The Riverside County Fair and National Date Festival has nothing to do with boy meets girl.
It's more of an introduction to the general public of the incredible, sweet fruit that grows on date palms growing on the fairgrounds and in the surrounding desert of the Coachella Valley near Indio, California, about 130 miles east of Los Angeles.
Imported from Algeria, the palms were brought into the area in 1903 and planted in the desert region, where they thrived. The region has about 250,000 date palms planted across 5,000 acres. The area is now responsible for the production of about 35 million pounds of dates annually; close to 95 percent of the nation's date production.
The event this year kicked off early on February 14 with a ceremony to bless the date palms, the workers involved in the harvest and the equipment. The 68th annual National Date Festival concluded on February 23 after days and nights of food, fun, camel and ostrich races, music and, of course, the many stories about the classic tales of "1001 Nights."
Dressed in authentic Arabic costumes, entertainers sang and danced nightly throughout the festival to retell the amazing story about the jealous king named Shahriyar, "who dearly loved his beautiful wife." Unfortunately, as the story goes, he discovered that she was unfaithful. So he had her beheaded. The king vowed he would remarry, and the morning following his wedding night, his bride would be killed.
The task of finding the king a new wife went to the local chief of police. Eventually, he allowed one of his own beautiful daughters to marry the king. "Scheherazade" was a comedian and a great story teller, the tale goes. On her wedding night, she started the story that became the "Tale of 1001 Nights." And each night, she left the story the king found so fascinating unfinished. And so it went for 1001 nights, until the king fell deeply in love with Scheherazade, and they lived happily ever after.
Each year, to celebrate the story, the festival crowns Queen Scheherazade and her court. This year, 13 young women competed for the crown. The event is held several months before the beginning of the festival. This year, the winners were Makenna McIntyre for queen, Chrystabelle Ramirez for princess and Lindsey Klein for princess. Makenna is a senior at La Quinta High School. She plans to attend a four-year university and become a family marriage counselor. Chrystabelle is a senior at Coachella Valley High School and plans to major in computer science in college, and Lindsey is a graduate of La Quinta High School who now attends the College of the Desert.
The three girls act as ambassadors to the fair throughout its run, said Kimberly Douglas, fair marketing manager for 15 years.
The Arabian theme is carried out again with the ostrich and camel races, said Douglas. The races are always popular events. The antics of the animals are always a surprise, she said. Ostriches are the largest birds on earth and the only two-toed bird in existence. They can run more than 40 miles per hour. And the sparkling costumes the entertainers wear are colorful and always something to see, she said.
The first National Date Festival was held in 1921, said Douglas, soon after the date palms were established in the area. After that, the festivals stopped and started again, in 1947, after World War II.
"Our desert area, desert region, is promoted with this festival," she said.
The dates are always promoted with date baking contests, date cook-offs and special date concoctions that offer the sweet fruit at their very best.
"A couple of years ago, we featured date milkshakes, and fair visitors just couldn't get enough of them," she said.
The Midway is provided by Butler Amusements, as it has been for many years, she said. The company is based in Fairfield, CA.
There are special offers throughout the festival on the midway rides.
Admission to the date festival is $9 for adults, $8 for senior Citizens, $7 for youth and $6 for bus tours. There is no charge for children.
Douglas said that 294,864 people attended the date festival this year. That's a 14 percent increase over last year's attendance.
"We feel like that's a nice, strong number," she said. "With everybody dressed in Arabian costumes, our main theme is to respect the dates. We have a date cooking show where everybody can sample the recipes. We have cooking contests. It's a pretty unique fair."
There are more than 7,000 exhibits that fair visitors can see. There are also monster trucks, bull riding, agricultural competitions with prizes offered, various other competitions and exhibits. All of the entertainment was offered free with admission, including nationally-known bands and entertainers.
One of the most popular this year was Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, a band that has made its goal of supporting and entertaining members of the military and their families. The band includes Sinise on the bass guitar, Kimo Williams on the electric guitar, Danny Gotlieb on the drums with Gina Gonzalez and Kirk Garrison providing vocals.
There were also concerts by Daughtry, Tucanes De Tijuana, Five for Fighting and Kool and the Gang.
The fair was promoted through advertising on radio, television, billboards and social media, said Douglas. The fairgrounds currently covers 120 acres.
The Arabian Nights theme was made a part of the fair when Robert McFullen was appointed Fair Manager just after World War II, and he came up with the idea, according to the fair history. The theme is meant to tie in with the desert region and the date industry.