Nothing much had changed at the Strawberry Fair since I was a kid -- except for the addition of a booth selling fidget spinners in the center of the fairgrounds.
The Strawberry Fair is an annual tradition in Oceanport, New Jersey. My hometown. Every summer growing up, I'd spend several nights here, breaking the rules on the Gravitron (riding upside-down is not encouraged), climbing aboard nausea-incubators like the Ring of Fire, and trying (unsuccessfully) to get carnies to buy me beer.
I'd made this jaunt back to my old stomping, riding, and eating grounds in June to research a story about the current state of traveling amusement parks -- a dreamy slice of Americana that's still surprisingly thriving in New Jersey and fairgrounds across the country. The Strawberry Fair's rides are schlepped around the States via Amusements of America, the world's largest purveyor of mobile rides. After eating my weight in funnel cake, failing to win any jumbo Rasta bananas, and getting a scenic view of the beachy sprawl from the ubiquitous Ferris wheel, I finished my reporting and was set to publish my personal, sentimental look into this enduring summer tradition.
Then, as most of you probably know, a ride called the Fire Ball malfunctioned on July 27 at the Ohio State Fair, injuring seven people, and killing one man, Tyler Jarrell. Several victims remain in critical condition. The incident was determined to have been the result of "excessive corrosion on the interior of the gondola support beam," according to the ride's manufacturer, the Netherlands-based KMG. But the machine itself was brought to the Ohio State Fair by Amusements of America, the same company that facilitates the miniscule-by-comparison Strawberry Fair in Oceanport, as well as hundreds of other state fairs and local carnivals all over the Eastern United States.
A mere 10 days before this incident, Dominic Vivona Jr., the CFO of Amusements of America, granted Thrillist an interview about the enduring allure of their traveling amusement park rides, and why these quaint mechanical diversions continue to appeal to the masses. State and local fairs, and by extension, rides like the Fire Ball, do seem like a remnant of another era. Perhaps one day, we'll look back on the hydraulic-powered, LED-bedazzled mobile rides that entice thousands of fairgoers to climb aboard every summer in the same way we marvel at old cars without seat belts, and ask ourselves, "How the hell did we ever think this was safe?"
With peak carnival season in full swing, and in the wake of the tragedy, it's worth asking: Are these rides actually safe? Was the Ohio State Fair a horrific, "freak" accident, or a dire warning that indicates a larger problem? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. But there are more than a few things you should know before you get on another mobile amusement park ride -- whether this summer or beyond.