Carnival Undercover, By Brett Witter. New York: Plume (Penguin Putnam Group), 2003, 207 pp.
Before there was a Disneyland, there were carnivals and fair midways. Actually, you can argue that carnivals served as one of the inspirations for Disneyland - although not in a good way; Walt Disney has been quoted as saying that he intended his creation to be like nothing else in the world, especially not like the carnivals and fairs people were familiar with. But if what carnivals were and what they weren't helped define the Happiest Place on Earth, the success of Disneyland and other amusement and theme parks helped define carnivals, as well. For this review, I'm going to take a look at a book that explains the differences between carnivals and amusement parks and gives readers a peek behind the scenes of what's happening on the midway.
Carnival Undercover is part-expose and part love poem to the carnival and to the fairground midway. Brett Witter lets us in on how and why things happen the way the do at carnivals, how they differ from amusement parks and theme parks, how some of the amazing and annoying things you encounter at carnivals are done, how you can create a little of the carnival in your own home, and gain a (slight) advantage at the game booths. We learn things like what makes a carnival location and what makes for the best location in a carnival, what tell-tale signs of a poorly maintained carnival ride to look for, what midway games offer the best chance of winning and the least chance of winning, how freak show performers pull off their death-defying stunts, and what the life of a carny is like.
Interesting, I hear you say, but what does any of this have to do with Disney theme parks? Brett refers to the Disney theme parks several times throughout the book - mainly to point out how the theme park experience differs from the carnival experience, and not necessarily for the better. This includes comparisons of the multiple-entry, grid like nature of the carnival layout versus the "hub and spoke" layout of the Disney Magic Kingdoms, a review of how ride safety requirements differ between carnivals and theme parks, and even a critique of Disneyland's late, unlamented Rocket Rods.
Carnival Undercover is a really fun read. While Brett certainly doesn't view carnivals and carnies through rose-colored glasses, he has a strong sense of admiration and respect for the folks who make their living be working on the midway, and it shows in his book. Along the way, Brett makes a real effort to increase the reader's appreciation of carnivals and the carnival lifestyle as well, and provides some interesting tips and tricks that could be helpful to folks who like going to carnivals and fairs, including how to better your chances of winning and avoid gaffs (rigged games) on the midway. The book is a fascinating look at a topic that has seldom been given serious study.
So what problems do I have with Brett's book? At times, the book seems unfocused - veering away from its primary topic into discussions of amusement park attractions and attendance, among other things. My only other complaint about the book is that a lot of its facts are out of date, making you wonder about the accuracy of the rest of the book, but then this book has never been updated since its brief initial run, so to some extent you have to expect that sort of thing.
Carnival Undercover is an enjoyable and fascinating look at carnivals and fairs, providing information about how and why things happen the way the do on the midway, as well as tips and tricks to help the reader enjoy and appreciate their time at a fair or carnival a bit more. It's not intended as a serious or scholarly piece, and some readers may not appreciate the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the book, but it's a great way to learn about carnivals, amusement parks, and theme parks. If your interest in the amusement industry extends beyond the Disney theme parks, you may want to consider picking up a copy of this book.
Unfortunately, the book went out of print soon after its initial print run, but it's not difficult to find used copies through brick-and-mortar bookstores specializing in used or bargain books, or online booksellers like Amazon.