After checking out of a truly horrific hotel (but that’s another story . . .) my family headed for Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, IL. The whole family piled into the van, including my husband and myself, our two kids, and my parents. For my parents and our son, it was their first Great America experience.

As we wandered around the park, seeking out the best rides for young kids, I noticed several enormous Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman stuffed dolls. They were hard to miss, as they were bigger than some of the kids carrying them. It wasn’t long before my daughter grabbed my arm and said, with a grin on her face, “Look at those big Wonder Womans! I know someone who would like that.”

“Auntie Kris?” I asked.

“Yes! We have to buy one for her.”

I explained that they were prizes to win and that we probably couldn’t buy them in any of the stores. She looked bummed out for a while, then got distracted by trying to get Grandma and Grandpa to go on some rides. Not an easy task with a grandma who doesn’t care for heights and a grandpa who kept asking, “Where are the games?”

My dad’s favorite part of theme parks has always been the carnival-type games, so whenever we’d pass a a courtyard of games, he’d start searching his pockets for money even before we knew which games they were. The whole family played several games throughout the day, but he played (and won) the most. What he really wanted to play was Skee-Ball, his favorite. I have several memories of my dad and grandma bonding for hours in the arcade building of the amusement park in New York that we used to go to when my brother and I were kids. The two of them had a grand old time slinging scratched brown balls up the ramp, trying to best each others’ scores by firing the most Skee-Balls into the 50-point slot, while the rest of us stood in line for rides.

We had already accumulated several stuffed prizes when we finally walked by the Skee-Ball tent. My dad’s eyes lit up. So did my daughter’s; one of the prizes for winning Skee-Ball was–you guessed it–a gigantic Wonder Woman.

“You have to win, Grandpa!” she exclaimed. “We need to win a Wonder Woman.”

My dad shelled out the two dollars per person so we could each play a round. None of us was exactly fabulous, and none of us won any prizes. Everyone declined to give it another go except my dad. I knew he’d play several more rounds or until he won something.

“That was my warm-up game,” he declared of his not-too-impressive first attempt.

“Try really hard, Grandpa,” my daughter urged. “We just need that Wonder Woman.”

And I got a sinking feeling that the outcome of Skee-Ball would make or break this trip to Great America. Twenty years from now, the tone in which our kids reminisced over that day would be linked to winning or not winning a giant Wonder Woman.

I’d been been part of a group that won a giant stuffed prize from a carnival game exactly twice in my life. The first time, my little brother had somehow managed to fling a beat-up red ring over the neck of a bottle. He won a humongous Barney the dinosaur figure for his efforts. It was pure luck. He was ten or so at the time, so he was beyond mortified at the prospect of having to haul a big Barney around the carnival. We ended up giving it to our cousin Autumn. Being toddler-aged, she appreciated the annoying purple dinosaur.

The second time we won was at a county fair, and the prize had been a giant stuffed turtle. My grandmother (who was with us at that fair) loved turtles. She had an extensive collection of turtle knickknacks and had pointed Giant Stuffed Turtle out earlier as we made our first sweep around the fairgrounds. My husband (technically, he was my fiance at the time) and I kept forking over five dollar bill after five dollar bill to get more buckets of rings. Five or six buckets later, when we finally agreed this would be our last one, the woman running the game asked us which prize we were so set on winning. “The turtle,” I said. “It’s for my grandma. She collects turtles.” I turned to motion behind me at the rest of my family. There was my little old lady, 77-year-old grandma cheering us on from her wheelchair.

The woman handed us the bucket of rings and when we were about half way done failing to get any rings from that last bucket even close to winning, the woman reached into her apron, slipped a ring on a bottleneck, and shouted, “Winner! Grandma gets a turtle!” Unlike my brother and his mortification at winning Barney, Grandma was perfectly happy to carry her ginormous prize around for the rest of the fair.

So being that my only experiences with winning large prizes thus far had been a kid’s dumb luck and a gift by a kind fair worker, I wasn’t holding out hope that things would end well for either my dad or my daughter.

What I hadn’t counted on was my dad’s old Skee-Ball skills coming back. He started flinging balls up the ramp, and several dropped right into the 100 or 50 point slots. When he was down to his last ball, he only needed to score ten points to get to the magic number that would win a prize. Thus, the flashing light went off at the end of his second game.

“You win a prize!” the worker announced.

“What are the prizes we get to choose from?” my dad asked, as we waited for her to bring out some rinky-dink prize that he could turn in for a slightly-less rinky-dink prize over and over again until 25 games and $50 later he could get those upgraded to a “medium prize.”

But she pointed at the giant Supermen, Batmen, and Wonder Women hanging down from the top of the tent. “Anything you see.”

We (the adults in our group) stood there in shock, while my daughter immediately yelled out, “Wonder Woman! We want the Wonder Woman!” as she jumped up and down and clapped, as if the Skee-Ball worker was going to give her a million dollars, not an obnoxiously large stuffed super hero.

The woman smiled and handed my dad a ginormous Wonder Woman. My daughter looked as if she were going to burst with excitement, and my dad looked pretty thrilled to be the Skee-Ball hero.

“I didn’t know she liked Wonder Woman,” Dad said to me as we started walking to the next game (with Giant Wonder Woman) in tow.

“It’s not for her,” I told him.

“Yeah, it’s for Auntie Kris,” my daughter spoke up. “She loves Wonder Woman! This is the best trip to Great America ever!”

As we made our way toward the two-story carousel for one last ride, my dad, seeming touched, said to me, “I thought she wanted it for herself. That was really nice of her to think of someone else.”

It was one of those moments as a parent when you sit back and feel like amidst all your (daily) mistakes and lack of patience and Pinterest baking fails, you’re doing something right. Watching my daughter’s excitement at achieving something for the sole purpose of making someone else’s day ranks pretty high on my list of favorite parental moments and probably won’t get bumped off it very soon.

My kids aren’t perfect. The screaming, whining, and fighting involved on the ride home that began within an hour of this heartwarming event is testament to that.

But life is about cultivating relationships and doing what you can for the people you love. It’s about thinking about our friends first and being just as excited when good things happen to them as we are when we’re the recipients of good fortune ourselves. As a Christmas special would say, it’s about giving rather than receiving.

My daughter knows that at eight, so I feel encouraged that she will grow up to be the sort of person who takes great joy in giving to others. Giving her the opportunity to do just that was definitely worth the expense of a day at a theme park.

Admission to theme park: $284

Parking: $25

Lunch for the whole family: $89

Winning a gigantic Wonder Woman for your friend: Priceless

 The fam with our huge prize


Jenifer Brady is a mom, photographer, and the author of the Abby’s Camp Days series, set at the fictional Camp Spirit. Her current work-in-progress is a fantasy trilogy. Find out more about her books at or her Amazon Central page:


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