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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Me and the Tilt-a-Whirl go back a ways, but it had been a while.
When I was younger, the whirling, twirling, hurling machine was a regular piece of my carnival experience — alongside a scarfed-down corn dog and the sticky fingers left behind by a pink tuft of cotton candy. In the years that followed, I had done without the ride. I wasn’t avoiding it; we just never sort of met again.
But it seems that for many people, the Tilt-A-Whirl isn’t an optional part of life. It’s a necessity.
Just ask Nicole Hamari, 20, of Chanhassen, Minn. I caught up to her as she stumbled out of the Tilt-A-Whirl’s exit gate with three friends at the Minnesota State Fair. “I couldn’t breathe I was laughing so hard,” she said. “It’s one of the best rides here.”
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This summer, the ubiquitous Tilt-A-Whirl quietly celebrated its 80th anniversary at fairs, traveling carnivals and amusement parks nationwide. As state and county fairs wrap their seasons, the machine makes an appearance at each.
But this is a different world than the one into which the Tilt-A-Whirl was born. It’s become a place of Xboxes and YouTube videos and abounding virtual experiences that compete with the most exciting of real-life amusements. Can such a sliver of old-school Americana survive?
If the lines of riders from all generations at the Minnesota fair last month are any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
“There have been so many rides over the years that haven’t lasted,” says Todd Merriam, general manager of Merriam’s Midway Shows, a third-generation carnival company that owns a 1947 Tilt-A-Whirl.
“But for some reason,” he says, “the Tilt-A-Whirl hangs in there.”
Way back when
“As long as I’ve been here, the Tilt-A-Whirl has been part of the fair,” says Jim Sinclair, general manager of the Minnesota State Fair for 31 years. “The most popular rides are the traditional ones … You really wouldn’t have a midway if you didn’t have a merry-go-round, a Ferris wheel and a Tilt-A-Whirl.”
Herbert Sellner designed and manufactured the first Tilt-A-Whirl in 1926 about 50 miles south of today’s Minnesota state fairgrounds. His great-granddaughter Erin Sellner is now president of Sellner Manufacturing Co., which still produces the Tilt-A-Whirl in the ride’s birthplace of Faribault, Minn.
More than 2,000 Tilt-A-Whirls have been sold since the original invention, and Sellner Manufacturing is still building new rides even as it services 600 more currently operating around the country.
For the uninitiated — if that’s actually possible in America — the Tilt-A-Whirl creates twisting, turning fun with seven circular platforms, each with a car on top. As the platforms move along a hilly track, they rotate and the cars atop pivot freely around the center. The hills and valleys whirl the car in chaotic and unpredictable spins.
A modest amount of neon illuminates the ride at night, but the colors are subtle compared to the glowing rainbows of light that adorn nearby rides.
It’s exactly that simplicity that loyal Tilt-A-Whirlers love.
“It’s my absolute favorite ride ever,” says Amanda Storey, 29, of Birmingham, Ala., who grew up riding the Tilt-A-Whirl every year with her dad at the Chattahoochee Valley Fair in Columbus, Ga.
“It’s a really, really simply constructed thing. You look at it and think it looks like a kids’ ride,” she says. “But it beats all that other big flashy stuff. It makes you laugh the entire time.”
Careful with the corn dogs
Even physicists have been drawn to the Tilt-A-Whirl’s clever use of chaotic motion.
“The ride is fun because you never know exactly what will happen,” Bret M. Huggard and Richard L. Kautz wrote in a 1994 study of the Tilt-A-Whirl published in the American Journal of Physics. “As your car rides up and down the next hill, it may spin clockwise, counterclockwise, or hesitate without spinning at all.”
It’s not tough to figure out, however, how to throw your weight to one side of the car at just the right moment, sending it into a high-speed, dizzying whirl.
Don Carlson, 70, of Moundsview, Minn., didn’t hesitate to jump on the Tilt-A-Whirl at this year’s state fair just as he’s been doing for decades. This time, he rode with his wife and two granddaughters, instructing them through their squeals how to lean into the spins.
“Nineteen fifty-two was probably my first ride. And it’s still just as good now as it was then,” he said, smoothing down his white, wind-blown hair.
Clearly I had to re-establish my relationship with this legendary machine. I got in line and climbed aboard. My seatmate was a 5-year-old boy, a Tilt-A-Whirl first-timer whose parents no longer rode the thing. He looked at me. “Am I going to get sick?” he asked. I wasn’t sure how to answer.
Five minutes later, I had a better answer. My head was spinning, and I had to stand still for a while. I realized that I might have to rethink my county-fair order of events: Next time, it would be Tilt-A-Whirl first, then corn dog. Maybe.
Amanda Storey doesn’t ever plan to give up the Tilt-A-Whirl, no matter how old she gets. “I like Six Flags and ride all those big rides, too,” she says. “But nothing is better than the Tilt-A-Whirl. I will ride it until I’m 100.” And given its longevity so far, the machines may be around for the ride.