Cosmo: Of course not! Circuses have probate child labor laws! We're at a carnival, which is like a circus, but far more dangerous! They barely have to obey the laws of physics!
What's more fun than a carnival? It's got rides and games, frequently travels (though some don't, such as those of Coney Island), and is known for sideshows containing smaller acts than a circus (freaks, contortionists, and cabinets of curiosities). However, in some fiction they're cheap, bad ripoffs. The rides break, the games are rigged against you, and the magic acts are dishonest. The workers are creepy "carnies", too. These aren't places to have fun, they're only there to rip you off, not provide decent entertainment.
If the carnival is just a civic event and not a traveling show, expect it to be even crappier. Stalls serving unhealthy and/or disgusting food; bazaar tents selling cheap, ugly (often homemade) merchandise; either oldies music or some street musicians playing in the background; bored people milling about mindlessly; and few actual amusements other than really lame ones (a face-painting booth, maybe). Only yokel tourists, dateless losers, and the very poor will be caught dead at such an event.
Sadly enough, genuinely fun carnivals are not often seen in fiction anymore except in period pieces. These carnivals, while no more thrilling than their modern counterparts, are a lot more charming, often with Gay Nineties garniture, and wholesome diversion for children, their families, and cute couples on dates. Expect to see people leaving the grounds with cotton candy or gigantic stuffed animals.
Related to Souvenir Land, but distinct in that this isn't asking for you to buy their merchandise. This carnival is too crappy to be a pastiche of Disneyland. Darker versions are Amusement Park of Doom and Circus of Fear. Compare with Suck E. Cheese's, which also boasts disappointment and creepiness in equal amounts.
- Invoked in a Progressive Insurance ad, which begins as a fake ad for a theme park known as "Progressive Park". The ad is a perfect pastiche of energetic, ear worm-laden ads for theme parks, but begins to fall apart when its revealed that it has boring and extremely safe insurance-themed rides such as the "Traffic Jam" roller coaster and a bumper car (yes, just the one). Cue a cut to Flo and her colleagues in an empty parking lot, questioning the idea while the parks canine mascot obliviously dances away in the background.
- Seiya's first impression of the theme park in Amagi Brilliant Park, due to the unenthusiastic workers, broken and/or boring rides, and missing cast members for many of the attractions. Turns out that the park isn't doing so well, and he's asked to manage it to make it more successful.
- Marvel Comics' Circus of Crime plays with this trope - it's a decent carnival, other than the "hypnotizing the audience and stealing their money" part.
- One Sam & Max: Freelance Police comic had them visiting an "amusement" park with rides like the "Cone of Tragedy". The freak-show performers are even more depressing, either acting unfriendly or "entertaining" their visitors by telling long, boring stories.
- A Scrooge McDuck Italian comic featured Scrooge building an amusement park based entirely on his life. It had 3 "rides": the first is a cleaning shoes simulation, the second is a simulation of searching gold in Klondike (complete with artificially recreated cold climate and animatronic bears harassing people) and the third is just a marathon of documentaries about economy. That's enough of a failure to bankrupt his entire fortune.
- Wonder Woman (1987): Cassie's best friend George discovers that there's an Apokoliptian supercomputer disguised as one of the attractions at a rather ho-hum carnival which is brainwashing a bunch of the guests. She gets Cassie, Donna Troy and Artemis to come help her deal with it.
- Examples from the Calvinverse:
- One chapter of Calvin and Hobbes Get XTREME! provides this gem from Calvin's mother:
"Circuses have clean animals and nice games. Carnivals have carnies and you need to fill out papers for shots before you go in."
- Calvin's father thinks this of a carnival in Calvin and Hobbes: The Series, though it isn't actually a bad carnival.
- One chapter of Calvin and Hobbes Get XTREME! provides this gem from Calvin's mother:
- In Nightmare Alley, a Con Man goes to make money with a Phony Psychic act at a crappy carnival.
- Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird brings us the Sleaze Brothers Funfair, which rigs its games to cheat the kids. The establishing shot that introduces it shows the first "F" falling off the sign to read "unfair."
- In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Chris Bradley works at one following the dissolution of Team X, and uses his electrical powers to rig the game he runs.
- In the Young Adult novel Millicent Min: Girl Genius, the title character goes to a traveling fair and thinks it is absolutely disgusting, and being a genius, she figured out that all of the games were ripoffs.
- In A Series of Unfortunate Events, the low-quality Caligari carnival has people mocking 'freaks' such as contortionists and ambidextrous people, dangerous rides, fake fortune tellers, and of course, Olaf.
- Depending on who is looking at the parade, The Circus of Doctor Lao could be one of these.
- David Foster Wallace, in his Harper's article "Ticket to the Fair" (republished as "Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All" in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again), is all about the 1993 Illinois State Fair (Wallace, although East Coast educated, was raised in Illinois and happened to be teaching at Illinois State at the time). The experience gives him a serious case of self-consciousness, and he doesn't have much fun at the fair. Not that he finds it completely depressing—there are things that he likes—but overall the fair made him pretty depressed about America.
- Anthology Carniepunk. But their carnivals are supernaturally crappy.
- Thomas Ligotti's short story "The Gas-Station Carnivals" takes place at one. The attractions and rides are miniatures; the hypnotist and sideshow freaks are costumed attendants; and there's an air of oil-soaked dinginess about the whole thing. And then there's the Ringmaster...
- The first half of William Lindsay Gresham's cult noir thriller Nightmare Alley is set in one, the main characters all work for a travelling 'Ten-in-One' carnival and the main character Stan is a Stage Magician.
- Carnivàle both plays the trope straight and subverts it. The Carnivale itself is full of people who appear dishonest and certainly do their share of bilking the public (rigging games, overcharging for crappy acts, faking "healings"), but they're essentially the good guys who take pride in their way of earning a living. The very few times a ride is unsafe, it's either an honest, tragic mistake (as when Jonesy is drunk and doesn't notice the broken part on the Ferris Wheel) or part of a larger plan (as when Ben, Jonesy, and Samson rig the Ferris Wheel to break so it will trap Justin at the top and Ben can drain his powers).
- The Dinosaurs episode "Variations on a Theme Park" mixes this with Souvenir Land in the form of Wesaysoland, which was created in a single day to take advantage of Pangaea's newly-instituted vacation time "through imagination, ingenuity, and a relaxed attitude towards building codes". Unfortunately, the rides are unfinished, the concessions expensive, and the hotel rooms are decorated in an unflattering cow-themed design (to go along with its corporate mascot, Moola the Cash Cow).
- Craggy Island hosts one of these in an episode of Father Ted. Attractions include "Freak Pointing", an ordinary ladder, a cat spinning on a record player, and of course the Crane of Death, which is a park bench suspended from a crane (so-called because a chap was killed on it the year before).
- In an effort to make some badly-needed cash, Al attempts to host one of these to draw in customers to his yard sale during an episode of Married... with Children. Pet the world's friendliest dog! Get advice from a dead parrot!
- The 'family fun day' in series two of Phoenix Nights, complete with a questionably shaped bouncy castle, a children's 'play area' (actually a Portaloo full of scaffolding and footballs scavenged from the roof) and face paint which is apparently permanent.
- The Carnival of Doom in Ace Lightning, is a rundown funfair where the show's badguys rule the roost. There are two carnivals in the series - the creepy video game incarnation, and the Kent Bros. Carnival, set in the real world, where everything is rusty and creaks. It soon becomes home to skeletons, pigs, psychic jesters, and zombies. The mysterious thing is the carnival was closed for years and it is never explained why.
- The Syfy Channel original movie Lightning Strikes features a "Pumpkin Festival" that is little more than people milling about the streets of a small town decorated with pumpkins while dreary, repetitive, vaguely nihilistic music plays in the background. But the town's smarmy, gladhanding mayor acts as if it's the most fun event ever. The whole affair is so sad and depressing that it's almost a relief when the supernatural lightning storm of the title erupts and starts destroying everything in sight.
