Ahh, no trip to the Mall would be complete without the jarring sound of kids begging their parents for a turn on the coin-operated mechanical kiddie rides tucked away in nooks all over the Shopping Centre. They’re not quite as popular as they once were, most new Megamalls wouldn’t be caught dead with such simply visceral entertainment, but they are still out there - a little dinged, a little danged - proudly bleeping and blooping away, awaiting the next eager youngster. Today we will have a look at these wonderfully nostalgic Mall staples.

In 1931 James Otto Hahs, an inventor based in Missouri, came up with the idea for making a mechanical horse upon which kids can ride. This was his big breakthrough, considering that his other inventions are so obscure I have no idea what they are - the ‘hand-propelled fishing troller’, the ‘piston groove cleaner’ or the ‘stump saw’. Perhaps I just run in the wrong circles. He called his new invention the ‘Hahs Gaited Mechanical Horse’, and this was the Adam of the Mall mechanical kiddie ride.

Leading up to Christmas 1931, James was working on an industrial steam-powered tomato peeler for the tomato ketchup industry when his mind turned to what he would be giving his five children as a holiday gift. As soon as he envisaged the horse, the tomato peeler took a back seat as he began to imagine how such a thing would work. Using parts he could easily get hold of, such as mohair, an actual cow’s tail and real leather saddle, the mechanical horse was ready on Christmas Day. The kids absolutely adored the gizmo, whose speed was controlled by the degree to which one pulled the reigns. They nicknamed the creature ‘Spark Plug’.

A picture of the very first mechanical kiddie ride - Spark Plug

Today they can still be seen in Malls, featuring all of the popular children's characters of the day

After a few minor changes to the design, such as replacing the expensive wooden horse for a lighter, cheaper aluminium one and adding the coin operation, Hahs was ready to unleash his gift upon the world. He secured a patent for his design and retired a very rich and happy man as his baby rolled out in carnivals across the United States. He never did get back to his tomato peeler though, but somehow Heinz survived!

In the beginning they were all horses - remember these were the 30’s, a time when kids wanted nothing more than to imagine they were riding around the great American frontier as a brave cowboy. After these horses were a huge success, manufacturers began producing pegai, flying saucers, rockets, boats and cars. However, things really took off when companies producing the most popular television shows and animations of the day - the likes of Roy Roger’s Trigger, Woody Woodpecker, Tom and Jerry and later the live-action Batman series and the Flintstones - decided to use the basic design and produce their very own kiddie rides. They raked in cash as eager children stuffed them full of coins in order to interact with their favourite on-screen characters.

So when did they enter the hallowed ground of the Shopping Mall? Well, in the 50’s a new town was popping up in Illinois called Park Forest, and being a ‘modern’ community they of course had a fancy new Shopping Centre, called the Park Forest Center. As soon as the Mall was born, owners were dreaming up ways of keeping shoppers within them for as long as possible - and this was the Centre first to bring the mechanical kiddie ride into the Shopping Centre, starting off with a classic horse and then followed closely by the addition of a space rocket. Needless to say kids absolutely loved them and soon every new Mall being built at the time, such as the Fresh Meadows Mall in Flushing, New York and the Northgate Centre in Seattle, copied this grand idea with great success.

The first two kiddie rides to enter a Mall - a horse and a rocket in the Park Forest Mall in Illinois

Soon Malls were even ripping out existing attractions to accommodate ever more mechanical rides, one of which was able to rake in from $125 to $300 a week, a tidy sum sixty years ago! Unlike hefty pinball machines and billiard tables, kiddie rides were able to come out of the special designated Mall arcades and directly into the walkways of the Shopping Centres, enticing families further into the Mall and even into the stores. There they remain even today, the only difference being that ‘Dearsest Mummy, it would be ever so amenable if I could perchance ride upon that captivating girating horse over there’ has become ‘MOM I WANNA RIDE MCQUEEEN!’.

Unfortunately, as toys became more advanced and children’s tastes became ever more demanding (and electronic), the kiddie ride began to fall out of favour. The age at which children enjoyed these simple pleasures began to shrink - whereas kids as old as ten or eleven would enjoy these rides back in the 50’s, no child under six or seven would be caught dead riding along with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a Shopping Mall today! Upkeep also began to become an issue, as the ageing machines began to cost ever more to maintain. Eventually it stopped being worthwhile and the number of kiddie rides seen in Malls began to wane.

Today, Shopping Centres such as the incredible Mall of America have taken in-Mall children's entertainment to a whole new level. This has put a slight damper on the simple mechanical kiddie ride; not that we're complaining at all - ten minutes in the Mall of America and you'll forget they ever existed!

Today there is a boom of people, driven by nostalgia, who buy up these unwanted Mall rides for their own private collections. There are even people out there who specialise in repairing and restoring the more derelict examples. While it is great that they are going to people who will truly love them, it is kind of sad that the general public will no longer get a look at these vital parts of Mall culture. That being said, they are still out there - in fact, now that you have read this story, you will likely begin to notice the things everywhere!

The machines seem a tad sad now, especially considering the levels of entertainment modern Malls have now achieved. Quite frankly I’m not sure if it’s the children or me who get more excited upon seeing one of these colourful little automatons whirring away in a Mall. I think of Back to the Future II, where Marty demonstrates to a pair of kids how to use an old arcade cabinet in a retro soda shoppe - they look at him as if he is some kind of troglodyte as soon as they see he uses his hands to operate the thing. I picture kids staring at these kiddie rides in the near future, head tilted to one side like a puppy seeing something for the first time, wondering what the heck to do with the contraption. It would be a shame though if one day they all disappear and the dark corners of my favourite Malls are empty.

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