Carnival vs. Circus: What’s the Difference?

Come one, come all, to learn what separates the two fun-filled attractions.
This illustration features elements of both circuses and carnivals.
This illustration features elements of both circuses and carnivals. / wetcake/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

A traveling company of performers rolls up on the outskirts of your town; on the bill are entertaining clowns and impressive jugglers, which you can watch while munching on popcorn or cotton candy. But are you at a carnival or a circus? Although the line between the two is sometimes a little blurred, their origins are actually very distinct, so step right up to learn the difference.

What is a carnival?

American traveling carnivals can be traced back to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a.k.a. the Chicago World’s Fair. At the outdoor Midway Plaisance, visitors could see attractions such as belly dancing, strongman shows, and even magic performed by Harry Houdini. They could also play fairground-style games, grab some food, and take a ride on one of the world’s first Ferris Wheels.

two women playing a game at a summer carnival
Carnivals usually feature an assortment of games and rides. / RichLegg/E+/Getty Images

Otto Schmidt worked as a showman at the fair and soon afterwards set up the Chicago Midway Amusement Company to tour these attractions around northeastern states. Traveling carnivals steadily gained traction; by 1936, there were around 300 of them crisscrossing the country.

Entertainment at a carnival is spread across numerous small booths and tents. To begin with, the main draw was the games (ring toss, balloon darts, high striker, etc.) and attractions (sword swallowing, fire breathing, snake charming, etc.). Freak shows that exhibited conjoined twins, people with dwarfism, bearded women, and more were also a staple.

As freak shows fell out of favor during the 20th century due to changing attitudes toward physical differences, advancements made with mechanical rides allowed them to fill the gap. Tilt-a-Whirls, carousels, roller coasters, and bumper cars soon became common carnival features.

What is a circus?

The story of the circus begins in 1768, when Philip Astley and his wife, Patty, opened Astley’s Riding School in London. The couple performed stunts on horseback in a circular ring, and although trick riding was already an established form of entertainment, it was Astley’s idea to add clowns and acrobats to the show. He’s hailed as the “father of the modern circus” for bringing these elements together. Astley also figured out that a 42-foot diameter ring was the ideal size because the centrifugal force created by a horse galloping in a circle aided a rider’s balance; this has been the standard ring size ever since.

Astley never actually used the word circus. That credit goes to his rival Charles Dibdin, who opened The Royal Circus nearby later that same year. As for the popularization of the iconic circus tent—known as a big top—that’s down to Joshua Purdy Brown, who in 1825 started to use a tent so that his circus could travel more easily around the United States.

American trick horse Black Eagle performing before Queen Victoria and her family at the Great United States Circus, 1858.
American trick horse Black Eagle performing before Queen Victoria and her family at the Great United States Circus, 1858. / Three Lions/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The centerpiece of the circus was (and still is) the display of skills such as acrobatics, flying trapeze, and tightrope walking. Audiences were guided through these feats by a ringmaster—often outfitted in a red tailcoat with gold trim, a waistcoat, and a top hat—who originally kept the horses running, but soon became a master of ceremonies. It also became increasingly common for circuses to showcase exotic animals, with audiences expecting to see lions jump through hoops and elephants stand on their hind legs.

Showman and charlatan P. T. Barnum is largely responsible for bringing freak show performers to the circus, having had success with them at his museum. Barnum got into the circus business in 1870 and hired giants and people with extra limbs to star in sideshows next to the main tent. Now, however, physical anomalies and cruel animal tricks aren’t as commonly displayed, with performances instead revolving around spectacular gymnastic skills.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Carnival and a Circus

These days, there are generally two major differences between carnivals and circuses, but they aren’t hard-and-fast rules. First, carnivals tend to feature many booths that offer simultaneous entertainment, while circuses usually take place within one big tent or theater. Second, carnivals normally include interactive rides and games; circuses, on the other hand, typically involve a seated audience watching stunts performed in the ring.

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