- The musical Carnival! (based on the film Lili) is set in one of these. It's not creepy, just done on the cheap.
- Ride the Cyclone has the Wonderville Traveling Fairground a cheap, poorly maintained traveling carnival-slash-amusement-park that unintentionally kills the six teenage choir members when the faulty "Cyclone" roller coaster derails, sending their car hurtling to their doom.
- Dark's Den of Deformity from Gloom, which is also a Circus of Fear. Ringmaster Darius Dark's subpar freakshow includes bearded man Samson O'Toole, the terrifying clown Mister Giggles, and Elissandre Deville - an illustrated lady who's too modest to show her tattoos to anyone. Mr. Dark might have had more luck with Thumbelisa, an woman who's just a few inches tall... but bizarrely, he promotes her as an opera singer despite her mediocre musical abilities.
- While Reubans Fayre from The Lost Crown isn't all that bad — at least, not for something with a staff of only six named characters — Nigel remarks to Lucy that hers is the worst "Ghost Train" ride ever. Of course, after a few days' encounters with real ghosts, plastic skeletons aren't likely to impress anyone even if done well.
- At The Carnival by Cliff Johnson, creator of The Fool's Errand and 3 in Three, rewards solving some puzzles with anecdotes from when the author worked in amusement parks. Much humour involves No OSHA Compliance, Service Sector Stereotypes played very straight or occasional Squick.
- Some of the parks in RollerCoaster Tycoon start as this, but Ivory Towers takes the cake. Its rides aren't bad (the Steel Mini Roller Coaster and the Suspended Roller Coaster on this park are very well made), but that's the only good thing. The park is full of litter, puke and it's completely vandalized. This is, obviously, averted at the end of scenario since your job is to fix it and make it famous.
- The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary begins at a carnival whose three main attractions are a ripoff "fortune teller", a Ferris wheel that's clearly about to fall apart any day now, and a midway game that sucks your soul into a doll and strands you on an island if you win.
- "Nuka-World" from the Boston Commonwealth in Fallout 4 was an unholy hybrid of this and Souvenir Land even before the apocalyptic nuclear war. With an advertising commercial proudly boasting that the park had met "every minimum acceptable safety standard", which admittedly wouldn't have been uncommon in the deregulated capitalistic Crapsaccharine World that was America during the Resource Wars, you still weren't getting a decent enough warning of what to expect. Highlights of the place include a jungle themed section stocked with live crocodiles and Cape Buffalo wandering around freely — both very aggressive animals that real zoos do their best to keep well away from people, a reptile petting zoo that featured lethally poisonous snakes in it, a Westworld-style cattle town where children are handed a real gun with live ammunition to play with, a policy for injuries that amounts to "make the victim jump through legal hoops to get treatment, bill them for the treatment if they survive, and if they can't prove they're actual customers, kick 'em out and leave them to die", and a ride featuring a river of Nuka-Cola Quantum, an addictive soft-drink formula saturated with the radioactive isotope Strontium-90. Needless to say, anyone entering it would have been taking their life into their hands. 200 years later, and it's a hellhole full of everything from mutated humanoid crocodiles and caffeine-hyped monstrous radioactive crab-mutants to bands of warring raiders and lunatics, although it's hard to say whether it's actually much more of an Amusement Park of Doom now than it was before.
- Afterlife (1996):
- "Evil Carny" punishes wicked souls by subjecting them to all the worst things about carnivals and amusement parks, including bad food, dangerous rides, long lines, and surly employees.
- The ultimate Sloth punishment plays with this, in that the "666 Pennants Over Perdition Theme Parks" are actually pretty fun... for the demons, who are the customers in this regard. The park runs on the universal principle that since happiness is limited, for someone to be very happy, someone else must be really miserable, and thus the park is made as unbearable as possible for the actual staff, that is, the souls being punished for eternity. Suicide attempts are common, but this is Hell; they cannot die nor get fired.
