Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Revealing the secret to rounding up rodeo bounty

By KEN HOFFMAN Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle

March 9, 2009, 4:38PM

I have a basketball hoop on my garage. When I have nothing to do, I go outside and shoot free throws in my driveway. Thousands of free throws ... for free.

Yet once a year, I go to the carnival at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and pay $2 to shoot one hardly free throw. It’s stupid, I know. But I do it because I can make that shot.

I win!

Sure, I win a big stuffed animal that I wind up giving away to a kid on my way out of the carnival. But a win is a win.

I love the carnival games of skill. Yes, skill. Those days of squashed basketball hoops and 100-pound milk bottles are long gone. All of the games at the carnival are on the up and up. They’re fair. Difficult — that’s why you get a prize if you win — but fair.

Fair enough, so I figured I’d start at one end of the carnival and play every game — all 25 of them — until I won a prize. Helping me was Tony Fiori, marketing director for Ray Cammack Shows, the company that runs the whole carnival, from games to rides to cotton candy to cleanup, for the rodeo. Fiori has been with RCS for 25 years. He can win a stuffed animal with his eyes closed. He knows all the tricks and angles on each game.

Here’s the real scoop, though. There really aren’t any tricks of the trade.

You want to win a prize? Just throw the Ping-Pong balls and hope they land in the floating fish bowls. Good luck.

OK, here’s a tip from Fiori. Throw them nice and soft and aim for the fish bowls in the middle. Thanks, Tony.

You may have heard that the economy is a little shaky. Tickets for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are down about 4 percent from last year. But business on the carnival midway is up 5 percent. Fiori said people are staying home instead of taking a spring vacation. And there’s one thing that is guaranteed recession-proof — a guy will always try to win a stuffed animal for his girlfriend. It’s caveman stuff.

This year, for the first time, rodeo guests don’t pay $2 or $3 directly to carnival workers at each booth to play a game. Instead you buy a Fun Pass card, any amount you want, and play until the scanner blinks broke. Then you can reload the card and continue trying to knock over milk bottles.

My first game was Whac-a-Mole . Surprisingly, this is Whac-a-Mole’s first appearance at the carnival. The rodeo version has a twist. You play against other people — high score wins a prize.

I had only one opponent. I beat a 9-year-old girl, 150 to 130. Take that, pow! (Don’t worry, Fiori made sure the girl won a prize, too.)

Next was the Basketball Toss — pretty much a free throw. The balls are pumped up pretty well and the rims are super tight and slightly smaller than regulation. But it’s a makeable shot. I swished it on my fifth try. Hey, it was windy.

I got a stuffed monkey’s head sticking out of a big yellow banana. It was the biggest prize I’d win all day.

“Here’s how it works,” Fiori said. “The bigger and better the prize, the tougher and harder the game. That’s only logical. The carnival really isn’t in the game business. We’re in the merchandise business. It’s a simple formula. For every $10 we take in, we give away $2.50 in prizes.” Here’s another way to look at it. About 8 million people visit a Ray Cammack carnival each year across the country. The company gives away 1 million prizes.

You know that game where you shoot a BB gun at a piece of paper with a red star on it? Knock out the red star completely, and you win an expensive bicycle. It’s the best prize on the midway.

It’s also the hardest prize to win. Again, only logical. And that’s where my carnival winning streak ended. You get between 100 and 108 BBs each time. That’s simply not enough BBs for me. It would take me until next rodeo to shoot out that star.

Between my fourth and fifth try, the booth attendant told me, “Rambo never wins.”

I have no idea what he meant. I’m Rambo?

Fiori’s tapped my shoulder and said, “What you do is keep going in a circle.”

I told him, “I know that, but how do I win at this game?”

He said there are marksmen in each city that wait all year for the carnival — just so they can win bicycles. It’s like early Christmas shopping for these Deadeye Dicks.

“We don’t bar anybody from playing, but we do post a limit on how many times a person can win a certain prize per day,” Fiori said. Yao Ming is welcome to shoot free throws for SpongeBob SquarePants toys. But he can win only two per day.

I didn’t win a bicycle. I didn’t win a stuffed turtle at the Milk Bottle Toss, either. I threw my best stuff at those milk bottles and never got all three to topple. I’d get two over and nudge the third, but it just wouldn’t fall.

I checked — all the milk bottles weighed the same, about three pounds.

Woody Allen tells a joke. When he was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, a violent hurricane hit Coney Island and wiped out buildings, the entire boardwalk and all the rides and all the games. The only thing left standing — those three milk bottles.

I did win the Water Fun Gun game on my second try. I was Steady Eddie and keep a constant stream pointed at the target. I won a stuffed snake.

I didn’t win the Pool Hall game, either. They set up four balls on a pool table. You break them and then have to sink all four balls in a row, calling your shot, without scratching. The game, and the table, were on the level. I just stink at pool. I gave it six or seven tries and cut my losses.

Mini Basketball was a snap. It’s a game for children. I tossed it underhand, granny-style, and won a little stuffed dog.

I popped four balloons in a row in Balloon Bust, a children’s dart game. Fiori told me to throw the darts gently. I followed his advice. He said carnival workers practice these games in the morning. They know what they’re doing.

Here’s one game where a little trick is involved. You have to throw a Wiffle ball at a wood target and have the ball drop into a plastic clothes basket below. It’s called Bank-a-Ball. The target says “One In Wins” across the top.

Lean in all the way to the yellow line, and aim for the “n” in “In.”

I won another stuffed dog.

My buddy Reg “Third Degree” Burns tagged along with me on the carnival midway. He loves the corn dogs at the Juicys booth between Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. But mostly his job was lugging all my stuffed-toy booty.

My most humiliating moment was the Hi Striker game. That’s the carnival classic where you lift a huge, heavy sledgehammer, like the one Gallagher uses to smash watermelons, and hit a target, sending a light beam up to rate your strength. Top score is 150. My best was 110. I’m not good at manual labor, such as hammers. I mean, I can put up a picture, but swinging a sledgehammer is not my line of work.

Fiori hit 133. Some scrawny kid who looked like he weighed 120 pounds scored 138. It’s got to be technique. If it’s not, I need to start juicing.

I had to call for a ruling on the Beer Bottle Bust game. You have to break two glass bottles with baseballs. I shattered one, then plunked about five bottles apparently made from bullet-proof glass. They wouldn’t break.

Finally one bottle spun off its perch and tumbled to the floor, where it broke. I claimed that, while my fastball didn’t do the damage, it did cause the bottle to eventually shatter. Fiori ordered the barkeep to give me a prize. Probably to stop my whining.

I wound up winning prizes at most of the games.

By the time I was done, my arms and Third Degree’s arms were full of stuffed animals. I gave away all the prizes to kids as I left.

Fiori said stuffed animals are still are the most popular and winnable prizes at the carnival, but soon the carnival will offer expensive bounty like iPods and computers and cameras. But to claim a prize like that, you will have to accumulate points — lots of points — like at Dave and Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese’s. There will be a ticketing system and redemption center at the carnival.

But until that day, the stuffed monkey I won at Basketball Toss remains my prize possession.

No comments: