The Joy of Carnival Rides

An Ode to the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo

The Spin-Out

The sliver of a moon in the clear night sky spinning past your eyes. The bright, blinking, seizure-rific lights stimulating your scrambling brain. The mechanical sounds of industrial progress humming in your ears. The G-force sucking the skin off your face. The screams. The irrepressible giggling. The exhilaration. What’s not to like about carnival rides, the best of which are currently jamming at the Santa Barbara Fair & Expo?

Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the VIP reception at our annual fair, a relaxed event that starts with Santa Maria-style barbecue plus free beer, wine, and cocktails and then unleashes the crowd-mostly freebie-loving media types such as myself, all equipped with significant others, friends, or children-upon the rides. All for free.

You’re right, it is great, and I’ve come to covet it as one of the better annual perks in the whole game. Surely, we’re the guinea pigs who make sure all of the assembled rides are in working order, but it’s a negligible price to pay for a taste of heaven. This year’s event was last night, Tuesday, April 24, and that I am writing this today means that they do, in fact, work perfectly fine this year. Perhaps, as you’ll read, a little too well.

Last year, I squeezed the event in before a Taj Mahal concert at Campbell Hall. My buddy Diamond Dave and I chowed down and then got in literally five or six rides in about 15 minutes.He turned green after the Crazy Train. I-the model specimen of carnival endurance since my days braving the best that Great America could throw at me-never turn green.

Last night, I brought Diamond Dave with me again, giving him another chance to show his intestinal fortitude and prove his carnival riding manhood. We chowed down again, devouring tasty tri-tip, sausages, potato salad, green salad, and beans. And about three beers/cocktails, all in the span of 30 minutes. Then we went on the rides.

The first one, whose name I cannot recall, was a blast. (Further research suggest it may be the Spin-Out.) Spinny with more G-force than expected. Good stuff.

Then we went on the Hard Rock. A couple years back-before that great Violent Femmes show in Warren Arena-a group of friends and I went on the Hard Rock. Many got woozy and swore off fair rides forever more. Last year, the Hard Rock probably started Diamond’s green sickness. This year, it definitely did. “That’s it,” he said when we got off. “I’m done.”

Luckily, my friend Penis Paul (his deejay name, because it’s funny) was lurking in the wings. Diamond gave Penis his wristband, and went home to watch the Lakers lose. Penis Paul, who seemed as carnival-strong as yours truly, was ready.

The Crazy Train

We went on the Crazy Train. He yelled in glee, I couldn’t stop giggling. It’s a mini-roller-coaster on an oval track that runs in circles constantly. And then the whole oval spins. Oh yea, and you’re trapped inside one of these cars, unable to move your limbs, and the windows are fogged over so you really can’t see out. And if you can see out, you’re looking directly at the other people on the ride, and their faces are about six inches from yours. It’s great. Penis Paul did fine.

Then we went on the Fireball. That’s kind of like the Crazy Train, but without the spinning oval. It’s a big loop with a little train in it that goes up and down, up and down, up and down, until the man with the joystick (really) decides that it’s time you go up and over. And over. And over. It’s great. Penis Paul did fine.

Then it was reruns for me. We hit the Hard Rock, which is like the Octopus from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, except that it not only throws you up, down, and around, you’re also spinning upside down. Very slowly. So you see the ground about one foot from your face. Then you see the aforementioned sliver of a moon. And you see blinking lights all the time. It’s great. Penis Paul did fine, sort of.

“Wow man,” said Penis, “I gotta take a break.”

“Dude,” I said, “we’ve only got one more left. It’s this one here.” I pointed to the first one Diamond and I had been on. No upside downs, just spins and G-force. Easy stuff, I thought, harmless fun, no sickness possible. Child’s play. (If you can’t tell yet, I cut out all the wimp rides: the ferris wheel, the fun house, the tea cups. Those have a time and place, but not for a 29-year-old carnival ride junky with a limited amount of time on VIP night. I’m only here for the ones that make weak people sick, which are referred to by the fair as “for thrill-seekers.”)

Penis Paul, finishing a cigarette, admired the unnamed ride. I was standing next to Alex, The Indy‘s art director who was watching his two sons get on the Hard Rock. He refrained, which made us start to reminisce about the time probably six or seven years ago when we all rode one of the rides and someone barfed at the end. We couldn’t recall if it was him or another friend. It was funny.

