Rhonda Ward, manager of the Collier County Agricultural Fair and Exposition for the last nine years, believes that families are looking an entertainment alternative more affordable than high-priced theme parks. That could be one of the reasons why more than 6,000 additional people attended the fair held in Naples, Florida from March 13 through March 23 than in 2013.
"I think the great weather we had affected the attendance," she said. "But I think it had a lot to do with the economy, too. A lot of areas are still feeling the recession. Things are getting better, but many people just don't have the money for the big theme parks. Our fairs are more affordable, and families can come to enjoy the entertainment, the rides and the food."
The weather was right around 80 degrees, said Ward, just as it should be near the Florida Gulf Coast in March. Since it was first held in 1977, the fair has changed dates a couple of times, said Ward. It has usually shifted from March to January and then back to March.
"It's been held in March for the last four years, and I think we have better weather in March," said Ward. "We had about 65,000 people attend this year. A lot of them were locals, but Easter came later this year, so there were spring break crowds and vacationers in the area, too."
Just as it was intended to do when it was first organized by the board of directors back in the late 70s, the Collier County Agricultural Fair and Exposition continues to focus on the agricultural elements of Collier County, said Wade. There are a lot of people in the county who support agriculture, and there is plenty to support. There is the citrus industry, the cattle farmers and a variety of farmers who live and work in the community. The 4H Club is an important part of local education, and the children who belong to the club have a big presence at the fair with the stock shows and exhibits.
"If it weren't for the farmers, Collier County wouldn't be here," said Wade.
Admission to the fair was $10 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 11. Children under 5 were admitted for free.
A fair star was Erin Sadowski, a young artist at Naples High School. Erin designed the program cover for the fair. The illustration featured an American eagle, a soldier, a firefighter, Superman, a family and a minister. Erin won $250 for the winning entry and a ride armband for herself and three friends for submitting the winning design as well as free admission to the fair.
Nick Lomas of Gulf Coast High School won second place in the contest and Rilee Standriff, of Naples High School, took third place.
There were special events and special pricing at the affair almost every night. March 13 was pet night. People entering the fair got free admission if they donated two cans of dog, cat or human food. There was an armband special for $15.
Ward described the demolition derby on March 15 as a "crash, bang experience." The show featured races and the demolition of other vehicles by competitors down to the last car, she said.
Entertainment included a monkey show, sea lions, and a joisting show. Lady Houdini, who performs underwater escape acts like historic magician Harry Houdini performed, was a big hit, according to Ward. Everybody was sitting on the edge of their seats as they waited for the female performer to disengage herself from locks and chains while beneath water.
Reithoffer Shows is based in Gibsonton, Florida and brought 70 attractions to the midway in Naples, Florida, including the popular Stinger. It was the second year that the Stinger was featured at the Collier County Agricultural Fair and Exposition, and it had not lost its attraction for many fair goers this year .
"Kids seem to love it," Ward said. "It takes the riders way up in the air, and it just dangles them in mid-air. Then, it spins them around. It was too much for me. No, I didn't try it."
One of the most popular and successful elements of the Collier County Fair was the Life's Not Fair Auction and Fund Raiser. The event is held each year to help the fair association raise money to donate to worthy community efforts. It started when a member of the fair's board of directors battled melanoma, said Wade. The woman worked in the same office with the fair manager.
"She was just a wonderful person, and she needed help with her medical bills and other expenses," said Wade. " That got everything started, and the fact that it continues today is a tribute to her."
The woman's name was Cheryl Gross, and her legacy continues through the help that others who came after her have received. The fair board, often through word of mouth, hears about individuals in the community experiencing hardships in their lives and makes cash contributions to either the individual or to their families.
The board has recently helped a board member's family whose wife has Huntington 's disease. The board has reached out to the family of three boys killed in an automobile accident.
"We try to spread out," said Wade. "We lost two board members and two spouses last year between February and September. We help to pay for medical expenses, help pay for funeral expenses, do whatever we can to help people with the financial burden of tragedy."
Maybe that's why fair officials all dressed up like their favorite characters on Super Heroes Day, another success at the 2014 Collier County Agricultural Fair and Exposition.
The 2015 fair will be held in Naples on March 12 through March 22.