Sunday, January 24, 2016

Rise and Fall of the American Kiddie Ride

On a recent Sunday afternoon in my neighborhood in Queens, I stopped to watch a mother, father, and their young child. The parents, in church suits with the mildly stoned look of the truly exhausted, leaned against each other. But their kid? Their kid was euphoric—rapturous, even—because she was riding a coin-operated pink dinosaur that slowly rocked back and forth while playing a chiptune version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

The sight was arresting more for its rarity than for its Norman Rockwell atmosphere. I’ve walked by that pink dinosaur countless times—it’s outside a bodega near my bank and grocery store—but I’d never, before then, actually seen anyone using it. But once you begin noticing them, you see them everywhere, sprinkled throughout New York, usually near a gumball machine or in a movie theater lobby.

Commonly known as the kiddie electric bumper cars for sale, these coin-operated children’s amusements are over 80 years old. According to The Southwest Missourian, in 1931, Missouri inventor James Otto Hahs decided to make his children a special Christmas present, building a mechanical horse covered in mohair and using a real cow’s tail from the slaughterhouse for the horse’s tail. Realizing he had a potential hit on his hands, he set out to build a commercial coin-operated version. Early wood-carved prototypes were too heavy and too expensive, so Hahs developed his own method of casting large aluminum-framed horses. By 1932, the Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse was winning design and invention awards. He later teamed up with the Exhibit Supply Company to distribute his horse widely, getting 5 percent of all profits. (Hahs would retire not rich, but well-off enough to tinker in his backyard for the rest of his life on more children’s toys and rides.)

Kiddie rides were called “1953’s fast-growing business—a rare combination of wholesome fun and clever merchandising.”
By the time Billboard wrote about kiddie rides in a 10-page feature package in 1953 (back when the magazine covered literal billboards and outdoor amusements, rather than music) kiddie spin zone bumper cars for sale were called “1953’s fast-growing business—a rare combination of wholesome fun and clever merchandising.” America’s rapid suburbanization had developed a whole new market for kiddie rides: the shopping center. Unlike the pinball machine, the other great coin-operated amusement of the era, the kiddie ride wouldn’t be relegated to the arcade or amusement park. Instead, it would be used to lure kids into stores, and along with them, their parents.

The Billboard feature—alongside a dizzying number of ads for kiddie-ride manufacturers and middlemen—was optimistic about the future of the technology. It told the story of a Greenpoint, Brooklyn, department store that tore out its soda fountain and replaced it with 14 kiddie rides, realizing there was more revenue in mechanical horses, rocket ships, and motor boats than egg-cream fizzes. (The article cites average weekly gross revenues of $375 from the rides—or about $5,000 in 2014 dollars.) There were explainers on how to set up your own profitable kiddie-ride business. There was quote after quote after quote from businessmen explaining that there was nowhere for the kiddie-ride industry to go but up. Click this link:

There was also a piece about licensing the likeness of Trigger, Roy Rogers's horse, because a Trigger-themed kiddie ride sucked even more money out of parents' pockets. This would be part of the future of kiddie rides—slapping existing franchises on a kiddie ride seemed to make them even more popular. Everything from Arthur to X-Men would eventually get its own kiddie ride, as exhaustively documented over at TV Tropes.

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