If you’ve ever wondered what flying feels like, riding down the Giant Slide might be close. Each time you swish over one of the peaks, you soar off the slide for a millisecond before descending into the next valley. You grip onto your mat for dear life, your insides topsy-turvy. Five seconds later, it’s over, and you’re ready for another round.
The Giant Slide, with its simple design and bright yellow color, has earned its status as an iconic staple of the Minnesota State Fair, where it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. An attraction enjoyed by children of all ages as well as adults, it’s a ride that families return to year after year.
For owner Fred Pittroff, the Giant Slide has always been a family affair. Now operated by Pittroff’s daughter, Stacey Pittroff-Barona, and her husband, Robbie Barona — with help from their daughters Anibella and Isabella — the Giant Slide appeals to families for a number of reasons: its quick lines, its central location in the fairgrounds and of course, nostalgia.
“People who ride now are adults who are taking their grandkids on it because they rode it when they were a kid,” Fred Pittroff said. “That’s why they go to the fair. Seventy percent of them are old people with young kids.”
Pittroff, whose fair career began at age 15 in 1953 in Southern California, got the idea for the Giant Slide at a Santa Cruz, Calif., amusement park in 1965. “I was working the fair at a hot-dog-on-a-stick stand,” Pittroff said. “This guy came down and was talking to my boss when I was a young kid. He said the most popular ride at the amusement park was a slide. So I went and looked at it, and designed a bigger one.”
Pittroff’s father-in-law had a scaffolding businesses, so Pittroff could get materials for cheap. In 1965, he hired an engineer his dad knew to design his first slide, based on pictures of the Santa Cruz slide. “It wasn’t that safe, but it got us started,” Pittroff said.
Like the Santa Cruz slide, Pittroff’s first slide at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino, Calif., had just three humps, so there was quite a drop as you went down. “I just hurt a lot of people because they’d go across the flat section, they’d drop too fast, and come down and hurt their legs,” Pittroff said of his first attempt.
Working with an industrial architect named Kevin Casey, Pittroff made a new slide with five humps. “Before, you used to drop 7 or 8 feet [at a time] — now you only drop 3 feet between each hump, so you get that wavy feeling,” he said. “I changed the bottom two humps to a different degree, so it flattened out a bit.”
With a successful model, Pittroff and his late wife, Beverley, went on to open 42 slides all over the country, and one in Australia, over the next two decades, with Minnesota’s Giant Slide opening in 1969. Most have been sold, except the slides at the Minnesota and Wisconsin state fairs.
Since then, not much has changed with the slide, except for new scaffolding beneath the exterior. The biggest change might have been adding green to the traditional yellow paint job about 25 years ago. This year, they swapped it back to yellow only, with a new extra-durable epoxy paint.
“We are hoping we won’t have to paint it every year now,” said Stacey Pittroff-Barona. It helps that they now use felt rather than burlap mats, which they stopped using when their supplier stopped making them.
Pittroff-Barona first rode the Giant Slide when she was several months old. She began working the fair at age 12, and was running the Wisconsin slide herself a few years later. “I grew up in it and I’ve always loved it,” she said. “Our entire lives have always been wrapped around the fair — all year round there’s always something going on that has to do with the fair.”
Stacey’s husband, Robbie, also worked at the fair from a young age, at the nearby Mike’s Hamburgers booth owned by his sister and brother-in-law. “He would walk back and forth with the dolly, and that’s kind of how we met,” she said. They ended up getting married on top of the Giant Slide in 1996, with 5,000 fair guests in attendance.
Stacey’s and Robbie’s daughter, Anibella, 19, has been “working” at the slide since she was 5, when she handed out mats. She and her sister, Isabella, 21, intend to carry on the business.
“That’s what we want to do,” Anibella said. “It never crossed my mind to have another profession than the slide and the fair.”
Don’t ever change
Over the years, the Giant Slide has become a tradition for many families. “It’s the only ride where the parents and kids can ride together,” Pittroff said. Unlike a Merry-Go-Round, where parents of young children can stand next to their child, with the Giant Slide, they are experiencing it alongside their kid.
Plus, Pittroff-Barona said, it’s almost as fun to watch as it is to ride. “You get to watch all the expressions,” she said. “It’s so entertaining to people. That, and I also think it’s tradition more than anything. It’s just a real simple concept and it hasn’t changed over the years.”
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.