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 ride, 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.)
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 rides 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.
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.
Family entertainment centers like Chuck E. Cheese's, founded in 1977, provided another outlet for kiddie rides. While the intricacies of skee-ball may elude a 3-year-old, a ride in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle's van does not.
But there were signs of trouble for the kiddie ride. Bigger vending-machine operators specializing in selling soda and potato chips never took on kiddie rides, seeing them as a service hassle.
"Most professional vending companies never got involved in kiddie rides," says Nick Montano of Vending Times magazine. "They never became part of the mainstream vending world." Instead, smaller specialty operators, usually ones that had already taken on the gumball market, focused on kiddie rides. Vending Times estimates there were about 55,000 kiddie rides installed in the U.S. in 2012, versus 2.8 million soda machines and 1.2 million snack vending machines.
There's also the problem that the audience for kiddie rides is small, and only got smaller as the toy market has expanded. "The age span has shrunk," says Montano. "Kiddie rides used to be for for kids up to 7 or 8 years old. Now it probably cuts off at 5." After that, kids go off in search of something more sophisticated to sink their quarters into.
And, like every other sector of the economy, American manufacturers are simply disappearing. The Billboard feature in 1953 listed over 20 companies manufacturing and selling kiddie rides. Montano says that even three decades ago, there were still a dozen or so left. Now, there are effectively none.
Nearly all modern kiddie rides today are produced overseas. There's the Spanish company Falgas ("the Europeans, their fiberglass work is superb," says Montano), with a long tradition of superior craftsmanship. Zamperla in the Philippines has rapidly established itself as a major player. And in recent years Chinese companies like Universal Space have emerged as viable competitors. The consensus is that Chinese companies provide a more affordable but shoddier product. The consensus is also, that, given a few years, Chinese manufacturers will rapidly improve the quality of their offerings.
Meanwhile, one company is trying to restart the American tradition. A.J. Kress and his father run Benchmark Games, a long-established company that works mainly in redemption amusement machines (i.e., games you play that give you tickets to spend on prizes). The younger Kress, however, decided to branch out into kiddie rides with National Kiddie Rides, LLC. His first ride is Sugar the Pony, set to debut in early 2015, and produced in a 38,000-square foot facility in Hypoluxo, Florida. "It’s a brand new product," enthuses Kress. "We’ve taken the nostalgia look of the horse and pony." Sugar is a direct callback to James Otto Hahs's earliest invention, and Kress believes Sugar the Pony hits on something uniquely American within his audience, compared to his overseas competitors. "Ours is a very American, Western-looking horse," he says.
Dave Young, owner of coin-operated game retailer BMI Gaming, wishes Kress the best of luck. He saw Sugar at a recent trade show, and says it was stunning. "It's probably the most beautiful American kiddie ride I’ve ever seen," says Young. "People were actually stopping and staring and taking pictures of the kiddie ride. You don’t see people taking pictures of kiddie rides."
But for Young, the majority of his kiddie-ride market in America is private owners—a woman in Texas just bought a three-horse carousel for her house—and foreign markets. "Most of the kiddie rides we sell nowadays go overseas to malls," says Young, mainly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. As a burgeoning middle class emerges, so does the demand for kiddie rides.
Kiddie rides are here to stay, says Vending Times' Montano. "It was never a big category. But slow and steady, I don’t know if it wins the race, but it finishes the race. It could be the profitable adjunct to any vending route."
But in the story of kiddie rides, it's hard to not see the same future as for so much of America's mechanical and manufacturing endeavors: the slide into the gentle oblivion of nostalgia.
Gary Mandarino, 59, runs Denver, Colorado’s Kiddie Rides USA, where he specializes in repairing and reselling kiddie rides, mainly those produced during the 1950s and 1960s.
The vast majority of his refurbished rides go to private individuals, usually older ones. “They’re people that are in their 50s or 60s,” says Mandarino. “Almost every one of them says, ‘I remember when I was kid, I would love to go to the drug store and ride this.’ They’re usually trying to get it for their own kid or grandkid.” Mandarino doesn’t get much of a younger clientele. “I can’t say I’ve ever sold one to a customer in their 30s,” he says. “The rides were already on their way out when they were growing up.”
He's skeptical of any sort of revival in kiddie rides—once a modern kid is old enough to operate an iPad, forget about it. He worries about the future of his business with his buyers growing older, his market drying up. After a pause, he considers, “Well, I’m pretty old myself.”
Walking home the same night after talking to Mandarino, I pass the pink dinosaur outside the bodega. Curious about how much it costs, I lean in closer. Fifty cents. I have two quarters. There’s a woman outside talking on her phone. I put the quarters in, and a digitized voice warns, “Parents! The ride is about to start. Parents! The ride is about to start.” The woman on the cell phone crosses the street, unwilling to deal with whatever type of crazy makes someone put money into a children's toy by himself at 8 p.m.
The dinosaur rocks back and forth, "Mary Had a Little Lamb” kicks in, and I remember riding something similar when I was a tiny kid, at a Chuck E. Cheese's or Showbiz Pizza. It was a helicopter, and I remember believing that somehow the helicopter would actually take flight, that the rise and bump of the machine would mean I’d soon be soaring up somewhere unimaginable. The pink dinosaur blares music and rocks back and forth, weird and sad without a kid to ride it. After a minute, the ride stops moving, settles into place, and goes silent.