How dominant is the Kern County Fair on the community's entertainment calendar? You'd have to hold three Nut Festivals, seven Village Fests and two-and-a-half Christmas parades to equal the attendance of a slow day at the fair. Upwards of 379,000 people passed through the turnstiles during the event's 12-day run in 2012, which, even allowing for repeat customers and out-of-the-area visitors, is nearly half the county's population.
And that was an off year.
"It was down 4,000 from the year before," said Kern County Fair CEO Mike Olcott. "We had a lot of hot days."
But what's a little heat when confronted with the irresistible siren call of stomach-churning rides, keep-on-keepin'-on classic rock bands, adorable pygmy goats, love-in-every-stitch arts and crafts and deep-fried everything?
You get all that and more for the price of admission, $9 for adults this year, up a buck from 2012 but still on the low side when compared to other fairs around the state (Fresnans pay $10).
"People don't think of spending $10 or more to go to the movies," Olcott said, "and we have a lot more to offer."
New this year
Though perennial favorites -- foods, rides, exhibits -- are the bread-and-butter draw every year, a county fair is not a proper county fair without the benefit of novelty. How else to explain the dill-pickle-meets-Kool-Aid invention called the Koolickle? Some return (hello, zip line) and some are discarded like yesterday's funnel cake oil (time to bounce, bungee jump).
So what's new this year?
Vertigo Tower is a 100-foot-tall spinning swing that looms over the midway. "It's exceeding ride numbers wherever it's been placed so far," Olcott said. The attraction was a hit at the Alameda County Fair in June, when a reporter for the Contra Costa Times took a test ride and was happy to descend with the contents of his stomach intact. His takeaway: Hold your head steady and don't look down.
The Human Hamster Ball offers the rare opportunity to see how the other half lives -- the "other half," in this case, being the cute-as-a-button pet rodents whose only respite from a caged life sitting on a 7-year-old's bedroom shelf comes when they're allowed to roll around in a ball for a few minutes. "That's gonna be a cool one," Olcott predicted.
Sandscapes allows visitors eager to class up their fair experience to indulge in an art project. "They take pounds and pounds of sand and build a sculpture" over the life of the fair, Olcott said.
The first-ever high school rodeo takes place the first weekend of the fair and is free to attend, unlike the professional rodeo during the closing weekend. And broncs and bulls beware: This is a proper grown-up rodeo, not some babyfied petting zoo.
Burros and mustangs will be looking for homes as part of a new partnership between the fair and Bureau of Land Management. The idea is to place the animals in the homes of children under 18 -- under the watchful eye of a willing grown-up. The animals and their keepers will then return to the 2014 fair for public display. Speaking of animals, alpacas will be shown for the first time and the Frisbee dogs will be back to perform.
Mining for Gold allows participants to walk in the boots of the state's pioneering '49ers. A variety of minerals will be up for grabs in this kid-friendly attraction. And finders keepers, Olcott said.
Urner's Appliance Store has donated a mobile kitchen to the fair this year to accommodate contests and cooking demonstrations.
The Sports Garden is aimed at folks who can't bear the thought of going a few hours without watching their favorite team. There will be big screens, comfy chairs and beer, which is up a dollar this year throughout the grounds.
Several new food items are supplementing the corn dogs and cinnamon rolls (for more, see accompanying article). Olcott is saving room for the deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but there's only so much of his stomach to go around, he admitted. "I have to have the pickled-tongue sandwich, apple dumplings, corn on the cob, the DeMolay corn dogs. I try to hit all of them."
Funding the fair
But it's not all human hamster wheels and deep-fried pork chops on a stick in the days leading up to the fair, said an amazingly zen Olcott on Thursday, less than a week before opening day.
At 168 acres, the sprawling Kern County Fair complex is the envy of most fairs in the state, Olcott said. Nevertheless, the space gets sucked up, and fast, meaning when a food vendor comes in with a larger-than-expected trailer, something's got to give. Or when electricity needs surpass the available juice, there's only so much the fair can do.
"The (electrical) grid and Wi-Fi have improved, but it's always been a problem," said Olcott, who cites the modernization of the aging fairgrounds' infrastructure as his No. 1 challenge. The nonprofit Friends of the Kern County Fair was formed a year ago to help in that quest, as well as raise funds.
"We're on our own (financially)," Olcott said. "The state doesn't give us a dime."
Out of the annual kitty comes the money for the Kern County sheriff's deputies who provide security and the hundreds of extra-help workers -- some of whom take vacation from their real jobs just to work the fair -- not to mention the approximately 30 permanent staffers.
"What they do to put this fair on is just amazing," Olcott said. "To put something on of this magnitude -- all the tents ordered, all the water stations, all the electrical needs met, the catering, the ticketing -- this whole infrastructure going on behind the scenes. It takes a year to do it, at least."
Give event a fair shake
Kern County residents, as in communities the world over, possess a collection of diverse traits and backgrounds, but at fair time, everyone falls into one of two camps: Those who go to the fair and those who don't.
Olcott, who loves feedback -- which is fortunate since he gets it in spades -- said the gripes of the detractors always come down to the same few themes.
Security:"I'm 54 years old, and when I was first coming to the fair, in the '70s, it was not a safe place," Olcott conceded. But that was before former fair CEO Mike Treacy brought in the Sheriff's Office to run security, Olcott said. "Some of the people I talk to say they won't go into the carnival area, and I ask them when was the last time they were there. They'll say, 'Oh, when I was 18,' and they're 54 now."
Dust: "We have things we put down over the parking lots to mitigate the dust," Olcott said. "We don't put out as much dust as the farms do." The insidious foe is hard to conquer, though they try. After the last candied apple is sold every night, crews water down the roads and other surfaces.
Heat: Call it a theory or wishful thinking, but Olcott has spent many an hour thinking of his old enemy, the heat. "I'm glad it's hot now," he said early last week. "I hope it's 100 all the way through to next Tuesday, because then the odds for cooler days will be in my favor. I want to play the odds and have the averages." The truth is, the fair comes at an unpredictable time of year, when wind and sprinkles can follow the day after a 100-degree scorcher. Keeping your eye on the forecast is the key.
Crowds: Olcott advises steering clear of the fair on weekends and coming out on Monday or Tuesday if lines are not your thing. Opening day is usually soft, but he expects big crowds this year on the strength of musical acts Uncle Kracker and Luis Miguel. But at the end of the day, the man responsible for the fair's bottom line is only going to find so much common ground with agoraphobes:
"I want crowds."