What is a Merry-Go-Round?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The merry-go-round, or carousel, is a spinning ride common in amusement parks and carnivals. The ride consists of a rotating platform with a variety of seating, often in the form of carved animals. The merry-go-round has existed in various forms since at least 500 CE, making it one of the oldest forms of rides still common today.

The seating on merry-go-rounds usually consists of carved animals.
The seating on merry-go-rounds usually consists of carved animals.

The first reference to a merry-go-round is from a Byzantine bas-relief, showing people riding in baskets around a central maypole. The name, carousel, derives from an Arabic and Spanish word meaning “little war” and referring to a courtly game where knights would ride horses, trying to grab clay balls or gold rings. This tradition continues today, with some modern merry-go-rounds featuring rings that can be grabbed and tossed at obstacles for prizes.

In the 18th century a wagon maker named Michael Dentzel began carving elaborate animals to serve as seats for riders. At this time, the ride worked through centrifugal force, with seats spinning out from a central point, rather than sitting on a revolving platform. The merry-go-round was operated by hand-operated cranks or animals turning the central pole in circles.

Dentzel sent his four sons to America to set up carousel enterprises in the new nation. This proved a tremendous success, and merry-go-rounds flourished in the United States throughout the 19th century. Although several other designers made their mark on the carousel industry, the Dentzel rides are considered by experts to be superior in design, craftsmanship and durability. The Dentzel carousels were also noted for their intricately carved and painted horses and exotic animals.

By the mid 19th century, the merry-go-round had evolved to use a steam operated central platform on which the carved seats were suspended from individual poles. Using mechanical innovations, these carousels were built with mechanisms for each seat that created an up-and-down motion, to resemble a galloping horse. Later innovations included double-decker carousels, which featured two levels of seating.

In the 20th century, the term merry-go-round became synonymous with a playground equipment of several kinds. Some urban merry-go-rounds are metal structures that riders hold onto as non-riders spin the entire structure. Others are miniature versions of regular carousels, and feature four metal or wooden animals that can be ridden. This variety is usually operated by means of a central spinner that riders push in one direction. Since most of these structures do not feature any sort of restraint or safety devices, accidents can occur as riders may fly off if the rides are spun fast enough.

The oldest merry-go-round still in existence was built in 1780 and stands in the Wilhelmsbad Park in Hanau, Germany. The tallest carousel at 262 ft (80 m) is the Himmelskibet in Tivoli Gardens, Denmark. Traveling at 18 mph (28 kph,) the recently restored Eldridge Park Carousel in Elmira, New York is believed to be the fastest in the world. Birmingham, New York, is referred to by some as the “Carousel Capital of the World,” as it features six different merry-go-rounds. The Birmingham carousels charge no admission, as the man who donated the rides grew up in poverty and wanted to make sure that every child got a chance to have a ride.

Merry-go-rounds are a symbol of nostalgia for many people. In literary depictions, they are often sources of magic and adventure. The long evolution and cheerful, innovative past of the merry-go-round makes it a continuing source of joy and amusement for many people.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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