Given this scenario, the Osceola County Fair is understandably under far more scrutiny as a possible harbinger of the season to come than previous years. The genuinely positive takeaway from this year's fair is not just that the attendance dip was far less steep that anticipated, but weather may have played a bigger role than fear a fair wasn't safe.
Rain prevailed on the first four days of the 10-day fair. According to Larry Berry, General Manager, the fair attendance was 62,000 – last year the fair attracted 75,000 — and for past attendance, attendance has ranged from 70,000 to 84,000. “The four rain days were the major reason attendance was down,” said Berry. “Attendance was down by 17.5 percent. But a lot of fairs had reductions of 25, 30 percent, so we're very happy with the results.”
Was COVID a factor in the downturn? Berry admits yes, but the silver lining was the anticipation of a much steeper decline due to the pandemic. “We forecasted a 40 percent decrease in attendance and carnival revenue, and adjusted our budgets accordingly.”
The cuts were across the board, with one of the most notable being the grandstand entertainment, which had to conform to 50 percent capacity restrictions with socially distant seating. Nationally known headliners were eschewed this year, replaced instead by local and regional musicians. One local entertainment, community-centric feature – battle of the high school bands – was also augmented with a new addition, a completely a cappella contest – a battle of choral groups.
Necessity may be the mother of inspiration. Berry explained that while this focus on local entertainment was a done as a cost-saving measure, “we didn't have to pay as much for the entertainment, but they attracted their own followers. The battle of the high school bands was packed, and the choral group battle was good for the fair. The local talent each had their own followings. That helped boost attendance. They promoted themselves on social media pages.”
There was also an increase in livestock entries – as well as an addition of a new category of zebu cows – which Berry attributed to the lockdown. “In some categories, there were more animals this year. These kids haven't showed at other events. We had a lot more hogs and steers, and we added zebu cows. We also brought it online, with a 4-H virtual animal show and auction. We had 19 bidders online, which helped keep prices up. If grandma didn't come to the fair, she can still watch the kids.”
Strates Shows Midway
The Kissimmee Valley Livestock Show seems emblematic of the Osceola County Fair: modifications of operations and a turnout that exceeded expectations, which of course were lower than usual due to the pandemic. A similar scenario played out for the James E. Strates Shows midway, which featured 34 rides, down from the typical 36-38 rides.
The slightly smaller footprint was necessary for social distancing queue lines and other COVID related protocols. Carnival revenue was down about 12 percent, although it was on-par with the 2019 fair and above the five year average for the fair, according to Jimmy Strates.
“No one can tell me that the decline was totally due to COVID and not definitely the weather,” said Strates. “What I'm guessing there's a few reasons, but the biggest reason we had a bunch of rain the opening weekend. We were a little bit down, compared to last year, but the last weekend, we were up.”
For the carnival company, which had been shut down since March save for a few still dates late in the year, the fair was the first of the year. “People are coming out. There's a limit to how much you can limit people. The crowd seemed tentative at first, and we probably saw fewer younger families and senior citizens. But we saw a lot of teenagers. I think people's attitudes were that the shutdown helped stop the spread of infection.”
Both Strates and Berry noted that fairgoers were ebullient and grateful to finally have something “normal,” like the annual fair back in their lives. “Most people were wearing masks, social distancing, not mixing in groups, doing all the procedures. The people were very well behaved.”
Maintenance and inspection also had to take into account that the majority of the rides had not been operated in a year or more. In addition, the workforce was hampered by the company being capped out from receiving all its needed H-2B workers. However, a sign of the economic times, Strates was able to supplement its crew with job recruitment drives.
“We don't have the H2B workers and we have more of an American crew,” said Strates. “We are doing a lot of recruiting, and a lot of training. At this level, the American workers that you want are the ones experienced with carnival work. We're doing okay, it's not all doom and gloom. But everyone's working harder than ever.”
The company also was aided by subcontracting with other carnival companies for pieces to fill out the midway. New rides for the fair included a Wisdom Lady Bug (Silver Streak Himalaya) and a Zamperla Speedway. The Giant Wheel was also decked out with a new LED lighting system.
Planning DelaysBerry was also intent on opening the fair, but whether that would occur was an iffy question up until the fall. Usually, planning for the fair begins in earnest by May. It was not until September that the fair staff and board were able to submit a plan to the local health officials, which addressed every aspect of the fair, from ticketing to food concessions and included signage, Plexiglas shields, hand sanitizers, and cleaning schedules.
The approval of the plan and the green light for the fair was not given until October. Berry credits the availability of the vaccine with allaying people's fears, which coincided with the public becoming used to the mitigation protocols. One optimistic example was hand-sanitizers. Along with disposable masks, the fair had purchased thousands of pocked-sized hand sanitizers.
“We have a lot of leftover because so many people already had their own,” he added.
What about the pandemic induced economic recession, which has hit the Orlando area particularly hard? Tourism is the major employer and economic engine in the region, but the snowbird demographic was drastically depleted this year, causing massive unemployment in the Sunshine State.
“People were spending and the community came out,” he said. “Hundreds of people came up to me and said how glad they were we decided to open the fair. They want some sense of normalcy. We had a lot of positive and favorable comments.”
He added, “COVID continues decline in Osceola County, We showed that fairs are not one of those super spreader events. Fairs know we can open responsibly and safely. The information the industry is sharing was very beneficial in creating our plan.”