Hysterical, screeching laughter; that’s the first thing you hear. Then you see her: a 6-foot-tall red-haired woman with freckles and gap teeth enclosed in a glass box. Laughing Sal is the unofficial barker welcoming visitors to San Francisco’s Musée Mécanique (Mechanical Museum). She’s one of more than 300 vintage carnival characters that come to life with spare change. Not only are you allowed to touch the antique arcade games in this museum; you’re encouraged to play with the coin- operated machines.

Exploring the Musée Mécanique

Tucked away on San Francisco’s Pier 45, the Musée is one of the best-kept secrets of Fisherman’s Wharf. “I hear about people stumbling upon us all the time,” says Dan Zelinksy, owner of the Musée. Dating back to the 1800’s, the vintage arcade games are part of his private collection. He works at the Musée six days a week, wearing roller skates to get around the warehouse.

Machines range from the whimsical to the macabre. Visitors stand in front of the Gypsy fortuneteller as she waves her hand over a crystal ball, sit on the Love Meter throne to see if the red lights indicate whether they are frigid or passionate, and walk around a table in the center displaying an entire miniature moving carnival. This handcrafted diorama is dizzyingly intricate with a Ferris wheel, a gorilla thumping his chest at the Jungle Land sideshow, and boxers in a ring.

Musée Mécanique

Gypsy Fortune Teller at Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. Photo by Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

Nickelodeon movies include Passion Paradise, photos of models in the 1920’s, and the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair. There are least three-execution games, an opium den, a hula dancer, and a flasher, (who reveals a store’s sale items). A surprisingly effective vibrating foot massage machine is strategically located near the door and there are two photo booths perfect for an inexpensive memento.

Visiting the Zelinsky Collection at Musée Mécanique

When Laughing Sal takes a break, player pianos and a Mighty Wurlitzer military band organ fill the cavernous space with old-fashioned tunes. Zelinksy says the museum is popular with tourists because, “…music is universal. There are no barriers here,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what language you speak or how old you are, everyone can relate to laughing Sal.”

Zelinksy says only one other place, in Michigan, allows the public to play with antique arcade machines. There are vintage games on display in museums, he adds, but visitors cannot touch them.

Musée Mécanique

Love Meter Throne at Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. Photo by Ruth Wertzberger Carlson

Musée Mécanique is open every day of the year from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and admission is free. The cost of playing the machines begins at a penny. Most games require quarters and luckily the Musée has change machines.

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More than 300 vintage carnival characters come to life with spare change at San Francisco's Musée Mécanique. Try your hand at antique arcade games! #SanFrancisco #familytravel #travel #museum #quirky #arcades #pier45 #california #wander