It was an explosive event this summer. The San Diego County Fair, held in Del Mar, Calif. at the Del Mar Fairgrounds hosted 1,609,481visitors to enjoy 1,879 concerts and explore a whopping 4,187 different attractions over 26 days. And then the rollicking, fireworks filled conclusion: the fair, which began June 1, culminated on Independence Day.
The largest annual event in San Diego county, this year’s iteration was presented by Albertsons and Vons. The theme was “How Sweet It Is,” and crowds found the candy-centric event very tasty indeed.
The fair, which began in 1880, still adheres to its roots of agricultural bounty and community pride, but it’s come a long way since displays of crops and prize farm animals were the main attractions. Today there’s a lively mix of rides, concerts, events, and dining choices that appeal to kids and adults alike. This year, the fair ran Wednesdays through Sundays, with strongest attendance on the weekends, just slightly lower than the records set in 2016.
The fair is one of the top 5 fairs running in the U.S. and Canada according to fair spokesperson Annie Pierce. Pierce notes that this year “We really wanted to capture everything that’s fun about being a kid.” Pierce says there were 118 new attractions for 2018, including competitions such as a Cotton Candy Straw Race, which involved holding a cotton ball on a straw, and the Bean Boozled Challenge in which participants tested their Jelly Belly palate by comparing tasty flavors with crazy ones -- without knowing which was which. Floral design and chalk art were the recipes for success at the Bloom N Art Party with hands-on home and garden activities.
Special mini-events within the fair added even more varieties of fun to the expansive fair, with an Asian Festival offering music, dance, and martial arts performances as well as floral displays, and Distilled: The San Diego Spirit & Cocktail Festival serving up a selection of over 150 spirits and mixers plus food pairings. And the 8th annual LGBTQ-community event Out at the Fair offered two stages of entertainment. Wine, beer, and mariachi festivals added to the mix.
Of course, there were plenty of more traditional events as well, including a Wild West Turkey Stampede, livestock judging, a petting zoo, and the Swifty Swine Racing Pigs.
And on the 4th of July, the fair closed its run with patriotic music, a Hometown Heroes parade, and a fireworks display that utilized a whopping 3,670 pyrotechnic elements in a 20-minute display produced by Fireworks America of Lakeside, Calif.
According to Pierce, the fair’s gate fee this year ranged from $12-$19 depending on the day, with discount tickets available throughout the run. Kids 12 and under received free admission on Fridays in June; Friday, Saturday, and Wednesday tickets were available for just $5 at Albertsons or Vons with a $10 minimum purchase. For true fair fanatics, Pierce notes that unlimited entry passes were available for just $28.
Probably the most unique element of the fair this year was the hidden Cocoa Cabana Speakeasy, where visitors who unearthed the cozy den found candy-infused cocktails and a tropical setting. The location proved a treasure hunt for adults, with fair staffers providing details when asked along the way.
Food options were wide ranging, and among the most unique were bacon wrapped baklava and ramen burritos: a truly cross-cultural mix. On the more classic side, some fresh takes on crowd-pleasing favorites such as cheesy bacon bombs, cinnamon roll sundaes, and lobster tacos were strong sellers. So were gooey donut grilled-cheese sandwiches and red velvet funnel cake, and a wide variety of multi-colored “unicorn” foods from burgers to Kettle Corn to cotton candy and ice cream sandwiches. Possibly crossing beyond unique and well past riffs on the traditional were novelty foods such as chocolate-dipped jerky. Diners who wanted to try them all had a special deal on Thursdays: visitors could buy taster-sized portions of fair foods for $3.
The most popular noshes? Candy Factory’s Unicorn Nitro Popcorn popped “a field of corn” using 2,640 liters of liquid food-grade nitrogen to freeze the candied popcorn to -321 degrees. And Chicken Charlie’s debut of deep-fried filet mignon served 5,000 pounds of the meat to carnivores, while vegetarians enjoyed 10,000 pounds of deep-fried avocados.
From fair food to fair rides – Pierce says ride package specials such as Pay One Price Ride Days - $38 on Wednesdays and Thursdays – did well. And no wonder: there were a lot of rides to experience. The most popular included The Big Wheel from Ray Cammack Shows, Inc. to Southern Cross Rides LLC’s G-Force, and the carousel, which drew families and children by the score.
And there were plenty of thrills without setting foot on a ride. Pierce cites the 69th Annual Livestock Auction, car shows, a singer/songwriter competition, Battle of the Bands Contest, and a total of 28,050 entertainers who performed at the fair, Pierce attests.
While the fireworks finale on the 4th was among the top events at the fair, other big draws were the Latin-themed Fiesta Village, with crafts, musical performances, and shopping; and the Toyota Concert Series, that featured big-name country acts such as the Grammy-award-winning Sugarland, and rock acts such as The Fray and Capital Cities. Ticket prices were varied, with some performances included with gate admission. Sugarland was a hot paid ticket at $72-$115. The indie-favorite Capital Cities offered free general admission to fair attendees on levels 3 and 5, with reserved seats costing between $30 and $42 per ticket.
All in all, the fair offered something for just about everyone – cute pygmy goats, a dog show, sheep shearing, wool and fleece judging; martial arts demonstrations, cooking demonstrations, and even a poetry slam. Eclectic, packed with diverse activities, foods, rides, and attractions, the San Diego County Fair’s “How Sweet It Is” theme may have started with the idea of edible sweets in mind, but in the end, it was a sweet bevy of entertainment treats for all who attended.
Photos by Steve Hinz.