The Tilt-A-Whirl

The Tilt-A-Whirl is a common site at parks all over the world. Created by Sellner Manufacturing, it's yet another simple physics exercise turned into a ride. Put a marble on a plate, and then begin wobbling the plate so that the marble rolls around. The smoother a rhythm you create with the plate, the faster the marble rolls. That's the essence of a Tilt-A-Whirl.

A Tilt-A-Whirl is a large circular platform made up of angled sections (like truncated pie slices) hinged together. Under the platform is an undulating steel track, much like the old Traver Tumble Bug. Wheels under each section ride on that track, so that the platform travels counter-clockwise around gentle hills and valleys. On top of each section is a ring of steel track. Affixed to a pivot in the center of that ring is the cab. The cab resembles a small bandshell on wheels. Up to four riders sit with their backs against the bandshell, directly over the wheels that ride on the ring of track. Since the pivot point is in the center of the circle, the weight in the cab is unevenly distributed, just like a marble on a plate. A magnetic brake holds the cabs stationary. When released, the cabs are free to spin around the pivot point.

Below the platform is a steel cable that runs from the clutch all the way around the ride. The cable pulls the platform around at a gentle speed. As the sections tilt back and forth over the hills, the cabs act like marbles on a plate: they whirl around with varying degrees of ferocity depending upon the rhythm of the tilt. In many cases, good ol' fashion nausea ensues. Riders who want to spin mercilessly often make the mistake of sitting all on one side of the bandshell, or they try to manually rock the cab. That only stalls the rhythm. To spin relentless, the cab needs to have evenly-distributed weight.

At Mountain Park, most riders were blissfully ignorant of the ride's physics. Fortunately, like many rides at the park, the Tilt-A-Whirl operated with a manual clutch. After loading the ride and checking all the lap bars, I would walk over to a slender platform that hung off of the ride, facing the arcade. In the middle of that platform, a long steel handle (about four feet high) protruded from a slit in the floor. When the ride was stopped, that handle was held tightly to one side by a leather strap. A button on a panel opposite the handle would start the quiet motor. I would remove the leather strap and gently pull the handle until the platform slowly began to revolve. I'd watch all the cabs to make sure the riders were behaving themselves. (Some would have second thoughts and try to get out as the ride started.) When everything looked good, I'd hit the button for the magnetic brakes. The cabs would begin spinning around. As the ride gained speed, I would gradually pull the handle all the way back. The ride would run for about three minutes. Then I'd shut the power off and let the ride coast slowly to a stop, finally securing the leather strap. The cabs would continue rocking wildly back and forth until I hit the magnetic brake, which would emit a loud squeal and bring the cabs to a sudden halt. I'd open the exit gate (just a chain, actually) and let the dizzy riders out. Then I'd close the gate and walk around the ride, looking in each cab. Ostensibly, I was checking to make sure no one left any important personal belongings. But really what I and all the operators would do is pick up the loose change that had been shaken from the riders' pockets.

One advantage of having a manual clutch was that I could vary the speed of the platform while the ride was running. That way, if a certain cab wasn't spinning all that much (because of weight distribution) I could slightly change the rotation speed until the cab began spinning. Since many guests still purchased individual tickets for each ride, I was able to make sure they all got their money's worth. That kept the job interesting. Every so often, someone inevitably would get sick. But that wasn't a big deal. The Tilt-A-Whirl was against the back of the Midway Food booth, where there was a hose. So I'd just shut the ride down for a minute, get the hose, wash the ride off and then re-open. Naturally, people in front of the line waiting for the next ride could see what I was doing and would avoid the wet cab. But the guests behind them were often oblivious would hop right in.

Originally, the ride came with wooden sections for the platform. They gradually rotted out. A man named Himmen from Westfield loved collecting interesting and unusual things. He was also a remarkable and creative metal fabricator. There was a giant pirate head originally made by Dominic Spadola for the Pirate's Den. It was never used on the ride and was kept in storage. Himmen wanted to buy it. Instead Roger Fortin asked him if he could repair the Tilt-A-Whirl platform with steel to cut down on maintenance. Himmen agreed, charging the park just a few hundred dollars (and of course the pirate head) for the materials. He fabricated entire new sections and welded them all in place. It made the ride a bit noisier, but that platform was still in excellent condition right up to when the park closed.

Some of the operators at the park weren't exactly dedicated to their job. Some found out that if you jerked the clutch handle quickly while the ride was spinning, it would cause the cable to detach. The ride would coast to a stop. The operator would call Roger over, and Roger would spend a half-hour re-attaching the cable. Meanwhile the operators would simply wander off to the arcade and play games.

One of my most memorable moments running the Tilt-A-Whirl came at the end of a long and busy Saturday. It was nearly eleven at night. The park was emptying out. I was exhausted, having been on my feet since ten in the morning. I was sitting on the steps of the ride's entrance, under the blue and yellow canopy lit by yellow florescent bulbs. A small group of energetic boys came running out of the Mountain Flyer's exit and headed straight for me. I looked at them wearily, shaking my head, and said, "Sorry. Ride's open." The boys stopped dead in their tracks. A look of disappointment filled their faces. "Awww," one of them moaned, disgusted. "The ride's open." They turned on their heels and ran back for the coaster.

I enjoyed running that ride. I would get a nice tan over the summer, and collect a lot of extra change. The sound level around the ride was a bit much, with the arcade at my back and the Satellite next door. But there was enough variety to the job that I didn't get bored. Making different cabs spin faster was always a challenge. Occasionally, some kids would catch on to what I was doing and call out to me to make them whirl. I was always happy to oblige.

(NOTE: The background picture for all these memories shows me standing in front of the Tilt-A-Whirl entrance. It was taken at the Satellite operator station.)