- The only "inconceivable" thing about Polmear and Plenty's Inconceivable Circus in Sunless Skies is its sheer patheticness. The magician's props don't work, the clown can't do any of his best material because his pet geese won't cooperate, the strongwoman has nothing impressive to lift, and one of the acrobats has run off and left behind a twin who doesn't know how to do any solo acts. Fortunately, you can help fix these problems.
- Witchyworld in Banjo-Tooie. Outside of the level are signs that inform customers that the park is closed due to its appalling safety record, but it will reopen once the authorities have been bribed.
- Billy Crane's Traveling Carnival in Bully is often described as crappy and ocasionally you get Jimmy saying things like some rides look extremely old or that he heard a weird crack after riding one, but it seems to be an Informed Flaw, since the only real problem you find is how easy it is for the jocks to take over the funhouse to torment some nerds inside and a broken merry-go-round that isn't repaired during the game.
- Overcompensating has a strip about the "Carnival down at the mall parking lot."
- Polandball has this comic about Soviet Land, with attractions like the Chernobyl Ride of Radioactive Killings and the Gulabyrinth. Poland and Germany are forced to show how fun it is.
- Precocious has the kids putting one on for their school's "Fall Festival" fundraiser, being the way they are they naturally set it up to con the goers out of their money. When they're not outright stealing or extorting.
- DSBT InsaniT: The premise of 'Carneelval'. The games are Unwinnable by Design, stands are rusty and falling apart, and the rides are very unsafe.
- In The Fairly OddParents Timmy runs off to become a "carnie" at a horrible carnival that was dangerous with workers that were escaped
convictsfairies (Except for the Alligator Man) whose job it is to make kids realize that running away from home is a bad idea.
- The carnival from the South Park episode "Cow Days" is so bad that the townspeople called Shenanigans on it at the end. "Shenanigans" is apparently a South Park term for chasing the offender out of town while beating them with brooms.
- In Spongebob Squarepants, Mr. Krabs makes a carnival he calls "Krabby Land" for kids on summer vacation, with the ulterior motive of getting them to buy Krabby Patties. Normally such a thing would be a Souvenir Land, but as he's a huge cheapskate it's made of trash and old stuff found in dumpsters, and the only thing the kids enjoy turns out to be watching Spongebob get himself hurt in the name of amusing them while Mr. Krabs counts his takings.
- The carnival in the Replacements episode "Carnie Dearest".
- "Lester's Possum Park" from A Goofy Movie, though according to Word of God, it was intended as a Biting-the-Hand Humor parody of Disneyland's "The Country Bears."
- In the Dennis the Menace (UK) animated series, Dennis visits a fair where all the rides and attractions have been nerfed because of the havoc Dennis and his cronies wreaked the previous year.
- The Simpsons:
- The episode "Bart Carny" starts with the family visiting one of these; eventually they befriend a carny and his son, who run the ring-toss game. After Homer accidentally gets the game impounded, leaving the two homeless, the Simpsons let them live in their house for awhile, only for the carnies to lock them out and take it over as squatters. It takes Homer tricking them with a fake bet to get them out.
- "Brush with Greatness" had Mt. Splashmore, a water park which boasts it has "The most ways you can be shot hundreds of feet into the air by a geyser of highly pressurized water." Which was all well and good, except, like many of the places promoted by Krusty, very little of the budget was given to the safety, employing teenage lifeguards who were obviously not qualified. (After Homer got stuck in the H2WHOA!, its main attraction, the lifeguards tried to solve the problem by sending more kids down, an incident that made Homer put the H2WHOA! on his revenge list.
- In "Lisa the Vegetarian", there's Story Time Village, which is "a theme park for babies", as Bart describes it, which they go to for Maggie; the place has animatronic characters act out well-known fairy tales, but most of them are broken and malfunctioning. The place also has a petting zoo, however, and it's rather nice.
