Master the Midway: The Theme Park Insider Guide to Winning Carnival Games

November 21, 2014, 9:57 AM · We’ve all been there in some way or another. Maybe it’s trying to win a prize for your friend or your kids or showing off. Other times the mood just catches someone right and they want to test their mettle, or they were incited by a skillful carnival barker. Still other times, some just have money burning a hole in their pocket and have to have that 50-cent prize, even if they spend 10 bucks to get it.

From the beginning, they’ve been a staple of the midway, and from the beginning they have been confounding, frustrating, scheming, and angering the masses. Amusement park games combine a lot of science and a little skill with psychology, illusion, and cheap prizes, and have masterfully been parting suckers with their money for over a hundred years. For guests, the name of the game is to grab the prize, have a little fun, and win bragging rights. For the park, the name of the game is to simply get you to play, because the beauty of this operation is that whether the guest wins or loses, the park always wins. In the words of Navin R. Johnson, "It’s a profit deal."

Jerk Carnival

That doesn’t mean that the games or the people are absolutely crooked, per se. There are some shifty operations out there, but most amusement/theme parks aren’t really going to glue hats to mannequins or fasten the milk bottles to the plank, at least not anymore. Are some the games “customized”? Absolutely, they are. As the saying goes, the devil is always in the details. Contrary to myth though, most are absolutely winnable if one truly understands how to play. Also understand that these operators are shrewd businesspeople. That giant prize that someone was carrying around might not have been won at all. Rather it might be a worker whose job is to carry around giant prizes and entice guests to play. Don’t think it’s silly. It’s been done since the beginning of the industry, and it works. Even so, most games are on the up and up, albeit a lot more difficult than they let on.


We at Theme Park Insider strive to give you the best possible information to make your park visit memorable. With that in mind, step right up grasshoppa… and learn how to win the giant-ass panda.

Carnival Barker

Before we get into the specific games, a few points to consider.

Lesson #1: Watch and learn. Sun Tzu once wrote, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” Most midway gamers are not victorious warriors. Why? Because these mere mortals gain understanding not by watching or observing first, but by forking over money and learning how to play by trial and error during the game. This usually brings frustration, leading them to move on with nothing but lighter pockets. If they do win the prize, their wallets have surely paid dearly. Before throwing down your money, remove all preconceived notions and observe a little. If the game operator is demonstrating, is he using different balls, rings, or darts than the players are using? Is he setting the target up differently? If there are winners, what is working for them? Why are people losing? What are the rules?

Lesson #2: Learn Science. Bummer for you if you don’t or didn’t pay attention in school. Many of these games are based on simple laws of physics that apparently aren’t understood or considered by many, and that’s what the operators rely on. Like a major league pitcher or a pool shark…many of the winning formulas boil down to spin, velocity, arc, or location, or a combination of these. The best players of these games understand in one way or another that science is the foundation that skill and luck stand upon, and the best operators know how to rig the game to simultaneously fool the masses and make it legitimate.

Lesson #3: There is a catch somewhere. Notice how most of them tend to look pretty easy. One of the driving forces behind these games is the illusion that everything is as it seems. It’s not, yet so many think differently, and that’s why many will keep playing. The idea of losing a game that appears so simple doesn’t make sense to them, and they keep throwing down money and defining insanity…the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The question is, where is the swerve and how to overcome it? Is it the object you are throwing, the rules, or the target?

Lesson #4: Fun is the name of the game. Yes, money and prizes are involved, and, yes, we all like to win, but the whole point is to have fun. You are paying for the chance to win, but you are also paying for the entertainment of playing. Don’t be that guy who blows his stack and looks like a fool, blaming his lack of skill on rigged games. These methods aren’t guaranteed wins — that’s ultimately up to your skill. If followed though, your odds of winning will increase greatly. If the midway gods aren’t smiling upon you that day, save your money for the Dippin Dots guy or the bar.

Angry gamer pic

And now to the games!

Hi-Striker/Test of Strength
Object of the game: Swing the mallet and make the bell ring at the top
Keys to winning: Location and angle

We’ve all seen these somewhere. Often times they are surrounded by a bunch of dudes attempting to demonstrate their manliness to each other. They are billed as a test of strength. In reality though, it only takes a certain amount of muscle. The real key is accuracy, hitting the center of the pad squarely (not at an angle) with the mallet, which is why the little guy has as good a chance as any to show up the muscleheads and leave with all the chicks. Think of it as chopping a piece of wood or swinging a sledge, the same technique applies here. If you have never done these things, your man card is fake. Turn it in and go play the ring toss with the rest of the girls.

Rope LadderRope Ladder
Object of the game: Climb the impossibly unstable rope ladder to the top and ring the bell
Keys to winning: Balance and mechanics

At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. The ladder isn’t that long, and everyone seems to think they are strong enough to “hold on” when their poor technique inevitably spins the ladder and body slams them to the mat. The laws of physics weren’t on their side, and they won’t be on yours. Creating balance and counter-balance is the key. One, ignore the rungs on the ladder and grab the sides with your hands. Two, when you move, move opposite limbs at the same time (right arm, left leg and the opposite). The natural tendency when climbing is to move both limbs on the same side. For this you have to be four-legged, not two-legged. Three, point out your toes and knees and lean forward, not back. Do these things properly, and you’ll win every time.