Seeing the ride fill up and checking the dwindling time-VIP night ends at 9 p.m.-I turned to Penis Paul. “Come on, dude, we gotta hurry up,” I urged. “The rides filling up. See, it’s all kids. You can handle it.”

“Alright,” he said as we walked toward the ride. “You’re giving me the no-barf guarantee?”

“Well, yea, I guess,” I said. I honestly didn’t think this was a pukey ride. Most of the riders were in elementary school, maybe junior high. To me, it was a gateway ride, the one you ride as a kid in anticipation of one day riding the Crazy Train. Or the Hard Rock.

We strapped in, and checked out the other riders, who all face in toward each other on this ride. Mostly kids, as I expected, some parents. The ride started. The floor dropped, apparently to give your feet space as it whipped you to and fro, while spinning. I giggled.

Penis Paul, meanwhile, was not giggling. In fact, though I could barely turn my head due to the oppressively safe shoulder harness, I could see that Penis Paul wasn’t doing much. His eyes were closed. He looked rather pained, like he was praying. I kept giggling. (I am currently laughing while writing this, so maybe you can guess what comes next.)

The ride was winding down, but the operator gave us two or three last big G-force swipes. It was great. The ride was almost over, and I looked at Penis Paul. He looked down. And then puked everywhere, all over his pants and shirt and the seat and the recently retracted metal floor of the ride. The riders, who took up almost every available seat, let out a collective sigh of disappointment.

Penis Paul puked again. And then, I think, again, on his black pants and white shirt. He looked to me like he was crying, like he was sobbing inconsolably, like everyone he loved had died horrible deaths. As I checked my jeans for secondhand splatter, I started to feel bad. We, the riders-a collective of strangers drawn together solely by the communal experience of exhilaration, that thoroughly unique, almost war-like team effort of making-it-through-without-puking-let out more sighs. Everyone’s ride was ruined.

It came to a halting stop-the operator must have noticed the unexpected showers-and I could feel the riders eyes burning while they looked at me. Of course, they were primarily glaring at Penis-or maybe should that now be Puker?-Paul, but I was guilty by association. I brought the puker. He was my friend. While he at least got a touch of sympathy-just one touch, mind you, mixed with many grabs of disgust and disappointment-I got none, just the scowl that said, “What in the hell were you thinking, boy?!? Bringing that puker on a ride like this? You should be ashamed!” I had broken carnival riding’s unspoken but all-important rule: Thou shalt not bring pukers.

The floor came back and the shoulder harnesses released. Puker Paul vanished, went out the “back way” that I didn’t realize existed, behind the carriages and directly toward the gates, not in front of everyone like the rest of us riders. I made eye contact with no one.

He kept walking fast when off the ride, going toward the dark alleys behind the unopened carnival booths. I hurried, giving a nod to our art director Alex, who shot back the “your-buddy-just-puked” smirk. “Yea, uh,” I said with a subdued chuckle. “Woops.”

When I finally chased down Puker Paul, somewhere between the outhouses and the funnel cake place, he was laughing, ashamedly. “I can’t believe it. I never puke on rides,” he said, adding that he’d drank about “nine” greyhounds before coming to the fair. The crotch of his pants was coated in a grapefruit juice-and-vodka-colored vomit.

“I’m sorry dude,” I offered, glad to see that he’d been laughing and not sobbing. “I really didn’t think it was a pukey ride.

We walked up Las Positas back toward Diamond Dave’s house on the Samarkand, and I placed an important call. “Yea, Dave, you got any spare clothes?”

Diamond was already laughing. “Yea, I got a shirt,” he said.

“Well, we’re gonna need a pair of pants too. Paul puked all over himself,” I replied. The laughter on the other end of the phone erupted. The whole house was laughing, as were Paul and I.

It was great. And, considering the circumstances, Penis/Puker Paul did fine.


The 18th Santa Barbara Fair & Expo-which features much more than just carnival rides-begins today, Wednesday, April 25, and runs through Sunday, April 29. It’s fun, so you should check it out. For more info, see For tickets, go here. For a lineup of entertainment, including Pepe Aguilar on Sunday, the Gold Rush Revue, and more, go here. For more on the great rides, go here.


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