A Fair To Remember

Daylight's coming quick, Chad says, looking off at the only skyline there is on the midway--the grounds' permanent stands, some higher-up's big trailer decked out with flowerpots and a flag, the cinder-block laundry house with its one light burning. "Seems like I earned myself a blue body doing this. Not from bruising, which I do get, and more, when I slip setting safety. I mean my whole body's a fading tattoo from all the places I've tried to remember in ink. Here's Nashville. Here's Montreal. Here, down my spine, there's a rattler I killed under my ride in west Texas." But you can't see the prints. It's dark yet, and he and the other men are already moving across the midway toward camp.

Rides of Passage
Fun on the Mighty Midway is fast, Cheap, and under control
by David Schimke

Down by the midway, a knot of adrenaline addicts are spinning out horror stories by a boarded-up corn-dog stand, trying to freak the bejesus out of their cling-on, hickey-pocked girlfriends: Hey, hear the one about the 13-year-old girl who got pitched off a roller coaster in Myrtle Beach? It took two rescue workers 20 minutes to peel her off the chain-link fence. Hear about the guy who got his head cut off at an amusement park in Missouri? They say his lips were still moving when they scooped him into the body bag. How about the kid from Utah who fell out of his coaster car, yanked himself up from under the tracks, and then got creamed by another car? A couple days later they found his shredded high-tops strung around the Space Needle.

Like most urban legends, tales like these can usually be traced to actual events. A young girl did die on the tracks in South Carolina, a boy did get mauled by a runaway train, and some poor soul did lose his head in 1980. What these accidents felt like, looked like, or sounded like, though, is grist for imagination's mill. Indeed, more than a few Minnesota teens at this year's fair will no doubt be stealing their material from the local media, where two recent tragedies at the Mall of America's Camp Snoopy have been reported with a surprisingly tasteful lack of sensationalism.

In truth, amusement rides are as safe as--actually more safe than--a slow Sunday drive in the country. And it turns out that the Minnesota State Fair's record is particularly sterling. The National Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that over 270 million people visit amusement parks each year. On average, 7,000 of them--a mere .0026 percent--are treated for ride-related injuries, mostly of the minor variety, like sprained ankles or dizziness. And 80 percent of those mishaps, the commission concludes, are due to "rider misconduct." As Jim Sinclair, the Minnesota fair's director of sales and ride guru, likes to remind folks, a person is more likely to slip to death in the shower than to get scratched on any one of the 65 rides on this year's midway and kidway. What's more, he says he doesn't know of a single fairgoer who has perished onboard a ride in the Get-Together's 113-year history.

Call on industry experts around the country, or chat up a few grizzled carnies setting up shop in St. Paul, and you'll get the same story: The Minnesota State Fair is worthy of imitation. Bob Johnson, head of the Outdoor Amusement Business Association, says that's because Sinclair and company go way beyond what's required.

State regulations require that each ride be examined by an electrician after setup, and that all operators submit an annual certificate of inspection. Typically, this work is paid for by the ride operator's insurance company and done by independent contractors such as Bob Gill, a Florida-based safety inspector. Since 1994, however, Sinclair--not the state or an insurance outfit--has hired Gill to work the fair from opening day until the last rider leaves intact. Considered by Johnson to be "one of the best in the business," Gill and his staff of 12 will walk the midway early every morning, checking the mechanics, connections, and electrical integrity of each ride, from the Tornado to the Crazy Dance, the Orbitor, the Scorpion, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Zipper. They'll also make sure each ride operator's morning OJ is freshly squeezed, by administering on-site drug tests. "Jim Sinclair books excellent people with excellent equipment," Johnson says. "And from day to day, Bob Gill goes above and beyond the call of duty."

What's most unique to Minnesota's home court officials is their unwillingness to allow any one vendor to overextend his staff. At other fairs and carnivals, companies that construct and maintain amusement equipment can be responsible for as many as two dozen exhibits; in Minnesota, they're allowed a maximum of six. "It's not unusual that a fair might have quotas," Sinclair says. "But I think our numbers are unique. We believe an operator can provide the best operations if they're not spreading themselves over too much equipment."

Given that it's more dangerous to wander the fair's parking lot than it is to brave the Cliff Hanger, why do riders still get sweaty palms while standing in line with their tickets? Why do kids still dare each other to ride the Inverter without hanging on? Richard Adams, a Minneapolis-based psychologist, believes people are drawn to the midway for three reasons, all of which are related to a risk that is more fantasy than anything real.

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