The Midway’s Hottest Games
How Carnivals Keep Guests Playing

The traveling entertainment is always striving to offer the most popular rides, concessions and games, but when it comes to games, it turns out carnival-goers are more interested in familiar, tried-and-true tests of skills on the midway as opposed to new creations.

Dart throws, water games, speed pitches, duck, frog and fish ponds and basketball tosses remain the most popular games on the traveling midway, and the most popular according to travel industry experts.

“I would say the old standards are the ones that are the most immensely popular,” said Brian Morrissey, general agent for Modern Midways based in Steer, Ill. “The games that people know they can play and have become familiar with over the years are the ones they want to see.”

So traveling carnival and fair operators do their best to update the classics and make them more flashy and modern without changing the format with which carnival goers are comfortable.

“The first generation of water games were popping balloons,” Morrissey said. “Now, they shoot at a water target and the water rises and moves something like in a race. It’s a lot faster, more interesting and a lot easier on us because we don’t have to replace balloons after every race.”

Houghton Enterprises in Cochranville, Pa., said classic games with modern updates are the way to go, too.

“The old standby works, but you have to upgrade them and make them look prettier with games such as water guns and basketballs,” said Owner Jim Houghton. “The prizes are upgraded with stuff better than we used to get, and the games just look more modern, more flashy. We keep trying different things, but it’s mostly taking old games and changing them and upgrading them to look better with different decors. People say, ‘Wow, that’s a new one.’ And it’s still the same cork gun game or ring toss game remodeled to look like a whole new game.”

Brent Fisher, owner of Pinnacle Amusements South in St. Petersburg. Fla., said old habits are hard to break.

“The old standbys are tried and true,” he said. “They seem to be most popular and people don’t want to deviate from them. Basketball, ring a bottle, break the plate, water games, that’s what people want.”

Fisher, along with other traveling carnival operators, said water games rule.

“People are not willing to gamble on something they are not familiar with, and games, especially group games like water games, are what people like. They like the competition and the fun of competing against 10 other people shooting at the same thing. That drives business. Water is always popular. Kids want to get wet or splash someone else.”

Miracle Amusements in Maineville, Ohio, also sticks with the classics, with some deviation.

One of its dart games, for example, awards throwers the poster they pin, and the posters are today’s hottest celebrities, from Justin Bieber to Green Day.

“The old standby works,” said Owner Eddie Miracle. “But you do what you can to keep them relevant.”

However, sometimes even the old standbys don’t resonate.

“We tried a few new things this year, like a take on the ring-a-bottle game where there were plastic horns on a platform, and if you threw a ring on the horns, you won them. It did OK, but the other classics made more money.”

Traveling entertainment industry experts said the games are only a small part of what draws people to play. The merchandise, they said, is the deciding factor, whether people will play a game or not.

“We try to keep up with the merchandise and come up with new and flashier items every year,” Morrissey said. “Plush is the old standby, but we have been giving away electronics such as iPods and things like that.”

Dana Peck, owner of Midway Rides in Utica, N.Y., said games are more merchandise-driven than ever.

“If you don’t have prizes that interest them, what’s hot, people won’t play the games,” Peck said. “They are only spending ‘X’ number of dollars, so if it’s a game they are not interested in or there aren’t prizes they like, they will not play. And if they do play, they will play one game, maybe once. It’s not like they are going around trying this game or that game. So if you offer prizes that no one else is offering, and your game is well presented, you can still make money. If you are putting out the same prizes all of the time and giving it no effort, you are not going to make money.”

Big, expensive prizes on the more difficult games can mean a large initial investment, but larger returns on the back end. Traveling carnivals and fairs offer everything from iPhones to laptops to the latest and greatest gaming systems.

“Kids stay at home and have all kinds of video games and so forth, so that’s what they want to win when they come to a carnival,” Morrissey said. “Plus, they are very skilled players. They are just better at games now than they used to be. So you have to account for that.”

Miracle said he believes prizes draw people in, but he shies away from expensive items.