- In "The Bonfire of the Manatees" The Simpsons minus Homer went to Christmas theme park, which is dreary and rundown. The reindeer aren't happy because of the crappy environment, and their Santa ends up in a body bag. They only went there because Homer gave them the tickets so the house could be used by the local mob to pay for his football debts. Its implied the park is in such a dismal state due to it being off-season, the episode taking place in August.
- "I'm Goin' to Praiseland" had Ned Flanders build Praiseland, a Christianity-themed amusement park (which was previously Story Time Village, which went out of business after a kid somehow got beheaded). It isn't crappy due to a lack of effort on his part, but rather due to his severely overestimating how much people would share his ideas of religious entertainment. For example, the Ride of King David just locks the kids in the cart while a giant statue of King David reads psalms (as in all of them), and the confections are unflavored. It then accidentally slips into Amusement Park of Doom territory when Ned discovers a gas leak that causes people to experience hallucinations of being in heaven.
- Rocko's Modern Life had an early episode with this trope, most of the games are rigged, and the rides are dangerous, and the owner takes every opportunity to fleece customers. It ends with Rocko winning one of the carnival games and the toy he gets breaks about ten seconds later.
- In Garfield and Friends, an amusement park called Wonderful World is found to have fallen into disrepair, and is run by Recurring Character Mr. Swindler. The roller coaster has part of the track missing, for instance, and the game where you throw the ball at the bottles? Well, the bottles are only knocked down after being hit by a roller coaster... and even then, they just fall over. The founder of the park is found under the fun house, and once brought above, is appalled at the state that he's allowed it to get into.
- Stan Pines of Gravity Falls sets up one by the Mystery Shack in "The Time-Traveler's Pig". Not only are the rides poor ("I spared every expense!"), but they're unsafe, as evidenced by the fake inspection certificates he has his niece and nephew put on them (one ride falls apart while Dipper is testing it). And his dunking booth is rigged so that the only thing that can budge the target is a blast from a futuristic rifle.
- In the What A Cartoon! Show short "Zoonatiks", the Power Trio are working in one of these at the beginning, called B.T. Hazbeen's Circus. Its low quality is the reason why our heroes want to get into the Hackensack Zoo.
- Much of the Operation: I.N.T.E.R.V.I.E.W.S. episode of Codename: Kids Next Door takes place in a carnival so crappy it's condemned, the Rainbow Monkeys Let's Learn About the Lavatory Park. The adult Numbuh Three admits she had no idea whose idea it was to build an amusement part with a potty training theme, and remarks that when she became CEO of the company, she had it torn down just to get rid of the smell.
- "Firecracker Jim's Family Funtime Carnival" in Brickleberry is this trope in spades. Among its more notable features are games such as "Meth Eating Contests", Whack A Mole with real moles, and a rollercoaster named The Paralyzer, that just comes to a dead stop in the middle of the track.
Firecracker Jim: You alive?
Steve: [groans in pain with his body twisted and broken]
Firecracker Jim: No refunds!
- In The Brothers Grunt, Dean visits Uncle Stumpy's Animal Park, which includes fly-ridden snacks, a sickly old lion, and wild slugs. The "monkey" is actually a kid in a monkey suit, and the "alligator" is actually a puppet. Government agents later shut the park down.
- The title characters of Ed, Edd n Eddy have created several of these as part of Eddy's scams, including "Barnacle Ed's" from "Floss Your Ed". Smile Town in "Here's Mud In Your Ed" is literally just an empty, trash-strewn alleyway behind a cardboard facade to which Eddy tricks Jimmy into paying for entrance. Averted with the Chimp World park the Ed's built in "See No Ed", which is both fun and well-made...until a freak accident accidentally makes the various ramps and catwalks fall apart and traps the other kids.
