What is a Carny?

Michael Pollick

Carnival employees tend to fall into two categories: temporary workers or seasoned veterans. While a temporary employee may only travel with the organization for a single season, a veteran carnival worker may stay on the road for years. Such a seasoned funfair or carnival is known as a carny or carnie. A carny often lives in a company-provided trailer or stays in local hotels while traveling the circuit of state fairs and sponsored carnivals.

A carny might operate rides, like a Ferris wheel.
A carny might operate rides, like a Ferris wheel.

A carny may be responsible for setting up and operating a particular carnival ride, such as the Ferris Wheel, Tilt-a-Whirl or Scrambler. Assembling these rides requires mechanical aptitude and physical stamina, along with a working knowledge of electricity and safety regulations. A typical work schedule for a carny may be an entire day spent assembling and testing a ride, then selling tickets or operating that ride every day during the carnival, then finally spending a day disassembling the ride before moving on to the next carnival gig or back to the company's base of operations for repairs and inspections.

Carnies may struggle to lead a normal life after leaving the carnival.
Carnies may struggle to lead a normal life after leaving the carnival.

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Other carnies may work in the food service booths or at one of the midway game booths, although a veteran carny can generally pick his or her preferred work assignment and perform those same duties year in and year out. Others may cross-train on various rides and attractions in case a temporary employee quits or cannot travel. A seasoned carny may also act as the supervisor of a ride construction crew or oversee the food or gaming operations from a distance.

A reputation for having problems with substance abuse has hurt the image of carnies.
A reputation for having problems with substance abuse has hurt the image of carnies.

Because the turnover rate of many carnival organizations can be high, new employees may not face rigid background checks before they begin work. As long as they are willing to work long hours under hazardous conditions, new carnival workers and experienced carnies alike are generally left alone by their employers. Carnival work is very transient, which makes it appealing to those who prefer to remain on the road instead of maintaining a more permanent address. A carny's mail can be sent to the organization's base of operations and held until the employee can collect it, for example.

There are some unsavory aspects to the carny lifestyle, however. Some carnival employees may be constantly traveling in order to avoid arrest or other legal problems. Others may have significant problems with drug or alcohol addiction, which would make finding other forms of employment very difficult. Because the job is so transient, some unscrupulous carnival workers have been known to commit minor or even major crimes while working in a town for a short time. By the time the crime is reported, the offender may already be on the road to another location.

This reputation for substance abuse and criminal activity has seriously affected the carnival industry as a whole. While most carnival employees respect their customers and abide by the law, some do take advantage of their circumstances and commit illegal acts. Efforts to discipline or fire veteran carnies for these violations can prove problematic for the companies, however, so the offenders are often punished financially or kept off the road as a punitive measure.

The life of a true carny is definitely not glamorous, but some people discover they enjoy the transient lifestyle and freedom of movement provided by the carnival industry. Employment applications are often available at local carnival events or through contacting the carnival company's main base of operations.

Carnies have a reputation for having alcohol abuse problems.
Carnies have a reputation for having alcohol abuse problems.

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Discussion Comments


I almost applied for a job as a carny when a county fair came to town years ago. I was young, and I didn't really feel much of a connection to my hometown. I thought I could travel with the ride and concession company for a while and see more of the country while getting paid.

I talked to one of the carnies while he was tearing down a ride and he basically talked me out of applying for the job. He said it was fun for a few months, but then he got tired of the daily grind. He had the option of sharing a small trailer with three other carnival workers or renting a motel room in every new town. He usually worked a 12-14 hour shift, which included assembling, operating and tearing down a huge ride. He told me he was planning on quitting after the next season because he wanted to have a permanent address somewhere.


I haven't been to a traveling carnival in years, but my wife and I won two free passes to a local Oktoberfest that had carnival rides. They had some of my favorite rides from childhood, like the Scrambler and the Tilt-O-Wheel. I also rode the giant wheel that spins fast enough to pin people to the wall as it goes up. Some of those rides weren't nearly as comfortable to ride as a heavyset middle aged man as they were when I was a skinny little kid.

What I noticed this time were the carnies operating the rides. Most of them were very polite to us, but they acted more like machine operators. They had a routine and they did it all day long. It didn't seem like they were having much fun watching the riders have a good time. We were just the things they had to put up with to get through their day.

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