to wristband wearers “for today only” and — bonus! — the other mad lady and I were both treated to four “free ride” tickets for another “excluded” ride — the “put on a harness with bungee cords and jump around atop an inflated mattress” ride.

I’ve never received hush money before, but I was happy to take those tickets from her, since that jumping thingy is my little grandson’s second favorite carnival attraction.

So, being paid off, why am I not hushing up about the carnival?

I’ll tell you why I’m speaking out now — because this sudden display of generosity didn’t deter my interest in other procedural changes that I noticed were put into place this year, too. I noticed, for example, that the height requirement for most rides was definitely taller this year than for past years and guess what? If a kid wanted to ride a little ride — a kiddy ride, actually, by anyone’s standards — many were disappointed to learn they were “too short.” My three-year old granddaughter (who actually is quite tall for her age) kept running into that problem. She could, however, ride every one of those rides with a parent — that is, a parent who must also have the appropriate number of tickets or a wristband to ride with their child.

I found it peculiar that my granddaughter was tall enough to ride a ride alone the first time she stood at one particular amusement entrance gate, but was “too short” the second time she wanted to do it, requiring that second time that her mother accompany her. Since my son has two children, two adults also needed wristbands if we wanted to get through the carnival with minimal arguing with the gatekeepers. (For those of you keeping count, that’s why we spent $80 in the first place on bands).

More than the money, this dickering over height for every single ride is time wasted — with a kid getting more and more anxious, thinking that maybe they can’t really ride anything at all. It was one hassle after another. Really made the day fun (Not!).

My little grandson eventually wanted to do the jumping thing, since he really enjoyed putting on the harness and bouncing high into the air last year. I was told that he just made the newly imposed weight limit by an ounce or so, but “I’ll do you a favor and let him ride,” the ride man said, winking.

“How’s that, since he was allowed to jump on this same ride last year, when he weighed far less?” I asked. “I’m finding all of these new restrictions quite peculiar, to say the least.”

“Hey, my scales are 10 pounds over, and they say he’s 40 pounds, so he’s probably closer to 30,” the man replied.

The child is neither 30 nor 40 pounds, and regardless of his weight, why set a scale 10 pounds higher? The entire thing is just crazy: If he is tall enough, he doesn’t weight enough. If he weighs enough, he isn’t tall enough. Unless, of course, someone else pays for more tickets or bands, and then all is just hunky dory. But he did just fine, whatever the heck his weight. We then gave one of the free tickets to an adult friend who happened by and who said he, too, wanted to jump, but guess what? He didn’t have on a wristband, so he couldn’t jump with our ticket.

That’s okay. Meanwhile, my grandson’s mother was getting on another ride with him when the gatekeeper noticed that she had the required stamp on her right hand, with the wrist band on her left arm. “They have to be on the same arm,” he told her. “You have to go back to the ticket counter and have him fix it.”

“I have the required stamp and the bracelet. Why do I have to go back?” she challenged.

“Because having both on the same arm makes it easier for us to see both at once,” she was told. “You can’t ride until you get that fixed.”

My little family of four riders were actually the only riders wanting to ride the teeny, tiny roller coaster. There was no crowd waiting to be processed; only them. But it was too much to expect his eyes to have to travel from one (sleeveless) arm to the other (sleeveless) arm — to get her on the ride without a hassle — so we hiked back to the ticket counter in the heat with two little kids in tow. There, the “late” ticket guy suggested, after ripping the paper bracelet off, that she somehow put it on the “right arm” now with scotch tape. However, he couldn’t find any tape, so he was perplexed.

“Why don’t you just keep that one and give her a new one?” I asked the yahoo. “It’s just a paper armband, not a gold chain.”

“Oh yeah, okay,” he replied.

I was miffed enough with the mindless delay to think (but not say aloud) a snotty “Duh!” But now I’d like to say it aloud: DUH!

I now hate carnivals and the prospect of taking kids back to them. I’m not too enamored with the people hired to bring you such a great family experience, either. And, based on the startling lack of riders for those kiddie rides this year, I’m guessing events like Brat Fest may want to rethink having carnivals in the future, as families may actually avoid an event that offers amusements they can’t afford to put their kids on.

The Shrine Circus was no better this year, by the way.

It was constant hawking this year, direct to little kids. “Buy this, buy that.” It never stopped.

“Kids, we have enough elephants and enough time after the show to make sure every single one of you gets an elephant ride, so bring your parents down after the show and get your ride!” This was repeated over and over on the loudspeaker. Yes … but those rides weren’t free, so what did the child think whose parent said “no” because they couldn’t afford that ticket? We could hardly watch the show for the people selling light sticks ($10 and $15 each) walking constantly in front of us. “Kids, get your light sticks now! We have plenty for everyone!” the circus announcer boomed. I felt really sorry for parents who had to explain to their kids why they were the only ones in the row without one. I certainly felt pressured into buying two, and I resented it.

My son and I, who took the children together, agreed that we don’t want to go back next year just because of that. The “buy this, buy that” is overwhelming.

But back to the carnival.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Those rides that sat for long stretches of time without any riders at all (and my grandkids were the only riders on many rides that day)…. I’m assuming there must be a total revenue goal for each carnival for each night. If rides were $1 each instead of $3 each (or $6 each, counting the additional hostage parent ticket), they’d likely be full every round and lots of kids would be laughing and having the time of their lives — and at the end of the night, lots more money would have been spent (less money per family, but more people would be able to afford it) and it could have been a win-win instead of a lose-lose venture. There is opportunity here to corner this market with the public, if only a carnival manager would look around and do the real math.

But it isn’t happening — this isn’t the first carnival we’ve been to lately, though it may be the last — and I think that the proverbial farmer is again guilty of killing his proverbial golden goose — the carnival managers are closing off access to affordable family fun and America is losing yet another historic family tradition.

This is making me sick and tired. And that’s about all I have to say about it, except that the carnival was really a special summer treat once upon a time, but watching my little grandson’s eyes tear up or dart nervously from adult to another as we negotiated our way through this last one, well … it isn’t the same at all anymore. And that’s a real pity.

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