- Sheep in the Big City had "Oxymoron's Happy Fun Family Park", an amusement park organized by the notoriously incompetent Oxymoron Inc. The park is literally just an empty, muddy field strewn with trash and broken glass, with the marketing being based on that you're supposed to tailor your own experience at the park - in other words, just running around using your imagination.
- Played with in the Defenders of the Earth episode "The Carnival of Doctor Kalihari", where the rightful owners of the titular carnival are an honest, law-abiding couple. However, the carnival has been hijacked by conman Doctor Kalihari and his stooges, who have turned it into a scam, complete with dodgy sideshows. The Defenders (four of whom are exposed to a shrinking potion, meaning a large portion of the episode is spent trying to obtain the antidote before they shrink away to nothing) eventually drive the crooks out and are rewarded with lifetime passes.
- The Real Ghostbusters once visited one of these out in the Poconos. It had the requisite fake sideshow freaks, but the star attraction—indeed, the one the Ghostbusters were chasing—was a shapeshifter called "Drool, the Dog-Faced Goblin."
- F is for Family: Arnie Carny's, a carnival near Lake Wawayonda where the Murphy's spend their vacation in season 3, is this in spades (the stuffed animal prizes are filled with lice and chinese newspapers, and the petting zoo has the "S" in "Animals" crossed out), to the point where Frank refuses to let the kids go there, saying that "it's run by a thousand thieves all sharing the same set of teeth". Maureen runs off there anyway, where she ends up befriending one of the carnies who teaches her the secret to mastering the rigged ring toss game.
- Lapland New Forest, which opened briefly in the United Kingdom in December 2008. Visitors to their website were promised a spectacular Christmas experience, only to find a bare field with a handful of overpriced rides and concessions, a broken ice rink, and entertainers in unconvincing snowman and elf outfits — all after paying theme park prices for tickets. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in numerous credit card chargebacks and a fraud conviction for the park's owners, plus Santa and his helpers being beaten up by angry guests. The director is also becoming an example of Never My Fault, blaming the park's failure on crowd manipulation and slanderous media. Swindled explores this ill-fated carnival further as a prelude to an episode dedicated to the similarly-disastrous Fyre Festival.
- Ever since Lapland became famous on the news, the media reports on similar attractions every year, and always points out the similarities: The Milton Keynes 'Winter Wonderland "carnival" is another example of this, and has even been compared to the aforementioned Lapland New Forest. The Special Effects Failure alone is a sight to behold. It's already been called "Winter Blunderland" by many newspapers, and got shut down just a DAY after it opened for the first time. It's not only a really poorly set up carnival/attraction, it also lasted less than 24 hours because of how awful it was.
- In what appears to have become a Christmas tradition in the United Kingdom, a drive-through grotto that opened in Norfolk in 2020 was almost immediately branded as "creepy" and "an absolute fiasco". Families queued for three hours in rush-hour traffic conditions only to be greeted with deflated inflatables and severely cheap-looking surroundings. The attraction also had unnecessarily creepy performers including a Scrooge-like character who reportedly told kids that they were mutants and gave at least one child nightmares, as well having a man wrapped in chains just staring at cars. The presents just came in brown paper bags and were reckoned to have probably been bought from Poundland. Finally, the tunnel lights weren't even switched on and the Santa Claus couldn't be any less interested.
- Dismaland was an art gallery and "bemusement park" organized by Banksy in August of 2015, deliberately designed to look like a decaying, disturbing Dadaist Disneyland.
- The bits of Action Park that weren't actively trying to kill its patrons were a So Bad, It's Good version of this, with mostly teenage workers who had little interest in riding herd on their peers and would look the other way for underage drinking or accept bribes to bypass the speed governors on the go-karts.
- Fortnite Live, an unofficial festival held in Norwich and based on the video game, is one of the worst examples since the aforementioned Lapland New Forest. The "cave experience" was just a trailer with a tunnel through it, and the attractions were similar to those at a school fete. Many angry parents complained, including one comparing it to the Craggy Island Funland episode of Father Ted.