For an event focused on the past — the big 100th anniversary is this year — the Kern County Fair is accentuating the new, as in new rides and attractions, new competitions, a new gut bomb or two, more room for concert-goers and a new wine slushie, whose invention is so why-didn’t-someone-think-of-this-before ingenious that, frankly, it shouldn’t be new at all.
A fireworks show will light up the sky for five or 10 minutes each night after the Budweiser Pavilion concert in honor of the centennial, and Kern Pioneer Village has loaned the fair some vintage farm equipment, sewing machines, pictures and more to display. There’s a lovely commemorative poster by local artist Nancy Putney available for $10 ($15 signed), and fair-goers will have the opportunity to stomp grapes, “I Love Lucy”-style, not that a classic American sitcom has anything to do with the classic American fair’s anniversary, but still.
Speaking of new, guests will be presented with the first change before they even reach the turnstile: Parking has gone up. But let’s stick to the good news first, shall we?
“The biggest thing this year is the Egyptian wildlife attraction,” said Mike Olcott, taking a rare breather for a phone interview less than a week before his 12-day marathon begins Wednesday.
Olcott was referring to an exhibit geared to kids that features exotic animals from North Africa. The hands-on attraction includes jumping spiders, scorpions, snakes, sphynx cats, porcupines, hedgehogs — “a whole bunch of things,” Olcott said, though perhaps the hands-on part of the exhibit doesn’t extend to the more lethal creatures. Children will also learn about the pharaohs and life in ancient Egypt through games and other activities.
Like most attractions, entry into the Egyptian exhibit, across from the Grandstand, is free.
If all that education gets to be too much — this is the fair, after all — there are six new rides, most of which appear extreme enough to dislodge any ancient Egypt factoids still floating around in those little heads.
The most vertigo-inducing, on paper at least, is Inversion, which the amusement company that runs the carnival rides introduced just this year. The description on the fair’s website offers this enticement, either terrifying or tantalizing depending on how well your stomach holds onto corndogs: “The Inversion features a tripod of 12 passenger seats. The main arm of the ride swings side to side like a pendulum then swings to invert passengers completely around and upside down. The inversion can reach a height of nearly 80 feet!”
The mere description of Crazy Train, another new ride, is enough to make a potential thrill-seeker dizzy: “Passengers board the Crazy Train, two to a seat, and after the ‘doors’ slam shut the train begins to move down the track. But suddenly, the entire track starts to revolve! The train continues on, upside down and then just as it recovers, the track continues revolving!”
For an attraction that blends thrills and education, Olcott pointed to Live Shark Encounters.
“They have a guy who goes into the tank with sharks and does a demo and shows them the teeth, fins and talks about them all,” the CEO said. “The public won’t be swimming with the sharks, and hopefully both of my lawyer directors (on the board) won’t get in there with them.”
Also new is one of three rodeos, all of which carry an additional admission fee beyond what it costs to get into the fair.
“It’s gonna be huge,” Olcott said of the Extreme Rodeo, whose entry price is $5, compared with the $12 general admission ticket for the PRCA contests and $10 for the Fiesta del Charro.
Extreme Rodeo, which takes place at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 24 only, emphasizes entertainment over the competitive aspects of PRCA.
“This guy dressed sort of like a matador runs toward the bull and flips over the bull as it’s coming toward him,” said Olcott, who listed off other bull scenarios, like a poker game and something to do with four guys on a teeter-totter (the CEO said he’s heard nothing from animal-rights advocates as of yet).
Not returning this year is the popular butterfly tent, a highlight of the last couple of fairs. Olcott said the attraction is at a different fair. Also not returning is Strasner’s BBQ — even the building is gone — after owner Steve Strasner decided he’d had enough of the grueling sprint that is the life of a fair food vendor. (Big Bubba’s BBQ will run a second location in the space.)
On the plus side, there are more seats at the Budweiser Pavilion, and that’s good news not just for the comfort of concert-goers but also for the caliber of concerts. The 1,000 floor seats added by moving the bleachers back give the venue a capacity of 3,500 and may entice bigger acts to perform, Olcott said. Sacrificed in the name of entertainment was a bathroom building, but they’ve called in the porta-potties to relieve the pressure of all those wine slushies.
Among the big names this year are the Commodores, Grand Funk Railroad, Boyz II Men, Kellie Pickler and Rachel Platten, whose ubiquitous “Fight Song” has become the anthem not only of presidential candidates but any middle-schooler who ever dreamed of standing up to a bully in the school cafeteria.
As for livestock — the sole reason some families attend the fair — the numbers are huge this year: 3,500 animals in all, which might be a record, Olcott said. To accommodate the menagerie, the poultry will be housed in a tent erected in the dirt parking lot near the beef and dairy barns. At 876 birds, the poultry account for the largest single group, with swine, at 780 animals, in second. Rabbits and cavies total 598, the third largest category.
The Kern County Fair junior livestock exhibit is the largest in the state, Olcott said. Auction sales totaled $2.7 million last year, an increase of 8 percent over 2014.
“I like the showing of the livestock on Saturday and Sunday,” Olcott said. “They’re competing to move themselves up to the big barn, where on Sunday night, they’ll be chosen as grand champion or grand champion reserve.”
And now to parking. There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Prices are jumping from $5 to $8 per car. Olcott noted there has been no increase in years and that the cost of lighting and maintaining and staffing the lots has increased. But fans of the VIP experience take note: There will be about 300 primo spaces set aside for anyone willing to shell out $15. There are two VIP lots, one on South P near Albert S. Goode Auditorium and the other on Union, north of the main Union gate.
The budget for this year’s fair is up slightly to around $4 million, Olcott said, but additional expenses like the fireworks will help celebrate the one-time milestone of the fair’s centennial.
“The grandest spectacle for the anniversary you’ll see is the fireworks.”