Balloon Darts
Object of the game: Bust balloons with darts
Keys to winning: Velocity and accuracy

Not that they are designed this way, but it’s likely that the darts you are using aren’t exactly the sharpest in the drawer. Check them before you throw. It’s also likely that the balloons are underinflated. Playing the game with that in mind makes for better odds for you. This combination can only be overcome by sheer force. Hitting the balloon at a downward 45 degree angle also helps. When you throw, throw hard, but for the sake of the game operator’s hind parts, have a little bit of accuracy.

Ring Toss
Object of the game: Get a ring on the top of a bottle
Keys to winning: Little bit of spin and a lot of luck

Seems simple enough, but there’s a reason why they give you a bunch of rings to throw during each game, because it’s probably not gonna happen. Notice how big and tempting the prizes are, too. That’s because again, it’s probably not gonna happen. The odds of winning this one are indeed slim. In order to increase them, throw the rings low and light and with a level spin… like a Frisbee. In my book, the value of this game is questionable. The odds are stacked. If you lose… you lose. If you win, you’ve defied the odds, but you’ve won the privilege of carrying around a 6-foot stuffed animal all day. So the question is, do you really win?

Basketball Toss
Object of the game: Put the ball in the hole
Key to winning: Nothing but net

These days there are two kinds of basketball at the park. The newest evolution is the three point shootout, using a regulation basketball goal and ball. That one is a game of pure schoolyard shooting skill, not to be confused with our main subject, the game-booth-style basketball. Sure it looks like basketball, but there are all sorts of stumbling blocks to consider here. First, the rims are typically just a bit smaller than normal and sometimes a little oblong, usually nullifying any bounce off the rim. Second, the backboards are composed of different material, making for a harder bounce and rendering the bank shot fairly useless. Third, the balls are typically rubber (not leather or composite) and over-inflated, making them super bouncy and lively. The tip? Always go for the swish and give it the high arc. It’s pretty much the only way you are going to win.

Coin Toss
Object of the game: Land the quarter on the plate
Keys to winning: Soft touch, sticky hand

Again, looks fairly simple right? Just ask the masses how easy it is, as their bar money falls on the booth floor, a quarter at a time. Some will try to flip it on. Others will try to spin it. Oh and those plates…nothing special about those, except that they are cleaned with the slippery stuff that “encourages” the coin to slide. Two things to remember: One, a spinning coin is a dead coin. While most toss games require a little spin, english is the enemy here. Throw it flat with a low arc and no spin. Two, a dirty or wet coin is a good coin. Maybe it’s a good time to try this game while it’s raining (if they are even open), or maybe you have a little cotton candy that happens to get on your hand before you played, or maybe you embrace you inner dirty pitcher by inconspicuously using a little spit. Strike back at the crooked with your own little twist and win the prize.

Milk bottleMilk Bottles
Object of the game: Knock off all the milk bottles
Keys to winning: Location, accuracy, and velocity

This oldie but goodie has been looting pockets for a long long time. Again, it looks so easy, but it’s actually one of the toughest games on the midway because it requires pinpoint accuracy in the right spot, a solid arm, and a little math, along with the recognition that one or more of the bottles might be heavier than the other. If so, the heavy bottle is probably on the bottom. Further still, the stack might be a slightly angled and separated, with the heavier bottle towards the back, making a lightly thrown direct hit a loser. Science 1, Guest 0… you didn’t really think this was all random did you? The attendant might try to convince you it’s easy, by demonstrating with the heavy bottle on the top, and then moving it to the bottom when it’s your turn.

Rule of thumb: 80 percent of the weight is in the bottom of the stack. Most try to hit the stack right in the middle, and lose when only the top one flies off. First, take a good look at the stack and how it stands. Then aim for the space between the bottom two bottles with a stiff fastball. If accurate, any wrinkle that the attendant has thrown in here can typically be eliminated with brute force.

Flukey BallFlukey Ball
Object of the game: Bounce the wiffle ball off the board into the basket
Keys to winning: Touch and frontspin

Another one that looks easy, but if it were, they would be out of business. Lots of math and science to consider here…the angle and height of the board, the distance to throw, and the weight and composition of the ball. All can be manipulated, and at least one probably is. First, check the weight of the ball. The lighter the ball, the lighter you have to throw. Second, choose location. The middle won’t do… that’s the bounciest part. Choose either the top of the board with a straight toss, or the bottom with a high arc and use a little front spin on an underhanded throw. It’s really the only way to get the right angle. The greasiest of operators will put a lip on the bottom of the board that sticks out over some of the basket, deflecting an otherwise good throw away and making the game a lot tougher. Check for that before laying your money down. It might make the game virtually unwinnable.

Shoot The Star
Object of the game: Completely shoot out the star on the paper with the BB gun
Keys to winning: Insane marksmanship, patience, and gentle trigger finger

Shoot The Star

Seriously… what guy doesn’t want to shoot an automatic BB gun and become a gun-toting badass, if only for a minute? Hence the popularity of this disappearing game. This one is probably more about the novelty of the act than actually winning. It’s a good thing too, because to actually do it is nearly impossible. Here are the catches: One is the type of paper that the star is printed on. The heavier the paper, the tougher to win. Second is that none of the guns actually shoot straight and many have ultra sensitive triggers. This may be intentional or not, but a person with a little experience in shooting can overcome this. Third is the size of the star. If it’s bigger than an inch, don’t expect to have a chance. There probably aren’t enough BB’s in the gun and it’s mathematically impossible. The common mistake is shooting at the middle of the star. Yes you might hit it, but inevitably, a piece of the star will still be there and you will have that intentionally designed “oh so close” feeling, leading you to fork over more money. There is one and only one approach. First, dial in your weapon. Do this by firing a few single test rounds to see where they land, and then compensating your aim accordingly. Second, shoot in a circle pattern around the star, using methodical short bursts of fire. Don’t pull the trigger, squeeze it gently. If you are accurate, and I mean deadly accurate (somewhere around 90 percent), you shall be victorious. Resist the completely human temptation to go Rambo and unleash BB hell in 10 seconds. Fun? Absolutely! Winning strategy? Absolutely not.


Also, please use safety, responsibility and common sense when handling. That should be self-evident when handling even BB firearms. Sad to say that there’s always someone somewhere who lacks these characteristics.

Object of the game: Put the ball in the hole, score big points
Key to winning: Take it to the bank


This timeless classic has many fans, and with good reason. It’s fun and inexpensive to play… or at least it should be inexpensive to play. The key to getting those big scores and fistfuls of tickets is using the rails. Doing this changes the spin of the ball as it flies towards the hole and sticks the landing, wherever that is. If you are accurate and find the right spot on the rail, you will be rewarded with handsome amounts of stale candy, plastic switchblade combs, neon spiders, fake mustaches, whoopee cushions, or any number of different treasures that you apparently can’t live without.

Switchblade comb

Milk Can Toss
Object of the game: Toss the softball into the 10-gallon milk can.
Key to winning: Overhand the underhand

Another oldie but goodie, the milk can toss has been around for a long time. Seems simple, and actually it kind of is. The rub is that there is usually a piece of steel welded inside the rim. The hole looks a lot bigger than the softball. In reality, that piece of steel renders it just slightly larger than the ball. That doesn’t make it an impossible game, but remember this when you play. The key to victory here is the throw technique. You need some back spin on the throw to keep the ball on the rim. This is achieved by gripping the ball overhand and tossing it in an underhand motion with a flick of the wrist. Throw softly with a low arc and aim for the back of the rim. The idea is to hit the back of the rim and let the ball deflect softly into the hole. Very beatable game with a little practice.

Water Gun Race
Object of the game: Beat your opponents by shooting more water and popping the balloon or advancing the horse or whatever.
Keys to winning: Accuracy and the right gun

We’ve all seen these. The nice thing about it is that there is a guaranteed winner every time. To be sure that is you, do one simple thing: Watch the game for a few rounds and find the best gun. Not all of them are working properly or equally. It’s just not in the park budget to ensure pinpoint equality with every water gun in every booth. In most cases, there’s bound to be a couple of them that work better than the rest. Pick one of those and shoot straighter than the other guy and you are home free.

Basket Toss
Object of the game: Throw the ball into an angled peach basket
Key to winning: Get in front

Basket Toss

This is actually one of the easier games on the midway, if it’s the standard large wiffleball in a peach basket and if it’s not spring loaded. Most people hit the back of the basket. That strategy is doomed to fail most of the time. It’s the height and angle, and sometimes what’s behind the basket that makes for losing money that way. Some will try to sidespin it, which is all well and good if you put just the right amount. The tried and true way is to lean in as far as you can, palm the ball, and gently lob with hi arc and no spin, hitting not the back, but the front bottom part of the inside of the basket. Watch the game a few times and check the basket out before laying down your money.

And that’s it for now. As I said before, it’s unlikely that most major operations would be crooked. They want people to play and have fun, and the operators are making minimum wage with very little stake in the game’s outcome. It’s the private operations on the boardwalks, smaller operations, and at the fair that you have to watch the most. Watch a bit before you play and check for any shenanigans. There are all sorts of little things out there, from slightly unlevel basketball rims to bottles that have too much separation, to underinflated balloons… and on and on. If you notice any, you might as well walk away unless you figure a way to overcome them. Remember they are difficult, but most aren’t rigged for total failure. The sore losers will swear otherwise, but the crooked ones are few and far between. There are some that are though, and if you recognize one, why give the person your money? As Joshua the computer once said… "Strange game, the only way to win is not to play."

Smurf prizes

Good luck to you all. May your arms be full of prizes, may all around you be impressed, and may you all be masters of the midway!

Replies (1)

November 23, 2014 at 2:23 PM

Very interesting article, thank you! One thing I have always wondered about these games is the payout systems. It has always seemed random to me as far as what accomplishment will give you which prize. Is that something you establish up front? Or do you just trust in the "system?"

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