This Bastille Day (July 14) weekend, the 10-minute ferry ride from Manhattan to Governors Island will take travelers back in time. Fête Paradiso, the world’s first festival of privately collected vintage carnival rides and carousels, has been carefully spread – and garnished with bright paint – across one of the martial island’s sweeping lawns. Tracing the development of the carnival from 1850 to 1960, the collection spotlights the surprising number of technical and artistic innovations that created the modern carnival.
An automated pipe organ, made in Paris in 1910, lulls visitors as they pass between the globes of incandescent light strung along the whimsical awnings of artisan-carved carousels. One installation, a carousel composed of late-19th century bicycles, was first built for the World Fair of 1889 to teach people how to cycle. The only other piece like it is hidden in Le Musée des Arts Forains, in Paris. Another classic carousel is steam-powered and radiates heat from its belching hub. A hand-carved Dragon Ride whirls counterclockwise using power produced by a saltwater circuit. Classic games, like The Music Hall Ball Guzzler, feature life-size caricatures of personalities like Charlie Chaplin, the dancer Josephine Baker, and the Fratellini circus family.
Robert Arbor, who helped develop the exhibit and whose French restaurant Le Gamin will cater to carnivalgoers, says of the installations: “Even for us, they are unique. Some were stationed under the Eiffel tower.”
Unfortunately, the Fête must go on sans bumper cars. The individual vehicles were too heavy to ship from Europe. Still, an antique bumper “arena” has been transformed into a pavilion set with wooden tables where guests can clink their glasses together amid belle époque opulence. The children’s carousels offer a fine family day trip, while the French wine (and top-shelf spirits) prime a romantic date.
Although Fête Paradiso debuts July 13 with an electronica-infused Parisian Ball, the exhibit will be open every weekend through September. If you’re worried about the summer heat on Governors Island, don’t be – a whirling swing ride cools you quicker than you’d expect.
More information: Simply hop on the ferry at 10 South Street in downtown Manhattan for the quick ride to Governors Island. It’s free to enter the park, but each ride and game costs $3.