Engineering a Carnival Scam: The Secret Behind the Carnival Ladder Climb

We’ve all been duped by those carnival games at theme parks and piers. The bottle ring toss, the baseball bottle throw, the basketball three-pointers. Why do these games that seem so easy at first glance turn out to be so difficult? It’s not you. It’s science.

The carnival owners purposely make these games appear easy from the outside to pull you in, but behind the scenes, they’ve added sneaky physics to make winning much more difficult, even borderline impossible.

For example, the ladder climb. It seems simple at first: Climb the suspended ladder on all fours all the way to the top, win a giant plushie. But there’s a reason all the prizes in this game are so big. It’s very difficult to win…

Here’s former NASA and Apple engineer Mark Rober explaining the physics of what makes this game so difficult, and the secret to beating it:

Unlike a rope bridge that’s supported by two points on each end, the carnival ladder is supported at one point on each end. This is significant because it derails your body’s tool to keep you balanced: your center of mass.

The center of mass is the point on an object where all its weight is evenly distributed. If you try to balance something on your finger, the point on the object where it can balance without external help is its center of mass. To keep the object balanced, you just have to keep the center of mass within its area of support:

Hand balancing soccer ball on single finger, with center of mass marked

When standing, a human’s area of support is between the back of the heels and the tips of the toes. To stay balanced when standing, you just need to keep your center of mass between those two points:

side view of person with center of mass and area of support marked

This is why when you bend over to pick an object up off the ground, you automatically stick your butt out; your body is naturally keeping your center of mass between the two support points to keep you from falling over.

When crawling across a traditional rope bridge, the area of support is between all four endpoints of the bridge, a pretty big surface area. Since the carnival ladder has just one point on each end, the area of support is only a line. You’re basically crawling across a tight rope:

person crawling across a rope bridge connected with four points total, area of support marked
person crawling across a rope bridge connected with two points total, area of support marked

This may seem a lot like a slackline, but a slackline is easier because you can move your arms and legs around to keep your center of mass above the line of support.

So the secret to beating the carnival rope ladder? Keeping your center of mass above a line, which, unfortunately, you can only get good at with practice.

Our advice: Skip the ladder climb and ride the roller coasters instead!

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Kelly Obbie

Social Media Coordinator at CADENAS PARTsolutions | A 2018 graduate of The Media School at Indiana University, Kelly studied journalism, public relations, English and Spanish and has experience in news writing and editing as well as social media writing and management. She also has professional and personal experience in videography and photography. She currently lives in Ohio but has lived in four states, and in her free time, she enjoys running, hiking, learning languages, and watching Disney movies.