“I don’t go into technology prizes; it’s just too costly,” he said. “For us, it’s about offering games that people used to play when they were a kid. It’s a nostalgic thing; it’s not so much about the prizes. Of course, when I bring my fair somewhere, I am the only one there. I don’t have competition.”

Houghton said he doesn’t offer technology prizes, but does offer large plush animals and 26-inch bicycles.

“We have such a nice variety that people are just drawn to them,” he said. “Bikes are about as expensive as we get.”

Plush, however, remains the number one item on the midway. But the rising cost of plush has made it difficult for the traveling industry.

“I am trying to keep the prices down and I want people to walk away with a prize every time,” Miracle said. “But the prices for plush have just gone up so much. It makes things difficult.”

Peck said licensed plush is expensive, but you have to be smart about buying it.

“Basically, you have to have a supplier that will work with you,” Peck said. “They will turn you onto closeouts and that kind of thing so that you can afford it. TV shows, movies, even closeouts with past year’s SpongeBob or whatever will work. It has to be recognizable over the last two or three years. You may not have the pink SpongeBob, but the yellow one still works. Most water games are asking for $3, which seems like a lot of money and it just dissuades people from playing more than once. But you have to have prizes that attract people.”

Houghton said his plush prices have skyrocketed.

“Everything from China has premiums and that is affecting all of the plush,” Houghton said. “But you have to have your midways full and looking like a carnival, so that means you have to stock your games so they are looking full and inviting. And the initial investment to cover that stock is expensive. I think it’s ridiculous to charge $4 for a game. If you’re in a tourist location, maybe you can get away with that. But when you are like us and going back to the same location year in and year out, it’s difficult. They remember that. We actually tried $3 for games and it just didn’t work.”

Morrissey said cost is not the only problem with carnival games.

“The market is so competitive between manufacturers of plush that is it has become very difficult to come up with new ideas to be different from everyone else,” he said. “They all seem to have the same stuff.”

Miracle said people are still intimidated by games, too.

“A lot of people are scared to throw a dart because they don’t think they can break a balloon,” Miracle said. “A big tough guy will say, ‘Ah, I can’t win that.’ I think it’s because some people have had bad experiences along the way at some carnivals, and they think they are getting ripped off.”

Peck said friendly operators can change that perception.

“The game is still an important factor drawing people to play, but it has to be fun,” Peck said. “And that means you have to have an operator with the right attitude. So often you get someone who thinks a hard sell is the only way to make a living. But the bad attitude goes with it. So you have to have a good attitude and make it fun. Play with them. Do what it takes to get them to your game.”

Fisher agreed: “The biggest challenge for any vendor who operates games is finding quality help. Finding reliable, trustworthy workers is the biggest issue everyone is having.”

Games, while still a revenue source for the traveling entertainment industry, just don’t pack the revenue punch like they used to in the past, despite some games costing as much as $5 to play.

“They just aren’t popular as much anymore, especially in today’s economy” Morrissey said. “Of all the different revenue centers we have, the games are probably down the most in gross. Food would be next, but rides are holding their own. The games have gone up in price to match the prizes, so that makes people more tentative to play, even if they are prizes they want. When people go to carnivals and fairs, they are definitely going to ride the rides and eat something hopefully, but what we find is that they are not always going to play a game. Games are more impulse items. But we see it all over. Instead of buying five funnel cakes – one for each member of the family – they are buying two or three and splitting them. And if they play games, they might play one. They don’t play them all night.”

“People are very selective when it comes to playing games,” Houghton added. “We are down to 15 to 18 games and we used to put out 25 to 30.”

One bright spot about midway games is that they still attract all ages.

“We make sure we have games for everyone,” Morrissey said. “We have games for kids, for teens and adults. But most of our kids’ games offer a prize every time they play. That’s what they want, and so do the parents.”

“You have to have something for everyone because you need to get everyone to spend money,” Miracle added. “But the tweeners, those from 8 to 14 years old, are the main demographic. They always seem to have a couple of bucks in their pocket.” –

You May Also Like…