The Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival, ran February 15-24 this year, and is a long running event that’s really two events in one. Located in Indio, Calif., just east of Palm Springs and 2 hours from Los Angeles, the fair began in 1921 as a way to celebrate the conclusion of the desert region’s annual date harvest.
Dates were still a novelty and a tourist attraction in their own right then, according to marketing specialist Rhonda Roberts. The initial fair ran for two consecutive years before community interest faded, resuming in 1936 with the name Riverside County Fair and Coachella Date Festival.
At that point, 72 booths exhibited and fair attendance reached 5,000 attendees, a substantial number for the time. The fair had a Western theme and a street parade, and was deemed a rousing success. In 1940, 40 acres of the fairgrounds – land still in use today - were purchased; presently, the fair spans over 120 acres. Following a hiatus during World War II, the fair resumed, this time with an Arabic motif that is an intrinsic part of the fair’s appeal now, as well.
Over the years, the fair has continued to grow, Roberts attests. This year marked the fair’s 72nd, and while a staple event in the region, the fair operators are hardly resting on their laurels. “In 2018, we added a new feature, The Rainforest Exhibit, which was a success. We also added two new rides, the thrill ride Turbo, and Puppy Love for the younger crowd,” Roberts says.“Turbo featured upside-down spinning at the ends of a twirling arm 120-feet in the air, moving at 70 miles per hour, before hurtling guests back toward the ground. Aimed at small riders, Puppy Love featured a small boat adorned with puppies that sways side to side gently.”
All carnival rides were provided by Butler Amusements, Roberts says. Two wheels, a Century Wheel and Giant Wheel, are a popular return attraction, as are the Giant Scooters. Also among the ride favorites are a White Water Flume Ride, the Inversion pendulum ride, and the twist and swing ride Vertigo.
Butler Amusements has been operating for 48 years, and along with providing ride attractions, offers features such as benches, planters, and shaded areas for carnival attendees.
The Rainforest Exhibit ran shows daily from 3-7 p.m., with the exhibit itself open all day long. Produced by Pacific Animal Productions, the exhibit featured the company’s signature decorative plants, hands-on interactive stations, and exotic animals including tropical parrots, monkeys, and geckos, performing in an authentically designed rainforest escape.
But the beloved Arabian-themed attractions continued this year as well, including a Nightly Musical Pageant based on the story of 1,001 Arabian Nights. The pageant was called Prince Khudadad in the Shadow of Destiny. With elaborate costumes, live music, live animals, and an extensive cast, the pageant was a nightly crowd pleaser held at 6:15.
Presented by Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, the fair itself ran 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Friday-Monday and noon-10 p.m. on Tuesday-Thursday. Admission prices this year were $11 for adults, $10 for seniors, $9 for youth; advance purchase took $1 off each of those price categories. Also available were $8 group tickets, a rate that was also available for bus tours with a minimum of 25 attendees, and $22 Unlimited Carnival Ride Wristbands, which were especially well-received by families. “We did, as usual, have special value days,” Roberts explains. “Our special value promotions allowed veterans plus three guests to attend free every day with identification, and on the Opening Fantasy Friday, we offered admission for just $5.”
Other discounts included KMIR News Day on Tuesday, February 20th, where attendees were offered $6 admission if they could repeat a phrase about the savings heard on air.
Tuesdays and Thursdays were Kids Days, with one child free per paid adult from 3 p.m. to closing; and on Wednesday February 21st, The Riverside County Department of Waste Resources encouraged clean disposal of electronic device waste by allowing attendees bringing in a small e-waste device for recycling to enter the fair for free.
And opening day attendees, along with enjoying a date shake toast, got another perk: the first 2,000 fairgoers who entered through Gate 1 on opening day received a free midweek return ticket.
The fair advertised the events and promotions through a variety of resources. “We marketed the event through our Facebook page, on billboards, with TV and radio spots on several stations. We had posters up in local businesses for a more grass roots marketing approach,” Roberts relates.
As to attendance, Kimberly Wright, the Riverside County Fair marketing manager, related that slightly less people attended this year’s festival.
"Our attendance numbers were down three to four percent from last year, so nothing huge,” she notes. The reason was likely the weather, she suspects,as windy and cool evenings seemed to keep some people at home. Attendance annually hovers around 280,000 visitors.
Fair admission includes musical headliner acts such as repeat performers War, as well as country music star Chase Rice; the veteran norteno band, Los Rieleros del Norte; and Lou Gramm, the original lead singer for rock band Foreigner, who appeared with another classic rock act, Foghat. While concerts, held at the outdoor Fantasy Springs Concert Pavilion, are well attended, the biggest draws at the festival are unique events such as the Arabian Nights Musical Pageant, ostrich and camel races, and The Cook Islands Polynesian Dance show which ran Tuesday-Thursday, and was new this year. In short, keep the wonderfully kitschy Arabian- themed entertainment coming – the uniqueness is a big fair draw. The 40 m.p.h. ostrich races are zany crowd pleasers, and kids and adults of all ages enjoy seeing the camels.
Also popular and included with admission pricing are motocross and Demolition Derby fun, with events such as Junior Outlaw Springs & Mini Dwarfs Car Racing.
Tasty eats have also not been forgotten: from regional treats like sweet date shakes to giant turkey legs and cinnamon rolls, to cooking demonstrations featuring the region’s agriculture, there’s plenty to sate fairgoers’ appetites.
Animal Adoptions are another growing and warm-hearted tradition at the fair, with 2018 marking the 5thyear for a pairing with the Riverside County Department of Animal Services, according to information provided by Roberts. Over the last 4 years, 922 pets have been placed into caring homes; and especially for the fair, adopters are provided reduced adoption fees and vaccinations, a microchip and pet spay or neuter surgery prior to the animal’s appearance at the fair.
In short, keep the date shakes and Arabian Nights performances coming: The Riverside County Fair & Date Festival still offers “dates” to remember.