Before they reach the Ferris wheel, the Tilt-A-Whirl or the Zipper, visitors at the Ventura County Fair must maneuver through a crowded midway packed with tempting games of chance.
For a few dollars, players can win giant stuffed animals or posters of pro athletes, sexy women and rock stars like Britney Spears at one of 35 game booths sandwiched between the food court and the neck-bending rides.
For a stubborn few, the urge to win a prize can overshadow the fun and get downright expensive.
"I had a guy last night dump $100 trying . . . while his wife kept telling him to stop," said Chris Gray on Saturday afternoon.
Gray runs the Bottle Up game, in which the point is to get an empty beer bottle to stand up by using a long wand equipped with a piece of string and a small ring. The idea is to loop the ring around the bottle's neck.
In the end, the big spender on Friday night shelled out $180 before walking away with a stuffed dog and a smile of satisfaction, Gray said.
At one point, Gray jokingly goaded the frustrated player and told him, "It's not about a dog anymore. It's about being a man."
If rings and bottles sound too difficult, midway visitors can shoot basketballs at a hoop that looks more oval than round, toss darts at colorful balloons pinned to a large board, fire a water pistol at a target that propels a toy race car toward a finish line, or flip coins at an arc-shaped target at the "Rainbow of Happiness."
Which booth attracts the players often depends on how well the carnies bark invitations to victory and fun.
On a good day, Gray, who lives in El Paso and drives a truck around the fair circuit to operate the Bottle Up game, says he can convince two of every five people passing his booth to play.
The trick is to act deliberately and swiftly, because there are only a few seconds to reel people in before they have moved on.
"The whole key is to make eye contact with them and get and keep their attention," Gray said as he scanned the crowd in search of potential spenders. "You want them to believe you. It's like sales. It's a numbers game."
Taking a chance on a game is all part of the fun, said Tony Fiori, corporate marketing director for RCS, an Arizona-based company that operates rides and games at 14 fairs across the country, including Ventura County's.
Although the stakes are stuffed animals instead of big money, the philosophy behind playing carnival games is the same as playing slots in Las Vegas, Fiori said.
"You spend a little, you make a little," said Fiori as he walked the fairgrounds holding an unlit cigar and greeting employees. "We're a big business, and it's not like the old days."
To better compete for entertainment dollars, Fiori said, carnivals have cleaned up their images by hiring clean-cut, reliable employees, while trying to retain some of the circus-like charm.
The annual fair ends its 12-day run at Ventura's Seaside Park today, giving thrill seekers one last chance at games and rides before everything is shipped to Sacramento for the California State Fair.